‘What if?’ – the ultimate question we ask ourselves. How would our lives be different if we had said yes to that opportunity or no to that person? Most of the time this notion of something going wrong in our life due to our decisions gives us a sense of control. We feel powerful when we believe that it’s our wrong choices, rather than fate, that has led us to dissatisfaction. But what if you could revert back and modify all those decisions? How would that pan out in the grand scheme of things?
This is where quantum physics comes in. The basic assumption of quantum physics is that an object in a physical system can simultaneously exist in all possible configurations, but observing the system causes it to disintegrate and forces the object to exist in just one of those possible states. So in a way, quantum mechanics provides the perfect antithesis to the dilemma of never finding out the ‘what if’ of our lives.
In Dark Matter, Blake Crouch basically fiddles with some key quantum mechanics theories – superposition, decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat syndrome – interspersing them in the love story that is at the centre of this fast paced sci-fi thriller.
Jason Dessen is a happily married, 40-something physics teacher who has a blissful family life with Danielle and their son, Charlie. At one point in his life, he was touted to be the next big scientist of his generation after his college research was critically lauded. He, however, gave it all up to raise a family and lead a homely life. After one of his college friends wins a prestigious research grant and subtly derides Jason how he would have been the one to win it if only he had been a little more ambitious and not settled for domesticity, Dessen starts wondering how different his life would have turned out if he had chosen a different path.While he is contemplating this, he is abducted at gunpoint and in a perplexing turn of events, somehow manages to cross over to a parallel universe two years into the future where he wakes up in a laboratory. In this parallel life, there is no Danielle and Charlie, and Jason is being heralded as a genius and congratulated for being the first person to successfully complete the experiment. Later on, he finds out – much to his bewilderment – that in this world, he is the creator of a hangar like structure, referred to as the box, which is sort of a tunnel through multiverse. He has cracked the code to the biggest impediment to application of quantum physics, called the Shrödinger’s Cat Paradox, which states that quantum superposition could not work with large objects such as cats, as it is impossible for an organism to be simultaneously alive and dead.
While he is abducted and forced to take the place of his ruthless multiverse self, he is replaced in his previous life by his impostor, who is going to all this trouble to investigate the dimensions of multiverse. So it’s as if Jason’s life bifurcated into two distinct trajectories – in one he forfeited his scientific ambitions and went on to have a domesticated life with Danielle and Charlie. In another, he continued his research, wins the Pavia Grant and went on to become a ruthless genius. The machinations of quantum physics have somehow resulted in him co-existing as both versions of himself. In order to find his way back to his previous life, Jason has to go back to the box whose structural configurations and implications are still not fully realized.
“It’s terrifying when you consider that every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, branches into a new world.”
The whole story is centred on a man caught in a parallel world and trying against all odds to go back to his family. Crouch succeeds in subtly interweaving the sci-fi elements into his narrative, without making it overwrought. What I liked about his approach was how he uses all the sci-fi tropes only as propulsive forces for his narrative while giving Jason’s tender portrayal of a family man centre stage .
In trying to find his way back to his family, Dessen ventures into a number of parallel worlds -each similar to his own but not quite the same. It’s as if someone has rotated the kaleidoscope setting. Crouch does a skilled job of capturing Dessen’s disorientation and desperation to get his old life back. Jason keeps running into roadblocks because of the precise modus operandi of the box. In addition, he has to tackle the confounding variables of superposition, specially the decoherence theory which states that eventually the branches of the multiverse will start interfering with each other. Dessen soon finds himself in this ultimate Catch 22 situation when he runs into his multiverse selves who are all determined to claim Jason’s previous life.
This book is definitely not a summer read but for fans of real scientific books, neither does it takes itself too seriously. Crouch employs a smooth, nimble prose to counterbalance the complex scientific aspects of his theory. His writing is simple and direct, devoid of any elongated ruminations and distracting story arcs.
“I sit on the end of the bed.
I am not well.
I am so not well.
My home should be my haven, a place of safety and comfort, where I’m surrounded by family. But it’s not even mine.
My stomach lurches.”
The descriptive passages mostly consist of lines of straightforward, limpid syntax. In one of the parallel realities, Dessen finds a world engulfed in an icy storm and stumbles into a house with all of the family members dead. His laconic delineation of them is – “Eyes closed. Not moving. Their faces blue and emaciated”. This approach is effective in condensing his narrative but it also occasionally teeters towards being over simplistic. Sometimes, maybe for the reader’s benefit, he refers to quantum theories like a high school kid would, which seems to be at odds with his character. Nonetheless, Crouch’s explanation of complex physics phenomena at micro level by making use of simple analogies is effective at making readers’ understand his references.
The narrative style is reminiscent to that of Lost, with Jason’s storyline frequently flipping back and forth in time. Dark Matter is an entertaining cerebral thriller with Crouch deftly incorporating hefty scientific themes in his story of destiny, the power of familial bonds and brute determination.
Dark Matter was published by Macmillan on 11 August 2016.