So I was turned on to the New York Times best seller Dark Matter by my sister-in-law, who reported to me that it was a good book very much worth reading. In large part she’s right about it being a fun adventure, and I’d also recommend you stop by your local library (or use the free overdrive app) to give it a whirl yourself. The plot is serviceable but nothing special, being a rehash of Mr. Destiny, or The Family Man, or It’s a Wonderful Life, where a driven careerist switches places with a humble man who has prioritized a different set of values than fame and fortune (although the American trope is even older, going back at least to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper). There are a few novelties in Dark Matter of course: the person making the switch is the evil corporate genius version of himself from another dimension, and the switch is achieved through quantum physics and macro-scale superposition in the multi-verse. But although the plot moves well and quantum dynamics is an integral component to it, the mechanism simply doesn’t work, and it makes me wish Blake Crouch had just associated the thing with magic and skipped any technical explanation altogether.
Why do I dislike multi-verse so much as a plot device? A number of reasons. Literarily it breaks the spell of the story by requiring a very flimsy idea to carry the whole narrative—which is then treated inconsistently. Scientifically it’s simply inaccurate, for while the partially understood mathematics of sub-atomic particle interaction may suggest multiverse if you already want that to be true, the rules absolutely break down once you move to a larger scale, or even consider more than one particle at a time. Philosophically the multiverse arises only after of the bankruptcy of Darwinism and Modernism, being the next desperate gambit to avoid coming to grips with our plight of having offended a holy God and choosing to run rather than lay down our arms. Religiously, the notion that there are an infinite number of Gods with an infinite number of worlds where Jesus decided not to go to the cross, or that He came down from it, or that never made it there, is blasphemy of the rankest kind. So I say to multi-verse what my three year old niece said in March upon hearing little green men were going to break into her house and mess up the place: “No thank you leprechauns.”
But although the author is using a very poor quality clay to create the world, he still manages to create a mostly serviceable set of rules that works thanks to the strong human element in the story. We gladly root for Jason as he struggles against time, space, temptation, and himself, to get his family back. And as a bonus I even was pleasantly surprised to see some of my objections anticipated. For example, I was curious to know after the careerist stole his life, how he’d hide this fact from the son. He didn’t; the 15 year old son knew the new guy to be an imposter right away, which was a bold and realistic move. The son also he didn’t really seem to care about the switch either, which… also seems fairly realistic.
There was one thing however that the author missed (and here’s the part where I spring board into a permanent rabbit trail) and when I say missed I mean missed in a big way: the careerist copy was happy to take over living the ordinary family life. In reality this decision would have lasted exactly one week before genius Jason tossed in the towel and went back to his own dimension. No, I don’t mean ‘why would the most successful man in history, a billionaire genius scientist who could have started a family with any beautiful woman he’d wanted, want to steal take over as a middle class junior college professor who is raising a teenage son,’ I mean ‘that man would hate the life he stole.’ The episode of children’s show Sofia the First called “The Baker King” is actually a really great example of what I mean. In it, King Roland gets tired of all his royal obligations and wishes he could live the simple life of the village bread maker rather than go on being continually pestered with endless responsibilities. But once his wish is granted he finds out that he sucks at being a baker and has to come to grips with the fact that he’s actually more comfortable being a King. Why? Because what he’d hoped for was to be rid of his duties, but what he found was that he’d just swapped them for an unfamiliar set of equally unpleasant hardships. The same problem of dissatisfaction would fall on the alternate universe Jason, except to a much greater degree, and for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Jason2’s flawed motivations and faulty presuppositions set him up for failure from the beginning. It’s human nature to think that we are flawless beings burdened with unhappy circumstances, that our problems are external to us and that if we could only change them we’d be happy, but that’s not true. Rich people are no happier than anyone else, because their problems are not external to them. Their problems are internal. Happy people will be happy with few dollars or many; unhappy people will be unhappy no what happens to them, because misery comes from sin, and sin is within. Sin is our problem, and we are sinful.
Secondly, brainiac Jason would be unhappy because God has so constructed the universe that there is no lasting pleasure apart from Him, and He personally works to ensure that anyone who sets up as an idol gets their pleasure removed. Did Jason seek to find meaning apart from Him? Too bad for him, all pleasures but one wear out almost as soon as they’re gained. Which leads me to my next point.
