To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.
For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).
This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.
To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.
“I’ve seen so many versions of you. With me. Without me. Artist. Teacher. Graphic Designer. But it’s all, in the end, just life. We see it macro, like one big story, but when you’re in it, it’s just day-to-day, right? And isn’t that what you have to make your peace with?”
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a novel that is particularly concerned with two important questions: 1) Who are we? and 2) What if? Like any good science fiction novel, it uses science (in this case some really abstract concepts from quantum physics) to explore not possible consequences of the science, but the ways in which it impacts humanity. Basically, science fiction explores how these concepts relate to us.
The novel opens with Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela, and their son Charlie in their home on family night. Jason contemplates the choices he’s made in life leading him to this point–having a wife, a son, and a mediocre job as a small college physics professor–when he could have stuck with his career and made world-changing discoveries. There’s regret, yes, but I also suspect resignation on the part of himself and Daniela, who also gave up her dreams for her family.
Jason goes out to congratulate an old friend, Ryan, at a local bar for winning the Pavia Prize, awarded to people who make breakthroughs in science. On the way back home, he’s held at gunpoint, kidnapped, and taken to an abandoned power plant where a mysterious man drugs him. He awakens in a hangar he doesn’t recognize, surrounded by people who are familiar with him but who he doesn’t know, and later learns that he invented a kind of machine that allows a person to travel between different universes (along the lines of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).
“I don’t know. I could see it getting to the where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”
What I appreciate most about this novel is how it takes complicated ideas and weaves them seamlessly into an extremely compelling narrative, following Jason (or the Jason that is the most familiar to us), as he deals with the situation he is unwillingly thrust into. The complicated ideas don’t weigh the novel down or make it hard to understand; it flows naturally from the characters’ dialogue. In this, Crouch creates a novel that is, at its core, a thought experiment. Given the idea that for every decision we make universes split off to encompass every possible outcome, and given a kind of technology that allows people to travel to these other universes, how might humans use this technology and how might they interact with it?
In a word: badly. But Crouch’s exploration is deeply illuminating because it shines a light on us. When Jason explores “his” house in another universe, he takes stock of the many differences between that house and the house he actually lived in. “In my house…” sets up a contrast between what he knows and what he’s currently experiencing. He wonders if he’s going mad, or if someone’s playing a prank on him, but he cannot square his knowledge with his current experience.
As the novel progresses, Jason visits different universes where he sees several different versions of himself, of Daniela, and of Chicago. He acknowledges that, the more he travels, the less he thinks he understands about himself. “As I shave my beard, the questions of identity keep haunting me.” In one universe, another Jason drops money into this Jason’s collection box, and narrates, “There’s no danger. I’m unrecognizable.” If there are an infinite number of other universes, with infinite other Jasons, what do you really know about yourself? Throughout the novel there’s this theme that your decisions make you who you are; the Jason we’re familiar with made certain decisions that made him a family man, and the Jason that invented the device that allows travel to other universes made other decisions. So which Jason is the “real” Jason?
There’s probably no way to answer that question, because the question itself is absurd. They’re all the real Jason, but they come from different contexts and they have different histories. They’re not only the result of decisions that they make, but of the history and developments in their universes that are different than our universes. None of them have any kind of priority over any other, and this fact assaults our sense of self and the idea that we all hold that we’re special and unique. Jason has to come face-to-face with the fact that there are versions of himself that are capable of great evils in desperate circumstances.
Further, it turns out the being able to travel the universes depends on your own conscious and subconscious mind. Essentially, your thoughts and emotions direct your travel in the space between dimensions. In effect, by exploring the multiverse, you’re actually exploring yourself.
I suppose we’re just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.
Dark Matter has an interesting structure. Most of the narrative is first-person perspective in the present tense, from the point-of-view of Jason. However, the story shifts to third-person when we move to the original Daniela and her time with “Jason2,” which is an interesting shift that makes Jason2 feel really alien–like an altogether different person. Jason’s narration has a very stream-of-conscious feel to it, which reinforces the present-tense, and really makes you as a reader feel the emotions, fear, or sense of panic that the character feels.
Crouch’s writing style is descriptive without being too detail-oriented. It’s original and engaging, and unlike Inferno, it uses ellipses and dashes sparingly and only when they’re called for. The way he describes characters is fresh and real. For instance, “Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible.” His writing style also has hints of a wry sense of humor, such as the following sentence: “Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela–a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.”
