Dark Matter, Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Doubleday, 1990, 375 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-24756-7

While Garfield Reeves-Stevens is now best-known for his work on various media properties, most specifically his involvement with the Star Trek franchise, he has also produced a small but significant stream of original projects earlier in his career. (And then -along with his wife Judith- a number of very good techno-thrillers, the latest of which is the excellent Freefall.) Dark Matter is one such early work, combining criminal horror with scientific content and ending in far-fetched Science Fiction. It’s not an excellent book, but it’s suitably entertaining and it’s definitely worth a look if you like horror/crime/science hybrids.

The very first scene sets the tone, describing a gruesome murder that makes the “last supper” scene in Hannibal look like a charming romp. Someone, somewhere, likes to kill young blond students while educating them about quantum mechanics. Coincidentally (but not really), the very next scene takes place in Stockholm, as three American scientists are set to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics. Soon after, a mysterious man makes them an offer they can’t refuse: A fully-financed lab, and the promise that all of their wishes will be catered to. All of their wishes…

Flash-forward three years. A dismembered body is found in a Los Angeles apartment…

Perhaps the best thing about Dark Matter is how it combines a procedural crime novel with hard-science content. On one side, scientists explore the mysteries of quantum mechanics, speaking well over the head of the average reader. Meanwhile, a policewoman with plenty of personal problems investigates a stomach-churning string of murders. We know they’re linked (in fact, Reeves-Stevens waits far too late to make explicit a link that is patently obvious from chapter two) and so the fun of the novel is in seeing these two universe intersect. The investigation is well-handled while the scientific content is as flawless as can be determined by laypeople.

While most of the scientific content will be lost on readers without specialized knowledge in high-energy physics, Reeves-Steven’s gift for clear prose and steady narrative rhythm is enough to keep turning the pages. His ability to write scientific vulgarization is astonishing. His characters are well-developed, and whoever still believes that fictional scientists should behave like robots are in for a refreshing dose of (in)humanity. Among the book’s best moments is a demonstration of a high intellect at work, solving a complex problems in a matter of seconds, each step carefully described. Reeves-Stevens tackles complex characterization issues with Dark Matter, and he’s more than partially successful in achieving what he’s trying to do.

There are also a number of interesting thematic issues raised by the characters’ willingness to do unspeakable things (or allow unspeakable things to happen) in search for inspiration. The link between genius and madness often leads to trite ethical dilemmas (“What’s one life compared to an innovation that could benefit billions?”, etc.), but Reeves-Stevens navigates a hard course and avoids on-the-nose moralizing.

But none of that will prepare readers for the last third of the book, as the the novel abruptly jumps tracks from criminal scientific fiction to far-out science-fiction. Even hard-SF readers are liable to feel that the book goes too far, too wide-scale at once. The protagonist’s quasi-magical abilities take the novel well beyond the realistic parameters followed by the novel thus far, and it doesn’t help that the pacing suddenly slacks (and takes off for Boston) in the middle of what should be an acceleration of events. The ending predictably veers into the usual metaphysical nonsense, trying too hard for enlightenment when denouement would have been enough. Weird choices for a novel that, up until then, had been kept under control.

The irony, of course, is that from a critical standpoint, the novel’s late slide into more fantastic territory makes it a lot more interesting to discuss. It’s up for debate whether a tighter, more focused version of Dark Matter would have warranted a review. (Probably, given the successful melding of horror, crime and science) As it stands, Dark Matter isn’t really recommended, but it is interesting enough to be worth a look if ever a copy should falls in your hot little hands. And not just as the early work of an author who went on to become a best-selling Star Trek co-producer!

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