Wednesday, December 9, 2020

DARK MATTER, or "Home is Where Your Multiverse Door Opens and This Time You're Glad to Be There"

Ballantine Books
$17.00 paperback, $12.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

Republishing my 2016 review here because we're getting a TV series of the book! It's a long one...settle in.

When I first reviewed the book in 2016, I posted a mild bleat of confusion regarding it on Goodreads:
I have no idea how I am going to review this book without spoilering every-damn-thing.

Several hours of hard thinking later:

Okay…what I can think of is this:
In anyone's life, there are decisions that have no correct answer. We make them and move on. Reading this book I revisited a few of mine, and luckily for me, I didn't feel I'd gotten them wrong.

And that's where I am, but now I'm going to spoiler every-damn-thing because if you're joining me here, you've made an effort to in full knowledge that everything's on the table.

I got a review copy of Dark Matter shortly after it was published. I'd requested an advance review copy, but wasn't approved. I was mildly piqued, but I've got many dozens of books sent by many other publishers to assuage the sting. Having mostly forgotten the whole incident, imagine my pleased surprise to receive the finished book! In a sign of just how much Crown, his hardcover publisher, thinks of Crouch and his chances to make a bestseller of this title, it was packaged in a black shiny bubble-mailer, with a specially printed and super-spiffed-out label with the book's title interrupted by a cartouche where my name was printed in fancy colored ink. Yowza! Anything for the guy with the TV deal, said my cynical inner blogger. That mouthy bitch got mouthier when the book appeared…handsome object…with the usual publicity sheet (whatever happened to the ONE-sheet? Now it's double-sided AND there are two of them) plus what used to be called a "compliments card" from Author Crouch hisownself. It read, in part, "I'm sure you get a lot of ARCs vying for your attention, but please know that I put everything I have into this novel." Oh good, gloated Inner Bitch Blogger, now I can wail on you without guilt!

You would think that, after the best part of two decades reading in order to write reviews and over 50 years reading an average of a book a day, I'd know better than to pre-judge my own reading experience. But noooooo, as Steve Martin said how-many years ago on Saturday Night Live. Still makes me giggle.

I read the book in a sitting, as so many readers seem to do. Five hours of rushing to find what happens next with pauses to piddle and stretch out the experience. Part of that celerity is down to Crouch's staccato writing style:
He says, "Every moment, every breath, contains a choice. But life is imperfect. We make the wrong choices. So we end up living in a state of perpetual regret, and is there anything worse? I built something that could actually eradicate regret. Let you find worlds where you made the right choice."

Daniela says, "Life doesn't work that way. You live with your choices and learn. You don't cheat the system."

That's either a reason to move quickly or it's a reason to put the book down. I was torn. In the end, I moved at a good clip there wasn't anything too awful terrible much to slow me down, line by line; this story's effect is cumulative.

That effect is, or was for me, to start another reverie on alternate dimensions novels I've read over the years, and how they've formed my sense of myself as an actor in my own life.
Time travel novels came first for me, starting with Michael Moorcock's wondrous The Warlord of the Air which I found one deeply boring to teenage me Watergate summer at The Book Stall, a used book emporium that my mother took me to one Saturday a month so I could feed my biblioholism. Since she shared that trait, it wasn't pure pain for her. But Oswald Bastable, hero of The Warlord of the Air and its two sequels (The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar), sleeps his way from a 1902 British Army defeat in Afghanistan (do people never learn? There is absolutely no point in trying to conquer the damned place if Alexander and Ashoka and Queen Victoria and the Soviet Union and now the USA have tried and failed) to 1973.

It's not our 1973, but it's still 1973, which makes the rest of the story into a time travel novel. The other two books are alternate dimensions of the 1973 Bastable bobs through, growing older but much faster than the lucky sods who live single-line lives in the novels, and the whole series is called "The Nomad of the Timestreams," a reference to Bastable's unmooring from his typical-human single track life. It was hugely influential to my teen self. My adolescent exceptionalism was strong, fueled by my position as my mother's sex-toy. There were obviously versions of me in a multiverse, too many to count, living lives that reflected better and more satisfying outcomes than my unhappy present. Unfortunately they all began with the present me, and stemmed from choices I *would* make in coming days, weeks, years. It wasn't rescue, it was hope that somewhere someone split off MePrime wasn't experiencing the special hell of maternal incest plus increasing same sex desire. The future on my own timeline wasn't a given to me, so this kind of action wasn't my favorite.
Later, though only a very short time later thanks to a with-it young man who had a strong pash for me who worked at The Book Stall, came the deeply romantic Time and Again by Jack Finney. It seemed like forever that Robert Redford was reported to have the rights to make this meet-your-soulmate-in-the-past tale into a feature film. Nothing from him or from any other quarter on that front in more than 40 years, and what a pity that is. The premise is a simple love triangle set in 1882 Manhattan spiced up with Si, the main character, being from 1970 New York.

