What If You Hadn't Gotten Married? 'Dark Matter' Imagines An Alternate Life

Jul 24, 2016
Originally published on July 24, 2016 11:47 am

Jason Dessen, the protagonist of the new novel Dark Matter, is just a regular guy: He's 40, a devoted husband, a professor of physics at a small college, and a loving father to a teenage son.

But one day he's drugged and kidnapped and wakes up to find he's in a very different world. Not just a different world — a different life.

Blake Crouch joins NPR's Elise Hu to talk about the new book, and about why he loves imagining alternate realities.


Interview Highlights

On how Jason wakes up to the life that, in some ways, he has always wanted

When he wakes up in this lab, everything is different. His wife is not his wife — in fact he's never been married. He doesn't have a son — when everything he knows tells him he has a 14-year-old son named Charlie. And when he finally gets back to his house, everything has changed about the interior, it's been completely redesigned. And the most stunning realization he has is that he is in fact this renowned physicist in this world he's woken up in and he has no idea why.

On the consequences of our choices

I wanted Jason Dessen to embody the polar extremes of the choices that we make in our lives that can set us down one road or another. Often what's scary about them is we don't know that those choices in this moment will define the rest of our lives. In this book we learn that 15 years ago, Jason and his wife — at that time his girlfriend — had met, they had crashed into each other and they had this pivotal moment of deciding whether or not to continue in this relationship or to pursue their own careers. And the Jason that we encounter in the opening of the book made the decision to pursue the family life.

On whether you even need a science fiction framework to explore the many different versions of a relationship

I think the most fascinating thing in terms of relationships is imagining all the different variations that they could be. There's the version where you guys are forever happy and there's minimal speed bumps along the way. There's the version where you go through a terrible disastrous separation. There are all these different facets of what a relationship could be. And one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book is to have a main character get to catch a glimpse into all the possibilities of what this most important relationship in his life could possibly look like.

On getting into the science of science fiction

I have been obsessed with the idea of quantum mechanics going back a decade. At face value it is the study of how particles behave at the subatomic level — and that may seem to have nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. But when you scale up the ramifications of quantum mechanics, the idea that particles can exist in multiple places, in multiple realities at the same time, when you scale that up to our world, to the macro world, it suggests that perhaps we live not in a universe but in a multiverse where all possible realities are coexisting — and we only see one of them, the one that we choose to observe from moment to moment.

On why he loves writing about creepy, parallel worlds

I think what I'm circling in my work over the last five or six years is the idea of the nature of reality and of identity, and of questioning whether or not to trust what we see before our eyes.

In Wayward Pines [the book series and a TV thriller] a guy wakes up ... in this idyllic town and he can't call home. And suddenly everything falls out from underneath him. In Dark Matter, Jason Dessen wakes up in a world that is different than his own.

I think I must be tackling something about reality and identity. It's funny, I always find out after the fact that the books I've been writing were actually some sort of therapy, some sort of self-examination that I had to write the book in order to complete.

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ELISE HU, HOST:

Blake Crouch's new novel is about a regular guy. Jason Dessen is 40. He's a devoted husband, a professor of physics at a small college in Chicago, a loving father to a 14-year-old son until he's kidnapped, drugged and wakes up to find himself in a very different world. Actually, it's a different life. And this one is extraordinary. The book is called "Dark Matter." It's written by Blake Crouch, who's with us. Blake Crouch, welcome.

BLAKE CROUCH: Thanks for having me.

HU: At first glance, this plot might seem like a bit of a fantasy - right? - because when Jason Dessen, the main character, wakes up, he's not just in a new life. In some ways it's the life he always wanted, isn't it? Can you explain?

CROUCH: Yeah. When he wakes up in this lab, everything is different. His wife is not his wife. In fact, he's never been married. He doesn't have a son when everything he knows tells him he has a 14-year-old son named Charlie. And when he finally gets back to his house, everything is changed about the interior. It's been completely redesigned. And the most stunning realization he has is that he is, in fact, this renowned physicist in this world he's woken up in, and he has no idea why.

HU: So in one life, he has this fulfilling family life. And in the other he - he's at a professional apex and famous. So this really is a road-not-taken sort of thing. Why did you set up these particular extremes?

CROUCH: I wanted Jason Dessen to embody the polar extremes of the choices that we make in our lives that can set us down one road or another. And often what's scary about them is we don't know that those choices at this moment will define the rest of our lives. In this book, we learn that 15 years ago, Jason and his wife - at that time, his girlfriend - had met. They'd crashed into each other. And they had this pivotal moment of deciding whether or not to continue in this relationship or to pursue their own careers. And the Jason that we encounter in the opening of the book made the decision to pursue the family life.

HU: Without getting into the details of how, the reader gets to experience a lot of different versions of the central couple, Jason and Daniela. In some sense, you don't actually need a science fiction frame to explore the fact that, you know, there's many versions of a couple. What's interesting about that to you?

CROUCH: I think the most fascinating thing in terms of relationships is imagining all the different variations that they could be. And one of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to have a main character get to catch a glimpse into all the possibilities of what this most important relationship in his life could possibly look like.

HU: The science fiction part of this book is heavily weighted with actual science - at least it felt that way as I read it. You've said that it all started with your own interest in quantum mechanics. How did that happen?

CROUCH: I have been obsessed with the idea of quantum mechanics for going back a decade. I mean, at face value, it is the study of how particles behave at the subatomic level. And that may seem to have nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. But when you scale up the ramifications of quantum mechanics, the idea that particles can exist in multiple places, in multiple realities at the same time, it suggests that perhaps we live not in a universe, but in a multiverse where all possible realities are co-existing and we only see one of them, the one that we choose to observe from moment to moment.

HU: So Elise Hu and Blake Crouch are actually talking in another universe right now.

CROUCH: Exactly. You're asking me an entirely different set of questions, and I'm giving you an entirely different set of answers.

HU: I'm sure the other Elise Hu is asking much better questions.

CROUCH: (Laughter).

HU: Blake, I want to turn to some other parts of your career, namely "Wayward Pines" books, which have been developed into a television series on FOX. It's now in Season 2. And it's also a thriller that takes place in a very creepy, unusual world. So what is it about these mind-bending settings that interests you more than the real world, maybe?

CROUCH: Definitely more than the real world. I think what I'm circling in my work over the last five or six years is the idea of the nature of reality and of identity and of questioning whether or not to trust what we see before our eyes. In "Wayward Pines," a guy wakes up - named Ethan Burke - in this idyllic town, and he can't call home. And suddenly, everything falls out from underneath him. In "Dark Matter," Jason Dessen wakes up in a world that is different than his own. I think I must be tackling something about reality and identity. It's funny. I always find out after the fact that the books I've been writing were actually some sort of therapy, some sort of, you know, self-examination that I had to write the book in order to complete.

HU: Author Blake Crouch - at least, one version of Blake Crouch. Blake, thanks so much.

CROUCH: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.