Dark Matter: A Novel, by Blake Crouch

Jason Desson is returning home from a party for a friend when, behind him, he hears the words “Are you happy with your life?” The next thing he knows he awakens in a  room with people wearing hazmat suits. One, a man he’s never seen before, smiles and says “Welcome back, old friend.”

This starts Jason on an extended voyage through many of the possible alternate universes that arise from his decisions. He has landed in a world in which he decided to put career ahead of family, choosing a path in which he’s a celebrated scientist who never married and thus had no beautiful wife and no loving son. In this new alternate universe he has created a device that makes it possible to jump from one life to another.

In jumping from universe to universe he finds lives in which he or his wife have died,or in which he and his wife were no more than friends and she has become a famous artist. Every possible change of decision forms a new split in these alternate realities. Now he needs to figure out how to navigate accurately from one to another because he’s running short on the drug that shuts off the observer portion of his brain long enough to allow a quantum change. He needs to find his original life and also to find out who stole it from him.

In some ways the core of this book is like It’s a Wonderful Life on steroids, but rather than some divine catalyst this is a human twist on Schrödinger’s Cat. Jason finds himself facing the outcomes of multiple decisions. Worse yet, he discovers that each trip he makes is creating another split universe so that near then end there are dozens of Jasons all trying to make their way back home.

It’s easy to get caught up in Jason’s emotional sense of loss, suddenly waking up in a world in which everything he values is gone. Blake Crouch works this well through the book and is also able to build a lot of tension between alternative Jasons who will do anything to be the one to have that life back. He also needs to contend with investors in the physicist version of his lives determined to keep him working to protect their investments.

It’s a well-written and emotionally compelling book. It’s filled with excellent characters, including nuanced versions of Jason, and ultimately tells a wonderful story of love and envy across multiple realities.