Si's travails in living this bifurcated by time's arrow love affair said a lot to me, young as I was at the time (all of 13). I'd already had two requited love affairs. Neither was in any way unpleasant, except in the usual angst-ridden adolescent ways. My weirdo of a girlfriend took an inordinate pleasure in taking my virginity, so I had no heart to tell her I'd already done the nasty with a guy in my junior high classes, and wouldn't admit for almost 25 years what Mama was doing to me. Si and 1882's Julia had nothing on the intensity of passionate connection and mattress-igniting sex that we had. Along came the older store clerk and it was the 1882 love triangle! That made me feel both sophisticated and glamourous. And a life-long pattern of loving men, loving women, and telling all of them all about it was born.

But then came a game-changer, a book whose effect on my evolving awareness that this here-and-now is obviously not the only here-and-now possible or probable or present in the moments we live. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen follows the career of Cpl. Calvin Morrison of the Pennsylvania State Police after he is moved from his marginally satisfying life to a reality existing at the same moment as his that bears no real resemblance to his familiar world's history or present. Pennsylvania's long history of resource-extraction based economy has left truly permanent marks of its passing, signs Calvin does not see in his otherwise familiar surroundings. Calvin spends several hours coming to terms with this self-evident fact and its inevitable conclusion: that he has been moved not up into a post-apocalyptic future, nor down into a pre-European past as the people he sees are clearly like him, but to the side across time's infinite tributaries.
Erwin Schrödinger first introduced the physics-based concept in 1952, and it has been a staple in science fiction ever since. In fact, it goes back much farther than that as a fantasy, and its survival as well as its scientific explanation (insofar as anything this vast can be explained) sit very well with most average people. It makes intuitive sense. The physics of it is dauntingly complex and also suffers from a testable-hypothesis deficit, but that doesn't detract one iota from many people's sense that it's just *right*. And for Calvin Morrison, it is a life-saving reality. His quick wits, political savvy, military prowess, and social conscience are perfectly suited to his new circumstances. His rise to the pinnacle of power is inevitable, and his character and knowledge base make him a dream ruler by local standards.

This book, another of my hippie bookseller supercrush's finds for me, perfectly reflected my sense of being wasted in my own life. I talked with him for hours about how there had to be, somewhere out there, a timeline/timestream/alternate reality perfectly suited to me, to him, to every other misfit we knew. How to find it? How to access it? Naturally we reached no conclusions, but we had a great time talking about it.

Since those early discoveries I've encountered grand-scale alternate histories by , as well as more intimate and personal ones like Kate Atkinson's widely read 2013 novel Life After Life. As much as I ended up admiring Atkinson's wonderful tale of the extraordinary fate of Ursula Todd, it wasn't on the same moral-compass heading as Dark Matter. The latter is a deeply personal Grail quest, an Odyssey whose modern Ulysses is physicist Jason Dessen. There are, as we all know by know, an inifinty of Jasons who have done almost the same things with varying degrees of success. Our point-of-view JasonPrime is the happiest man around because he's chosen to focus his energies on being a family man, fully present in his life with Daniela.

For her part Daniela gave up a burgeoning artistic life to bear and care for Charlie, further derailed by severe post-partum depression. For his part, JasonPrime lost focus on a potentially world-shattering quantum superposition technology that would have made him both rich and famous. One version of JasonPrime made the opposite choice and unlocked the secret to making macro quantum superposition, the key to travel across the multiverse. What he didn't have, and what Daniela didn't have, is Charlie, or a relationship; both feel the pull to make that decision again in this or another life. So Jason2, with his full-sized quantum superposition apparatus, decides he will be the next person to use it after a string of failed test subjects who didn't return. His colleagues don't know it, but he has no plans to return either. He is in search of his polar opposite, the Jason that kept Daniela and raised Charlie and was brilliantly successful at it. Instead of killing JasonPrime, he assuages whatever serves him for a conscience by making sure the prime gets to Jason2's luxurious and glamourous life.
Except that's not what the prime wants. And he fights and fights and struggles and fights some more to get home, Home, that one place where you *know* you belong, is just…there, and he'll stop at nothing to get there.

It's startling to me how much that resonates with me. I've always been in search of Home. Lots of near misses, but honestly I no longer expect I'll get there this time around. Where I am, who I am, what defines me as me…good enough. Plenty good enough. I experience long stretches of contentment, bursts of happiness, and significant amounts of pleasure.

But like JasonPrime's many visits to many Chicagos, it's not *quite* home. It's my talent to make do without fuss. But sometimes, it's past the periphery of my awareness and I wonder, what if….
Read this book for a propulsive, pounding joyride through spaces and places you didn't know that you didn't know you wanted to visit. I give it five stars of five and a strong push to buy it now.

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