Book blurbs once tended to use the phrases “a page turner!” and/or “unputdownable!” to advertise a book that would grab its readers and not let go until the very end, and over the years I’ve become a little wary of such emphasis because more often than not it led me down the path of disappointment. But in the case of Dark Matter I think those sentences describe perfectly the effect the story had on me, the way it pulled me in and held me under its spell until I finished it; and the proof of the potency of such a spell lies in the fact that I did not start to question the (few and far between, granted) small inconsistencies in this fascinating narrative until I closed the book.
Jason Dessen is a physics professor in Chicago, a man whose life is running on comfortable tracks – if a little predictable and boring: he’s happily married, he and his wife have a teenage son, they are financially well-off and experience no troubles of any kind – the picture of the perfect suburban life. Both Jason and his wife Daniela had to give up some of their youthful dreams – he of pursuing his scientific research, she her artistic inclinations – when Daniela became pregnant with their son Charlie and they choose to marry and build a family, but neither of them seems to openly regret that sacrifice. One night, Jason accepts the invitation to the party of a former colleague and friend, who just won a prestigious prize for his breakthrough research, and for a brief moment we see Jason’s shell of contentment crack, even though it’s a passing thought, easily shaken off.
At that point I knew that something had to happen, that the idyllic picture had to be broken, and indeed as Jason is walking back home he’s assailed by a masked man who kidnaps him and brings him to an abandoned power plant, where he injects his victim with some unknown substance. When Jason regains consciousness he’s in a strange installation, greeted as the returning hero by a host of people who seem to know him well, while he never met a single one of them. Even if I had not been aware of Dark Matter’s core theme, it would have been easy to suspect that I was dealing with alternate universes, and that the mysterious assailant was indeed another Jason, one who had chosen to pursue his scientific career and unlocked the secrets of the multiverse, but now yearned for the fulfilling family life that the other Jason enjoyed, and so orchestrated the exchange.
From here on, the novel becomes Jason’s breathless, desperate search for the way back to his own reality, and his family, while the author explores the theories about parallel realities and the science behind it, laying it down in such a way that it’s both easy to understand and emotionally engaging: one of my favorite themes is the one about the traveler’s power of observation and mental state affecting the reality of the world he opens the door to. The first parallel worlds Jason ends up in, while searching for the way home, are desolate places made uninhabitable by glacial temperatures or nuclear fallout, and they mirror closely his despair and helplessness at being torn from his reality and family, and it’s only by clinging to the memories of the life he built day by day, and recollecting with painstaking care the more minute details of that life that he keeps getting closer to his goal.
It’s not surprising that the strongest theme in this novel would be that of the road not taken, and of the consequences of our decisions, even the most trivial ones: they don’t affect only the outcome of people’s lives, but also the makeup of their personality. What Jason sees, in the multitude of his alter-egos living in other realities, brings into sharp focus the evidence of the extreme volatility of existence, of the way even minor occurrences can have a profound effect on one’s destiny. We see that in the news quite often: the missed train or plane that saves an individual from a deadly wreck is the most classic example, or on a less dramatic instance, a chance encounter might decide for an unforeseen career path. For Jason, all those variations of himself bring home the fact that his family, the people he loves more than himself, are what defines him and that he will be whole again only when he gets back to them, undoing the horrible wrong that his doppelganger inflicted on him: if this narrative choice contributes to making him a very sympathetic character, it’s also something of a double-edged sword. As I said, it’s easy to ignore the doubt it instills while in the midst of the story, but on hindsight it’s a little bothersome.
The “original” Jason is basically a nice person, and he remains that way all throughout his ordeal: even in the direst of circumstances he strives to keep hold of his fundamental decency, and if at times he almost gives in to his baser instinct, he always manages to drag himself back from the brink. That’s all right of course, and it serves to enhance a reader’s sympathy toward a character who is going through any kind of hell to get back to his loved ones, but this side of the characterization falters once Jason starts meeting his counterparts (and at some point there is quite a LOT of them…) and the vast majority of all those Jasons shows no qualms about doing away with any obstacles in their path, even when that requires murdering their “twins”. While all that serves to show Original Jason in a more favorable light, on hindsight his inner decency appears contrived, as if the author were blatantly pointing at him as the only true Jason, distinguishing him from the rest of his “evil” copies. Something similar also happens when our hero wakes up in the alternate reality lab: with a single exception, everyone is a cold-blooded murderer, ready to kill anyone to maintain the secret of their momentous discovery: in my opinion it felt all a bit forced, and unnecessarily so.
It’s a very small complaint, though, and the fact that it surfaced only after I finished the book shows the depth of commitment to the story I enjoyed while I was reading it – which means that I can only highly recommend Dark Matter as a very satisfying read.