I said when I first started these occasional posts on science in fiction that it wouldn’t always be hard science, and today’s post is a great example of that. I’ll be talking about parallel universes as depicted in Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter. (It has nothing to do with the cosmological concept of dark matter, so the title’s a little misleading, but don’t hold that against the book.)
Our protagonist is Jason, a physicist who’s turned away from the high-pressure path to brilliant achievement, opting for a life of relative obscurity as a professor who finds fulfillment in his family. All of this changes when Jason is kidnapped for the purpose, he soon realizes, of being replaced by another Jason from one of the infinite alternate universes that are constantly being created by his and everyone else’s choices. This version chose to sacrifice everything else for a brilliant career (hence his ability to intrude on another universe) and now regrets his choice, so he figures switching places seems fair. Both of them get to see the road not taken, right?
As you might guess, this is not okay with Jason, who spends the rest of the book in a tireless quest to get back to his reality. The next paragraph will get into some significant spoilers, so you’ll want to skip to the next illustration if you’d rather not learn any more. Without specifics, what I love about this story is that Crouch pursues the idea of parallel universes well beyond the initial concept of switching places. He really gets some nice psychological and emotional depth out of it, exploring ideas that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled with fears about life and relationships, not just those who’ve been snatched away from their lives by ruthless doppelgangers.
(Ok, spoiler time, you’ve been warned. Scroll down past the illustration to get back to safe territory!)
Jason travels to reality after reality that isn’t his own, creepily stalking his almost-wife and increasingly realizing that he’ll do pretty much anything to get her and their son back. Just as you start to wonder whether he’s going to have to settle for some not-quite-right universe, he finds his own—and quickly discovers an unwelcome surprise.
Not only is his cuckoo-self still playing catch with his son and going on date nights with his wife, there are hundreds if not thousands of versions of him running around on exactly the same mission of taking down the impostor. The universe-branching has been happening with every choice he’s made since he was pulled away, creating infinite new versions of the kidnapped Jason. Now there are way too many of him, all intent on removing the usurper and reclaiming their rightful place, and clearly only one of them can succeed.
Crouch develops Jason’s character nicely so that we really feel the immense moral problem he faces: all of these guys are him, all wronged in the same way and just as deserving of reuniting with their family. How can any of them claim an exclusive right to their life? How can they resolve their situation?
Spoilers are over, so you’ll have to read the book to see how everything works out with his family. Without giving any more detail here, the story addresses some universal issues about how love works, especially in committed relationships like marriage. How do you know that you’re choosing the “right” person? Isn’t it possible there’s someone else who’d be just that teeny bit better? Going back to Jason’s position at the beginning of the story, would you accept if offered a chance to find out how things would have gone if you’d chosen differently?
Dark Matter is far from the first or only book to tackle these questions, but every author brings something different to the subject. In this case, I think the multiverse (the array of branching parallel universes) is a great foundational concept that gives Crouch unique opportunities for the emotional and relational development of his characters. The result is a great example of sci-fi that’s thought-provoking and deeply strange without getting very technical.
As a final note, I listened to the audiobook, and I’ve read in reviews that Crouch’s style on the page is choppy. In a way. That’s pretty annoying. To some readers. I hope you enjoy it anyway, or try out the audiobook yourself if it’s bothering you! The story is well worth it.