10 September 2016

Dark Matter - Blake Crouch

Image from www.macmillan.com
Dark Matter
Blake Crouch
Macmillan, 11 August 2016
HB, 340pp
Source: Bought from my local bookshop (and also as audiobook)

I have to admit I don't read as much as I should. At best I manage two books and a bit each week, and the TBR just keeps growing and growing. However I desperately wanted to read Dark Matter.

I'd heard great things about it, and Kate at https://forwinternights.wordpress.com - whose word is law on  these matters - rated it highly, so I had a bright idea and used an Audible credit. I could listen as I drove to and from the station and that, with a bit of reading between those two weekly books, worked very well.

"Reading" the book this way gave an interesting perspective. I should say first that the book totally suited audio. It is, at one level, a straightforward story, almost all told from the viewpoint of Jason Dessen, a middle aged, middlingly successful, college lecturer. Design gets into a baffling but action filled nightmare which totally suits the deadpan narration Jon Windstorm employs (even for the emotionally wrought parts). The clear, firm enunciation, reflects Jason's organised and logical character - and his determination to get his life back.

More broadly, this is a well executed and adrenaline filled SF techno thriller (not really sure about the genre: it's based on big, bold sciencey idea but has much of the atmosphere of one of those conspiracy-chase thrillers the hero on the run throughout). It's a blend of unremitting action and the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics (I HAVE A PHYSICS PhD AND I AM PREPARED TO USE IT.)

Actually, before I go into the physics, a warning: this will be a very spoiler-filled review. I don't think I can really discuss the book without saying a lot about the plot and setup. So if you don't want to read much detail, skip this: just take away the message that this is a compulsive and knuckle-clenching read, full of surprises, stomach churning twists and scrapes.

If you're still with me: in quantum physics things aren't always certain. In our world - the large scale world - we describe things as particles or as waves. At the quantum level it's murkier and things can be both, depending how you look at them. One of the implications of that is that certain properties of systems aren't fixed until you perform a measurement - summed up by the famous Schrodinger's cat thought experiment. The cat is, conceptually, in a superposition between being alive and dead. When you open the box and look at it, you force it into one state or the other.

In the world of Dark Matter, the universe splits in two: one with a live cat, one with a  dead cat. Every time something happens that can go one way or another, new paths, new worlds, appear. This book is all about the implications of that - about the multiverse that results with innumerable alternate realities, some very similar to ours, some deeply alien or deadly.

What, Crouch asks, if the cat can choose its world?

What would you do if you stumbled into this multiplicity of timelines?

If you could find a world where you didn't break up with that girl or boy years back, where you fulfilled your ambitions, followed your heart, achieved more? That question hangs over the book, along with another: which is your true self? Jason has to wrestle with both, because without an answer, he will remain lost.

It's a powerful premise and for the most part Crouch exploits it well, shaping his story to address the dramatic possibilities (worlds of plague or destruction, a sinister corporation with far from altruistic motives) and keep the focus off its implausibities (I suspect the experiments described would involve lots of liquid helium - because basically everything in physics worth doing needs liquid helium - and would, as Sapphire and Steel used to say, not be compatible with life). There is a bit of a Tardis vibe as Dessen visits alternate worlds - but no Doctor to get him out of trouble, and Crouch sensibly avoids any hint of time travel.

Fifteen years before, Dessen gave up his modest hopes of scientific fame to settle down with Daniella and bring up their son. They live a comfortable, slightly shabby life in a comfortable, slightly shabby Chicago house. Now, he finds all that taken away. One snowy evening, Jason is wrenched from his comfortable existence and shown a wider reality. Will he find happiness there or fight to get back what's been taken from him?

It's an absorbing and nail biting story, none the worse for having a character who isn't totally sympathetic (Jason is a possessive man - I lost count of the number of times he uses the word "my" to refer to house, local pub... wife... son. At times, what happened ti him seemed to be more  a blow to his sense of ownership of his life, rather than an assault on his family as whole. Perhaps that undertone of possessiveness, of truculence, is necessary to motivate Jason when the worlds seem to crush him? A "nice guy" would perhaps give up and die? Whatever, he's a compelling character for all his faults.

I wasn't so convinced by the secondary characters, especially the women - Daniella, Amanda - who come close in places to simply being helpers for Jason, with little or no volition of their own (that may be unfair - see what you think). But in the end this is Jason's story and there isn't really much room in it for anyone else.

Strongly recommended, a book to really get lost in (just make sure you can find your way back to your own world afterwards...)

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