Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of Version Control by Dexter Palmer

For most of us in the west, the manner in which life is channeled through the internet and the way media and people around us perpetually reinforce the perceived importance of science and technology, are now commonplace.  In tandem with our daily social interaction at work or school, we think nothing of maintaining a wide variety of online profiles/personalities, being social without being physically present, walking in a bubble of headphones, mobile phone or other gadgetry, and, generally speaking, existing at a virtual distance from tangible existence.  On the other end of that line, the related activities are being measured to greater and greater detail, to the point nearly everything we do is quantified in some fashion by somebody, often even ourselves.  Personal as well as Big Data being collected for a variety of purposes, our identities are scattered to social, corporate, consumer, and bureaucratic winds, and reconsolidated in one form or another for a variety of purposes.  Corporeal existence seemingly the last bastion for the idea of self as a whole, even self-perception renders that subjective.  Enter Dexter Palmer’s superb 2016 novel, Version Control. 

Rebecca Wright is an ordinary millennial.  Growing up in suburban New Jersey to a largely normal family, she goes to university, does relatively well, makes meaningful friendships while studying, and graduates believing a career is waiting for her.  Living with her parents while working a wide variety of part-time jobs throughout her 20s, Rebecca is nevertheless able to maintain her bffs from university.  The girls regularly going out for drinking and fun, the dynamic starts to change the older they get.  One by one the friends start relationships that slowly split the group apart, mostly through a dating website called Loveability.  Eventually, Rebecca gives in and creates her own profile.  Meeting the experimental physicist Philip Steiner, things take an unexpected turn in her life.  Phillip older than Rebecca by a few years, and possessing a personality far differently tuned from her own, Rebecca’s grounded, relaxed view contrasts heavily with his purposeful and abstract mindset.  But their marriage is only the beginning of changes in Rebecca’s life.

Phillip’s story is the other main thrust of Version Control.  His laboratory work, which centers on what he calls a Causality Violation Device (and what everyone else refers to as Phillip’s time machine) serves to present scientific research with realism and integrity, forms the central metaphor of the novel, and is likewise the dial upon which the narrative structure rotates.  Simply put, it is what sets Version Control apart from all other novels.  The proverbial dial possessing a handful of settings that evolve throughout the story, singular occurrences and people are examined from a variety of perspectives, and from different times.  Phillip’s lab partners and grad students, who also form a large part of he and Rebecaa’s social life, take their share of the spotlight, particularly as their personal dramas unfold and refold.  The story weaving in and out of seemingly incongruous viewpoints, alone at the center stands the causality violation device, and Phillip’s obsession with making it work.

The characters of Version Control will be the main draw for many.  Richly drawn, they are realia—people you know or have met.  But for the more applied reader, Palmer offers a feast of informed, intelligent discussion, both direct and indirect, on race perception, the philosophy of science, the current state of applied technology, and how humanity is evolving in context, for better or worse.  As hinted at in the introduction, Palmer addresses the broad swathe of consequences and potential meaning of existing through the internet, and consequently, the feedback loop it forms with perceived identity.  As a simple example, the novel looks at how people express opinion in online conversations differently than face to face contact, and subsequently, the effect this can feed back into face to face communication. 

This is a good point to stop and point out Version Control is not Luddite propaganda. Rebecca and Phillip in many ways represent opposite poles on the globe of opinion regarding scientific advancement.  Phillip an atheist who believes the march of science is inevitable, he does his part to expand human knowledge despite failure after failure, whereas Rebecca holds a more practical, common view, which is to say disinterest.  Never shown as a victim, Palmer nevertheless portrays Rebecca as a person who goes with the flow of technological development, and experiences the advantages and disadvantages—the consequences—of the system she flows through, until the conclusion when she discovers more (and its not science or religion).  What she discovers setting the tone for the novel, it would seem to contextualize Palmer’s agenda regarding the contemporary state of humanity’s interaction with technology.

This is all a long way of saying Palmer is certainly more humanist than pro- or anti-science.  The philosophy, application, and effects of science are strong elements of Version Control, but there is yet more beyond.  The plot features advanced entertainment tech, self-driving cars, dating websites, infotainment, heightened surveillance, virtual presidents, etc., but these elements always wind up being processed by emotion, thought, personal philosophy, perceived identity, and life direction, grounding the novel in aspects of existence that transcend the latest gadgets and social media sites.

Version Control has received little publicity in the genre community.  And understandably so; science fiction fandom has never been known to acknowledge and praise near-future work focusing on the human condition in sensitive, realist fashion.  Most sf readers preferring tales at a distance from reality, Version Control is not flashy entertainment.  The time travel element does not result in mankind meeting dinosaurs or aliens.  On the contrary, there are many times the verisimilitude of Version Control is so strong the reader may feel uneasy, such is the depth Palmer gets into his characters’ heads.  (And if not uneasy, then at least nodding their head in appreciation of the way he has articulated some unspoken yet fervently real aspect of existence.)  One of the dates Rebecca goes on through the online service ends in a manner that makes the reader cringe yet admiring for how true to life it is.  Inner thought versus voiced thought, cognition and internalization of communication and interaction, self-denial, subconscious decision and  effect—these help to quantify the narrative space Version Control occupies for most of its length, better than pomp and parade of mainstream science fiction, resulting in a novel that feels real, relatable, informative, and profound.

