by Blake Crouch, 2016
Sliding Doors, meet quantum mechanics!
If there’s one trope I find tiresome, it’s science-fiction that serves as a masquerade for the heteronormative love story. I’m looking at you Interstellar and Arrival and, now, Dark Matter. Now, I’m not entirely dead inside. I like a good love story on occasion – Jane Eyre is one of my most favorite books – but when I come to sci-fi, I expect it to be more than just a ruse for a man and a woman to find their happily ever after. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like reading this book or that I didn’t find the story creative or engrossing, because I did, but if I had wanted to watch Sliding Doors, I would have watched Sliding Doors. I don’t drink my whiskey with water and I don’t need my sci-fi made palatable with romance, thank you very much.
On a fall evening, Jason Dessen leaves his Logan Square brownstone to get a drink with longtime friend Ryan Holder at a neighborhood bar. Ryan has just won the Pavia Prize for his work “identifying the prefrontal cortex as a consciousness generator.” He has taught at MIT and Harvard and is the portrait of everything Jason is not. You see, Jason gave up the hot-shot scientist life to pursue marriage and fatherhood, and though he loves his wife Daniela and son Charlie, it’s obvious that his job teaching undergrad physics at the fictional Lakemont College leaves him with a lot to be desired. The significance of Ryan’s life couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the mundanity of his own.
All that changes when, on his walk home from the bar, Jason is kidnapped, forced to drive to a hanger in South Chicago, shot up with a drug, and wakes up in a much different world. I won’t spoil exactly what happens to him, as Crouch does a fine job of holding back details so the reader untangles the bizarre plot right along with Jason, but I will say that from that point on the book explores some large, important life questions.
One: If you could go back and change one thing about your life, if you could take the road not taken, would you do it? Would it be worth it?
Two: Who, exactly, are we? Are we unchangeable beings at the core, or do our experiences mold us? As Jason ponders,
[I]f I spend my days under broken-down cars in a mechanic’s shop or drilling cavities instead of teaching physics to college students, am I still the same man at the most fundamental level?
And what is that level?
If you strip away all the trappings of personality and lifestyle, what are the core components that make me me?
And, three: How far would you go for love? [Insert gagging noise here.]
Okay, I don’t mean to shit on the book entirely, as Crouch definitely kept me guessing and the story unfolded in ways that I did not anticipate. There are ideas about consciousness and time here that I haven’t seen explored in quite this way, and even if the science seemed pretty superficial (I’m sure Neil deGrasse Tyson could blow it apart with a sneeze), it worked for the purposes of the plot and allowed for a thrilling and unexpected climax. I don’t want to file a refund for the time I spent reading it and if someone asked if I would recommend it, I’d unequivocally say yes. But, personally, I’m tired of being tricked into consuming romance. It’s certainly important, but it isn’t everything, and I wish Dark Matter hadn’t been yet another story trying to convince me of just that.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.]