What makes sinful humans tick is not the acquisition of an object of pleasure but the pursuit of it. What we’re really craving is the idea of the thing, or the feeling of lusting for it, not the thing itself. Once we grasp the forbidden fruit we find it does not satisfy, for we find what we had really enjoyed was the chase, not the catch (this is why the aphorism “Life is about the journey, not the destination” is so popular). We therefore enjoy something as long as we don’t have it because that enables us to feed our egos the food of delusion. Shortly after gaining our prize the novelty wears off, we become unhappy again, we shrug, and start the cycle over again, having learned nothing. This is why the feminists are right when they say pornography demeans women. It’s also the reason feminism is on its 4th wave with no relief from the misery of sin in sight. This is why we long to win the lottery, and disbelieve the lottery winners who tell us how they wish they’d never bought that winning ticket in the first place. It’s why Amnon immediately began to despise his half-sister after raping her (2 Sam 13:15).
Thirdly, Jason would be unhappy stealing a mediocre life because to the selfish, mediocre lives suck. Unless you go through a lot of hard and unpleasant experiences that change you, you’ll be completely unable appreciate the pleasure offered by a “mediocre” life. To borrow a more earthly analogy, unless you develop a taste for beer by suffering through drinking it enough, you’ll find it terrifically unpalatable. Same goes for coffee, wine, and beef stroganoff. Mothers have to be strengthened by the joyful hardship of pregnancy to become what they are, because otherwise they wouldn’t tolerate being woken up thirteen times a night by a tiny human who wants to suck nutrients from their body. A father has to hold the seconds-old infant and realize the agony of how he’s now responsible for taking care of her forever before he’s willing sacrifice all his money, energy, and years to her. These basic experiences condition us to receive the pleasure of simple human interaction because they strip away the selfishness and egocentric thought patterns that would otherwise make the pleasure inedible to us.
People who have kids generally seem to be more relaxed and well-adjusted than people who don’t. But this isn’t because they are investing in in their children’s future, as if by suffering from some crushing low points now they can achieve an equivalent number of even more thrilling events later. The reward for cleaning up your fevered three year old’s vomit at 2AM isn’t a feeling of intense pleasure, and the pain of holding your breath while you scrub away cannot be papered over by the thought that one day your rich doctor son will take care of you when you’re sick. No. Your reward for raising him is that over time you’ll add a whole new set of worries related to his spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being as he matures. But what also happens is that a year after cleaning up sick toddler vomit everything in the world is more fun. Because it’s impossible to say, “Doesn’t this vomit know who I am? I’ve mastered the highest mathematics known to man during only a short stay at university!” and at the same time retain your pride. That vomit makes it exponentially more difficult to say later in life: “Only simpletons think a red sunset is objectively beautiful.” The benefit of having kids is that it forces you to acknowledge how marvelous people are, while at the same time preventing you from squirming away from the truth that you’re not a marvelous person. Marvelous people don’t lose their cool with their children for being hungry at dinnertime, after all.
Because super-rich Jason never had to suffer through long office hours with dunderheads, or change amoxicillin diapers, or listen patiently while his hormonal wife melted down over something trivial, or had to fix the fifth appliance in a week, he never grew strong enough to be able embrace the joy of seeing his son achieve a very minor social milestone, like talk to a girl on the phone. Which is the real payout of sacrificing everything to lead a family. Children will only infect you with their fresh faced wonder if you’re around for it, if you invest in them.
And I think in that there’s a lesson about heaven too. Perhaps it is the case that our sufferings and difficulties in this life are designed by God to strip back our hardness, our inattentiveness to beauty, and make us fit to appreciate heaven. Perhaps it’s the case that without the proper training brought on by sanctification here we will not be able to enjoy the pleasures reserved for us there, but will instead only find them disgusting or disagreeable. By nature we would reject the taste of God’s blessings as unpalatable, but by continual self-denial we become sensitized to Him, which is why He command us to take up a cross and follow Him. When God forces us to set aside our pride we open ourselves up to joys that we’d otherwise find inaccessible. Or as Paul says, since he says it better than I could, “Though our outward man perish yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory… the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”