Your time is valuable. I know that. There are roughly a billion books published every year and you’ve only got time to read a few of them. There are important books and acclaimed books and books you can put down like junk food — like sitting on the couch in your underwear and eating that whole bag of barbecue potato chips because there’s no one there to tell you not to. You have to make some choices.
So with that in mind, and before we decide (together, just you and me) whether or not Blake Crouch’s new book Dark Matter is worth adding to your list, we have to clear a few things up.
How important is coherence to you? Is it vitally important that every little stitch of a narrative holds tight, or can you handle a little wobble in your plots?
How angry do you get at fictional characters made of ink on paper when they do ridiculous things that no normal human would do? Are you the sort of person who has been known to throw books across rooms, occasionally damaging framed photographs or houseplants? Because I’m a book-thrower, and if you are, too, that’s going to be a concern here.
How essential is artistry to you? A graceful and honeyed command of the language? Do spongy physics in your sci-fi drive you batty, or are you cool with black boxes full of SCIENCE being carried around by characters and used to spackle over shaky parts of the narrative?
Here’s the big one: Do you think you can you swallow all of the above — forgive all the various failings of a book which is sometimes maddening in its refusal to be as good as you want it to be — if the payoff is worth it? Can you do it if I told you that Crouch sticks the landing in such a way that I rode an elevator up and down for 20 minutes one afternoon just so I could get to the end of one of his final chapters?
You should say yes. You really should. Because Dark Matter? It’s a whole bag of barbecue chips, man. And it’s just sitting there waiting for you to devour in one long rush.
Here are the basics: Dark Matter is the story of Jason Dessen, a mild-mannered college physics professor who gets abducted one night by a masked man, conked over the head, injected with some SCIENCE and wakes up in a world that is not his own.
It’s one of those stories — the classic “what if I made different choices when I was a younger man” tale, grafted onto a jet-propelled thriller plot made forcibly breathless by Crouch’s maddening addiction to sentence fragments and single line paragraphs which make a chase scene read like this:
Amanda begins to walk.
Faster and faster.
Until she’s jogging.
Into a darkness that never changes.
The backstage of the multiverse.
Now granted, “The backstage of the multiverse” is a nice line, but Crouch’s affection for poetical (really, haiku-ical) structure within a work of prose is annoying at first, then infuriating, then simply numbing.
And really, it’s unnecessary — because almost the entire book is one big chase scene anyway. The dogs are always snapping at Jason Dessen’s heels. Every closed door is just waiting to be kicked in. No one has time to breathe, to think, to acclimate to one alternate universe before they’re being chased out of it by assassins, plague, wolves (actual wolves), or worse.
Jason, of course, is just trying to get back to his own, good life and his own, good reality, but that’s tough, you see, because a multiverse filled with infinite worlds means an infinite number of ways to get it wrong. Which Jason does, for a really long time, accompanied by a ticking-time-bomb trope of a limited number of vials of SCIENCE which allow him to skip between realities. He starts with a lot. Very quickly, he is down to a few, the clock ticking.
And that is when Crouch pulls off the big trick that makes it all worthwhile — a killer twist that is dark, horrifying, funny as hell, bizarre, completely earned and utterly original all at the same time. (It’s worth noting that Crouch is also the guy who wrote the Wayward Pines trilogy on which the recent TV series was based, and which had its own pretty wicked twist ending.) And better still, he sells it. When everything suddenly slows down, locks up and starts to spin, he makes the stakes matter.
Which is when I ended up in the elevator, riding up and down, completely hooked by a book that I simply couldn’t put down.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.