I like Blake Crouch. Not to the extent of searching out his collected laundry lists, the way I do with K J Parker, but when I read his stuff I appreciate the fact that he takes a moment to write a decent sentence without being flashy about it, and makes a real effort to make his characters feel like people even if they do wind up feeling mostly like characters in a TV show.
Dark Matter is the first thing of his I’ve read since Wayward Pines, which I liked for the sheer speed with which it got to the point; three short books, a month of action, all done and dusted from high concept to collapse. Dark Matter is even quicker; everything in the high concept is set up and knocked down in the space of a single brisk novel with a bare minimum of characters and no-one staying on stage for longer than they need to.
The high concept here is “what if you could figure out a way to move between different version of the multiverse?” Problem a) figure out a semi-plausible way for it to happen. Problem b) figure out a plausible way for it to be an absolute nightmare for everyone. Problem c) figure out a way for it to get worse. Because “It gets worse” is a Crouch trademark. Dark Matter passes those tests with flying colours. The science is kind of plausible, in a narratively useful way; yes, you can make a device which will allow multiple universes to exist in the same place, but the only way to travel between them is to take a drug which will stop your mind from automatically collapsing them down to a single universe. Now you’ve got a limitation, which is what you always need with magic of any kind.
And the “It gets worse” is genius; if you make a new universe every time you make any kind of decision, but it’s possible to travel between all these universes, how long before you start tripping over yourself?
A lot of people would have stopped there; that’s plenty to be playing about with. But Crouch decided that it would be more interesting to make the book about regret and missed opportunities, and the way in which any kind of fulfilment will always be undercut by the vague feeling that there might have been something better if you’d just done something different. Proper grown up stuff, and a bit more than I expected to trip over in a thriller.
And yet, as I got to the end, I was struck by the way that the overall arc echoed Wayward Pines; the protagonist is snatched out of his world, into another world which isn’t quite what he thinks it is. When he figures out what’s really going on he winds up on the run, and before long he’s on the run from hordes who are out to get him, but are really just like him, and in the end the only option is to escape completely into another world using the same technology that took him out of his own world in the first place. Now I’m going to have to find another Blake Crouch book and see if he does that every time.