THE STORY BEHIND DARK MATTER
BY BLAKE CROUCH
The hardest thing a writer has to do is figure out for themselves who they are. What should I be writing about? What stories should I be telling? What does writing mean to me? I didn’t know the answers to those questions for a long, long time.
Then I discovered Michael Crichton. I’d seen most of the movie adaptations like Jurassic Park and Sphere, but when I started reading his books and learning about his process, something clicked. I realized that he wasn’t just coming up with cool plots. He was writing books that allowed him to explore topics that interested him. Writing a thriller as self-education. I thought, “Wait, you can just write about stuff that stokes your own curiosity?”
And so I tried that with a trilogy of books about a town called Wayward Pines. I had this idea for a guy who gets stranded in a creepy, Twin Peaks kind of town, and without giving too much away, it let me research and investigate two areas of scientific study that had been peaking my interest: suspended animation and flash mutation. It was the best writing experience I’d had to date, and when I finished those books, I felt like I’d actually learned something in the process.
And that brings me to this new book of mine, Dark Matter. For the last decade, during this writerly identity crisis I’d been struggling through, I’d always wanted to write a thriller that played with quantum mechanics. I’d tried several times to write a version of Dark Matter, approaching it through three different ideas, but no one of them seemed to be enough to support a book on its own.
The breakthrough happened two years ago. I went to Chicago to see a good friend of mine, the novelist Marcus Sakey. I pitched him these three ideas as potentially separate books, and as we were talking and brainstorming, I suddenly realized these weren’t three different novels. They were different aspects of the same big novel.
The scope and ambition of this new book felt scary and daunting, but I’d just had a great experience throwing myself into the deep end writing Wayward Pines, and I was feeling brave and excited. So I decided to dive in again, and again try to do something bigger and better than I’d ever written before.
Dark Matter is about a guy named Jason Dessen. Jason is a brilliant physicist living in Chicago with his wife Daniela and his son Charlie. He’s a true genius, and while there was a point in his late-twenties when his research could have made him a star in his field, he instead chose a family-focused life. One night, while walking home, he’s abducted and injected with a strange drug. When he next awakes, his world has completely changed. He’s no longer married, doesn’t have a son, and has achieved professional success beyond his wildest dreams. This sets him on a thrilling, mysterious, and sometimes terrifying journey to find out what has happened to him—one that, in very scary and concrete ways, forces him and the reader to reckon with the quantum-mechanics principles that make our universe tick.
Quantum mechanics sounds abstract and science-fiction-y and intimidating, I know. But I promise—I wrote Dark Matter so if you’d never heard of quantum mechanics, it wouldn’t matter. And while the behavior of subatomic particles seems far removed from our day to day lives, when you scale the ramifications of quantum mechanics up to the macro world, to our world, things actually do get very interesting and very strange, very quickly.
We’ve all wondered—what would’ve happened if I took that job I turned down? What if I’d gone to this college, instead of that one? Even on a smaller scale–if I’d slept in this morning instead of waking up in time, or if my last vacation was to Barcelona instead of Paris, wouldn’t those decisions, in some way, have made me a materially different person from who I am right now?
What if quantum mechanics gave us a way to actually answer those questions? That’s one of the big ideas at the heart of Dark Matter.
So what is this novel? I like to think of it as a story about the road not taken. It contains elements of thriller, science fiction, paranoid suspense, the slightest touch of horror, but at its core, it’s a love story—about how our hero’s relationship with the woman he loves has changed him and his world, and just how far he will go to be with her. It’s also the manifestation of everyone’s existential question: Am I who I was supposed to be? Is this the life I was meant to be living?
Which brings me back to Michael Crichton. He didn’t just play with big ideas in his books. He used those ideas to explore questions that felt immediate, meaningful, emotionally powerful—to everyone. You didn’t have to be a sci-fi reader to understand what he was talking about, or to care, deeply, about the suspenseful tale he was spinning. That’s the kind of book I set out to write with Dark Matter.
Or, as I wrote on the dedication page: “This book is for anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.”
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is published by Macmillan and is out now, price £12.99 in hardback. This piece was originally published on Powells.