Dark Matter (2016) is a tense science fiction thriller that was nearly unputdownable. It sucked me in almost immediately and didn’t spit me out again until I was on the other side of about a four hour reading marathon.
Jason Dessen is a brilliant physicist who in some respects has “settled.” Fifteen years ago, on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough in quantum mechanics, his girlfriend Daniela, a gifted artist, unexpectedly told him that she was pregnant. After an internal struggle, Jason proposed to her. Their son Charlie was born prematurely, weighing less than two pounds, and required expensive medical treatment. Between that and Daniela’s crippling postpartum depression, Jason was unable to spend enough time on his research, lost his funding and career momentum, and dropped off the fast track to scientific recognition. He now teaches undergrad physics at a small Chicago area college, and Daniela teaches private art lessons to middle schoolers. Both of them regret their lost career opportunities to one degree or another, especially when they see old colleagues and friends finding success and recognition, but otherwise they’re very happy together.
Until Jason gets kidnapped one night at gunpoint by a masked stranger who forces him to drive to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Chicago. The kidnapper asks Jason several questions about his current life, and whether he regrets choosing his family over his career, but refuses to answer any questions about why he has taken Jason and what his plans are, telling him only, “You’re going to be scared, but you can make it yours. You can have everything you never had.”
The kidnapper injects Jason with a drug, and he wakes up in a world where everyone knows him but he recognizes almost no one. He’s just coming out of some kind of scientific experiment, in a facility where everyone calls him “Dr. Dessen,” treats him with great deference, and asks him questions that he doesn’t know how to understand. When Jason ― deeply bewildered and panicky ― escapes from the facility, he finds that his apartment is unrecognizable and he apparently has no wife or son. And dangerous-looking men are searching everywhere for him.
Dark Matter is an absorbing and suspenseful novel, with a breathlessly fast pace that rarely lets up. It’s even, at times, a little mind-blowing, as physics concepts like quantum superposition and the quandary of Schrödinger’s cat are made concrete and tied into Jason’s experiences. In the end, however, the science ― which is plausible enough for the casual reader but may annoy readers more well-versed in quantum physics ― becomes secondary to Jason Dessen’s series of perils and his search, first for understanding and then for his home and family. At every turn he is faced with a new obstacle. In some respects the plot of this novel is similar to Peter Clines’ The Fold, but ultimately Dark Matter has a different focus: the importance of love and family ties.
At the start of the story, Jason recalls the carefree memories and lightness of his childhood:
It’s the beautiful thing about youth.
There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential.
It’s perhaps a bit heavy foreshadowing, but the effects of our choices is a major theme in Dark Matter. It descends, at times, into a slightly predicable thriller, but overall it had enough surprises and twists to keep my eyes glued to the page. And in between the tension and the terror, Blake Crouch explores the impact of our personal decisions, the roads taken and not taken, the myriad decision points in our lives that can affect not only our own lives but the lives of those around us, and even our world.