The pace of the novel almost never falters, and I found myself losing track of time as I turned the pages. You really lose yourself in the story, and in the images that Crouch draws through witty writing and a profound imagination. During Jason’s travels through the universes, Crouch uses what I call the “ampoule countdown,” tracking the number of trips Jason has left to make. That combined with the truly infinite nature of the multiverse creates a sense of utter hopelessness, especially as we see Jason struggle to figure out how to tune his mind and emotions so that he can find his way home (and fail desperately).
Overall, Dark Matter has a solid story, excellent writing, characters that are fleshed-out and real, and an original idea with a fantastic twist ending. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and by the end of the story you find yourself questioning your own sense of identity.
I give Dark Matter a 5 out of 5, and highly recommend it to anyone who lives mind-benders, techno-thrillers, or science fiction.
Closing time–or close enough. Quiet. Like it is deserted. A stark contrast to the bustle and sound of a million conversations just an hour before. The clink of Mah Jongg tiles, gone. The loud and rambunctious creative writing club packed up and promised to meet in a week.
I always feel awkward about this time. How long can I stay? I think the quiet is a cue for me to put my books and pens away, too. It’s strange how we respond to such things. The urge to leave grows. Are the employees looking at me?
Or is it me imagining it to give me further cause to uproot myself and move on? I’m not really ready to go. I’d like to see how long I can push it before the cashier throws me nasty looks. But I see another person engrossed in a book check their phone for the time and begin to stir. I finish off my cold Earl Grey and move to put some of my mess away. Pack my book in my Star Trek messenger bag. My journal.
How is it that there’s a pressure for me to act without any positive force for me to undertake the action? It makes me wonder how much of our behavior is based off of these kinds of implanted and often subconscious cues. Humans like to think that they have free will–but is it really “free?” What do we even mean by free?
I’ve always thought that there was no escaping the cause-and-effect nature of the universe, even in our own actions. It’s hard to pinpoint how, though. I know it’s easy to give inanimate objects agency, and I know how tempting substance dualism is. Then I notice a change in the music played overhead and it seems louder and more energetic than it has been.
Or maybe I’m only perceiving that.
Either way, I think closing time is approaching and I see fewer people than when I wrote the first sentence. I feel compelled to leave even though I do not need to.
Cause and effect, I suppose.
Every now and again I decide to venture out of my bubble and read something that’s not exactly typical of my usual literary fare. In the past, Dan Brown had been able to tell a relatively entertaining tale (if not reliably researched or well-written), so I took up Inferno with the hope that Brown would live up to his mediocre writer / good storyteller reputation.
I can tell you that he did not. Inferno, despite being a decent page-turner, didn’t really leave me wanting to read more about Robert Langdon. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through I just wished it would end. Unlike his previous books (with maybe the exception of The Lost Symbol), Inferno feels like it drags on forever, with serious disruptions in the pacing of the plot throughout with endless description of setting that, in some areas, seem completely extraneous. Indeed, it is obvious that this was a book conceived from the ground up as a movie.
Let’s start from the beginning: Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, wakes up in a Florence hospital with a bullet wound and amnesia. Soon, he is being chased by an assassin, and helped by the beautiful Sienna Brooks to figure out how he got there and where he was going. Pretty standard Dan Brown fare, honestly. The assassin works for a mysterious group called the Consortium, headed by a man only known as the Provost, who are trying to keep Langdon from accomplishing his goals aboard the good ship Mendacium, which essentially means falsehood or illusion (sigh…obvious symbolism is obvious). Yes, he did simply call the antagonists “the Consortium” and “the Provost,” in a fit of what I can only describe as a habitual lack of originality. Just to knock it up a notch to pathological, the Provost, in several instances, steeples his hands when he talks as bad guys are wont to do.
Before I tear into this book, I want to talk about something from TV Tropes. An official entry exists for the term “Dan Browned,” and TV Tropes describes it thus: “Have you ever picked up a work by a creator who claims (or strongly implies) that his writing is based on thorough and careful research, only to discover what you are actually holding is a steaming pile of lazy assumptions or outright lies?” You can find a page on the website here dedicated to Dan Brown’s loose history with fact. So anything that Brown asserts as true in the book should be taken with a grain of salt as a general rule.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but it should be noted that for as much grief as I’m about to give this book, I think that Brown still somehow manages to create a book that, for the most part, is a page-turner that manages to keep your interest. Further, he peppers his novels with these little insights and discoveries that let you feel like you’re in on them.
First off, I think Brown’s writing is getting worse. Or, at least, from what little I remember of my readings of the other three Langdon novels, it seems to be getting worse. Maybe lazier is a better word. On the first page, Brown sets up a pattern that will be repeated ad nauseam: he overuses ellipses and uses esoteric words like dolant and chthonic. This takes me out of the action and makes me aware of the act of reading, and I think it makes the book poorer. Later, he’ll start other annoying writing eccentricities: the overuse of italics to express inner monologue, the overuse of dashes to add information (which creates jarring, awkward sentences), and perhaps most annoying of all the overuse of the interrobang (!? or ?!, Brown uses them interchangeably), making the dialogue come off as a college freshman’s creative writing project you just have to read, man.
Here, I’ll ding myself for the overuse of the word “overuse” just to maintain consistency.
Unfortunately, the problems with Brown’s writing don’t end there. Apart from the problems already listed, a lot of it is clumsy and awkward. Take, for instance, this horrid image: “…a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BWM motorcycle…” Unstraddled? I searched high and low for other references of the existence of that word and the only things I could find after strenuous google searches were other people discussing Brown’s use of this word. Look, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare-level creativity here, and I don’t think Dan Brown is anywhere near justified in using a “word” like unstraddled when the English language is replete with good words to describe the action he intended. Now excuse me while I get off my high horse, dismount my stool, hop down the stairs, and go for a walk.
Brown’s work also suffers from the “show, don’t tell” problem. Often he uses insipid words like “surreal” and “unique” where detail would not only enhance the flavor of the text, but offer more memorable descriptions of the events, locations, and character attitudes. Another instance of the “show, don’t tell” problem is exemplified by the following sentence: “Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.” Okay, Dan Brown, I’ll just take your word for it. There’s no need for me to have the ability to judge that on my own as a reader with a brain. That can judge things. You know, like I’m judging you right now. I have a suggestion. It’s simple, clever, and droll. Write better.
Another issue I have with his writing style is that he breaks everything up into small, easily-digestible chapters, as if he’s spoon-feeding the reader. Sure, this may contribute to his ability to turn mediocre novels with terrible writing into page-turners, but after a while it gets about as irritating as the muscle fatigue I experienced rolling my eyes. Chapter eight is one page, front and back! One page! For the sake of all that is good and just in the world, stop that man from splitting a book that could be trimmed by about one hundred pages into 104 chapters and an epilogue.
As I skim my notes I become aware of another damned pattern: repetition. At one point I wrote, “Yes, we know the Consortium does shady things. Yes, we know they fulfill tasks.” And perhaps that repetition was contagious: “we know, already,” “this is such a goddam repetitive novel. We already know,” “This is getting tiresome,” “and now we get Vayentha telling us what we already know,” and finally “Chapter 64 is pretty much a rehash [spoilers removed]…We know what’s on the video! Come on.” The repetition is actually present throughout the entire novel and, had I wrote notes on all of it, I would never be able to finish this review.
Worse than that, however, is that this idiosyncrasy of Brown’s writing spares not his characters. He constantly refers to one character by what he’s wearing and his damn skin rash (“the man with the rash”), when his name would suffice. Nobody is going to forget that man’s damn rash or his nerd glasses or his ugly paisley tie. A violent twitch developed in my eye from how often Brown called the Provost some variation of a “deeply tanned man.” I am the deeply annoyed man.
Brown seems to abuse his characters more severely than George R.R. Martin. Langdon’s relationship with women in the book should be held up for ridicule by teachers of creative writing. Two of the most powerful and intelligent women in the book, Sienna Brooks, his young, blonde companion, and Elizabeth Sinskey, the director of the World Health Organization, describe Langdon as handsome several times. Perhaps the most egregious example of Langdon’s supernatural powers of attraction over woman is the following: “She knew it was probably just adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor.” Uh-huh. Strangely, I am not surprised. Brown’s stories always follow the same pattern. Langdon teams up with some attractive, professional woman, and we learn later–big surprise–that she’s got a troubled past, holds Langdon as an object of desire (and is held as an object of desire in the narrative), and holds secret knowledge.
And Langdon himself doesn’t come out from under Brown’s overbearing weirdness unscathed. Even as he struggles to figure out what the hell he’s doing in Florence, he whines about losing his damned Mickey Mouse watch. Langdon even comes off as a pompous hipster when Brown writes, “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.” Danny boy, buddy, don’t character assassinate the man responsible for that fat bank account. You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re…going to give Langdon a weird relationship with penises in statuary, aren’t you? Langdon’s going to focus on it and even note how he cringes at a “penile grip” in a famous statue. *Sigh*
The predictable twist ending doesn’t really pay off in any significant way, and I even had to backtrack to make sure that my impressions of the events were colored only by my own assumptions. In that, Brown was actually kind of clever because he sort of pulled off a trick to impart Langdon’s amnesia onto you, the reader. But, like I said, it doesn’t pay off because it feels cheap and doesn’t really seem to hang together well. Eh, don’t listen to me about that. I’m still deeply annoyed about that goddamned deep tan.
All in all, I give Inferno 2 out of 5 stars. Despite the many issues the novel has, it does manage to eek out a passable plot that manipulates you into turning the page.
Anger seethes at the bottom of all of the emotions whipping around my mind whenever I conjure a thought of my father. Barry Derke, erstwhile volunteer firefighter, tow truck driver, and county jail inmate. Current struggling alcoholic. I’ve wasted many–too many–hours swallowing the bitter bile of hatred that rises from the sad parade of bad memories I have of him. And that hatred shames me, deeply. What makes a man worthy of hate?
Was it the physical abuse when I was a child? The times I had to drag him out of a local bar? The many times he let me down by failing in his role as a father? The loss of the house? The money he took from me? Maybe it was all of that, but none of that. When I think about all of that–all of those bad memories–they make me angry, sure. They make me reduce a man to merely the sum of all of his bad decisions. But they don’t make me hate.
It’s the absence. The deep sense of loss. The feeling that something important was taken from me, though I’m not quite sure what that something is. The fact is that I remember having a father, and I remember what it was like to have that kind of guide and role model in my life. He taught me how to read when I was very young, and because of that I had always been ahead of the curve in reading and writing. Every single test put me in the 99th percentile. Barry is probably, more than anyone, responsible for who I am today.
He taught me how to take things apart and put them back together. He coached my basketball team in elementary school, and one year he was my baseball coach. The story of my father is one of contradiction and contrast. He is, under the alcoholism and the problems that stem from that, a good man. Or, at least, I see him as an inherently good man. But that nature was twisted into something that I grew to hate and despise.
I have tried several times to separate him from me–to push him out of my life so that I might have peace. But I’ve learned that underlying all of that anger is a layer of emotion even deeper, and it swallows up everything else. It’s fear, and it is potent. I have written previously that I am an atheist. I don’t believe that there is an afterlife. I believe that this is all we have and all we experience. As such, the only experiences I will ever have will be in the 72 or so years that I’ll inhabit this planet.
So I fear the day that my father dies and all I have to remember him is the hatred and anger.
Sometimes when I sleep I dream of the time he does and the images haunt me. Things left unsettled. Emotions raw and exposed, never healed, and never able to heal. If we are the sum of our decisions and our actions, Barry is a hard problem to solve. And what am I if I don’t even make an attempt? What does the sum of my decisions and actions equal?
Bitterness? Regret? Both of them are ever present in my mind, but I’d like to think that, over the years, they have lost power. And there are so many variables to track. I learned of an older half sister that doesn’t want anything to do with me after earnest attempts to reach out. How am I supposed to factor that disappointment in? Does Barry bear the blame for the intense sense of rejection I felt when it became apparent I had no place in my sister’s life?
Despite all of that, I strive to give him the benefit of the doubt. I try so very dearly to keep the hope alive that he will change. That maybe he can put the bottle down and never pick it back up. Foolish. There’s always some trigger. There’s always an empty bottle with dregs dripping slowly onto the carpet, an indelible stain on my efforts to bridge the divide.
When I ran for State Representative in 2014 he was arrested for a DUI and evading arrest by leading police on a chase. He was in jail for almost a whole year.
And yet, even after all of that I did my best to forgive him and reestablish a relationship with him. Even after all of the indignities of my youth I still saw enough good in him to make the attempt. The feelings are still so fucking raw from all of the failures, and as time goes on they only compound. Every year, after one of our setbacks, I toy with the idea of cutting him out of my life and moving on. Soon the anger starts to subside and I slowly let him creep back in.
I do not, at this point, believe that he can change. I do not believe that, after all he’s been through, he really wants to change in a substantive way. So where do I go from here?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. Part of me wants to just accept the most cynical of my instincts and just take it for what it is, and that’s the part that’s winning my inner struggle. We had made plans for my birthday last year, which happened to have fallen on Thanksgiving. My fiancee and I were to go to his place and enjoy some wine and dessert, but his partner texted me that very day to tell me that he had hurt his back, took a pain pill, and went to sleep.
It was only later that I learned, from my mother, that he was drunk. And this is the pattern that’s so familiar to me, and what makes my cynical nature win out. My father is defined by two things in my mind: his drunkenness and his absence, and he lived up to both.
I ask myself when did the positives become outnumbered by the negatives of Barry? Or, rather, when did the weight of the negatives overcome the weight of the positives? Like so many of my questions surrounding the man, this one is unanswered and I doubt it ever will be. I know I put my finger on the scale to try to balance out the negatives, and I struggle even now with how far I’m willing to press down on the scale.
And I’m putting less and less force into it. I skipped the Derke Family Christmas to avoid him, a move I already regret. It didn’t help that he and I wound up in the same room that night, anyway, and it was extremely awkward. I remove some more of the force I apply to the scale and I’m close to being able to let the gravity of his life win out over my own and separate myself from him.
But then I get a text a week after the new year: “U get ur card?”
To which I replied, an hour later, “Not yet.”
I got the kitschy card a few days later. It was cheap, and it was obviously reused; another name in another place on the card was kind of a dead giveaway. All it said was “Merry Christmas, Love Dad and Brenda.” A $50 gift card to a local gas station slipped out of the card and onto the floor.
I sat on the card for a few more days, turmoil playing out in my mind. Do I respond? Do I let him know I actually got the card? How much do I say before he thinks he can come back in? I do not know and it’s tearing me up inside.
I’m planning to move to Philadelphia sometime around June. This is not to run away from Barry or any of my struggles here–or so I want to believe–but to run to my future with my fiancee. The time for reconciliation with my father feels to be slipping away. As I’m going through the things I want to take with me, or leave behind, I come across an old photo of my father holding me as an infant.
I stare silently at the glossy slip of memory for ages. At one point I feel tears welling in my eyes.
I put my finger back on the scale and text back: “I got your card. Thank you.”
I have a love / hate relationship with red ink. That seems really cliche, but the fact is that the red pen sits on the table in front me, and I imagine it is taunting me. See, the red pen is both critic and muse; a force for destruction and creation.
The pen sits on a stack of papers, themselves covered in red ink. Scribbles, symbols, lines, and words speak of the surgery I have performed on it. We don’t like tearing apart that which we
destroy create. When I was younger, I built castles made of legos, and I dreaded the time I had to take them down. But that force of destruction is also a way to build.
First drafts suck; there’s no way around that. Typically they are nothing more than idea vomit on paper, at least for me. Sometimes my stories go through several revisions (I label these by letter, and the furthest along I’ve ever gotten in the alphabet so far is “H”). I have binders full of drafts–or rather–the dry bones of drafts that are covered in crimson.
I keep them because they’re instructive. I can learn from them, and I can see how my writing evolves over time. And I come to see that the red ink isn’t my enemy, it’s my tutor. Learning isn’t always a fun process. Often we are asked to unlearn things we thought were true, and more often demanded that we venture outside of our comfort zones.
Creativity is fragile, and it must be nurtured. But it is also prone to stagnation, so it must be challenged, not just by others but by ourselves. Maybe the things we create have no value to anyone but ourselves, but the act of creation itself demands change and growth.
An artist refines her techniques, life evolves from generation to generation, and humans learn from their mistakes. Creation and change are on the same coin, and maybe even the same side of that coin.