In the end, Version Control brilliantly captures the fragmentary, existential angst and ennui of western life in the 21st century as channeled through heightened degrees of technology, media, and belief in science.  Accessible yet imminently intelligent, there are a couple of moments character presentation is a little manipulative (I’m thinking of the bully scene, as well as occasional moments with Alicia), but overall they are living, breathing people experiencing life exactly as we do, their thoughts and motives fully relatable.  Time travel a literary rather than plot device, Palmer uses the common science fiction trope in a manner as never before (a truly difficult feat given the century’s worth of time travel stories that exist). And lastly, it being nearly December with only one or two other 2016 releases to be read, I feel confident saying this is likely my novel of the year.

(Note: I listened to rather than read Version Control, and it must be said January LaVoy does an absolutely superb job narrating.  I listen to a share of audiobooks, and rarely do I remark on their quality.  But LaVoy is so talented—inflecting emotion, varying the voices, controlling pace—she must be acknowledged.  In fact, I find myself wondering if the novel’s strong effect on me was not in part due to the narration—whether my reaction would have been different reading the black and white version…)


  1. Serendipitously, I just read this one and Hutchinson's EUROPE IN WINTER.

    I think Dexter Palmer has potential and, yeah, VERSION CONTROL might have been the best SF novel of the year -- if it had been edited by at least a third. Its characters may come off as "living, breathing people experiencing life exactly as we do" -- they certainly do next to the characters in most SF -- but it shouldn't require Palmer making the reader spend three-to-five pages on Rebecca's fricking, fracking cupcakes to achieve that. If a writer is going to take the route of spending so much wordage on quotidian details just because they are quotidian, then it better be John Updike-level verbal painting of the quotidian.

    Hutchinson is a worthwhile comparison. In this third Europe novel of his, I felt he was struggling more to make it work than in the previous two. Nevertheless, look at how much Hutchinson gets done on a line-by-line, passage-by-passage basis. I went back at looked at some post-Cold War John Le Carre recently for comparison's sake and Hutchinson struck me as the better writer -- certainly, better than the Le Carre of, say, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR.

  2. It's interesting. I was entirely absorbed by Rebecca's 'fricking, fracking', while I guess this dragged for you. Perhaps just something personal...

    It's rather unfair to compare Hutchinson's style to Palmer's. Each are trying to affect something entirely different. Hutchinson clearly wants a cold minimalism that pushes the reader to puzzle out what's happening between the lines, whereas Palmer was looking to present the lines and what is happening between them - Rebecca's thoughts on the party cupcakes, for example, in order to present his characters in a richer, more direct manner. Moreover, what Hutchinson tucks between the lines is most often related to plot rather than character as he is trying to write quality entertainment. On the other hand, Version Control is trying to represent humanity in the 21st century, plot a strong but secondary concern. This is not to say it's impossible to write a humanist novel in minimalist style; several writers have done so, only that it's not perfunctory a writer utilize minimalism to portray character/human condition. There are other styles possible to achieve verisimilitude, and yes, novels such as Palmer's can get untangled, and longer as a result. Perhaps Updike does the quotidian better, but at no point in time did I begin skimming Version Control, which is at least a personal testament how engaging Palmer's presentation is.

    It seems you are reading a lot of recent publications. Do you have any picks for novel or novels of the year? (There are a lot of good books to pick from this year.)

  3. No picks. I'm simply reading whatever comes along that looks like serious SF, or at least has a good grope in that direction, which these days is rarer than it ought to be.

    With a very few exceptions, fantasy -- though it's eaten up much of what used to be the SF market and audience -- fills me with inertia --

    -- and I'm less enthused than you about this year's books than you, although it's a better year than many recent ones. Experienced editors say these days that the younger writers tend not to know how to write science fiction. Here, for instance, is Michael Swanwick making part of that case in the nicest, most gentlemanly way --

    And I'd agree. Hence, as I say, I'll glance atanything that looks like a good solid grope in the direction of real SF. You'll recall that my definition of hard SF is a little more idiosyncratic than yours, so along those lines I'll probably try Adam Roberts's THE THING ITSELF and Warren Ellis's NORMAL next. I did read the first of Ken Macleod's CORPORATION WARS trilogy, DISSIDENCE, which came out this year, and it was ... all right, actually, given that Macleod was clearly obeying his publisher's edict to extrude a commercial space opera trilogy.

    With the proviso that you can only get it from Amazon UK, I do recommend to you Macleod's INTRUSION from a couple of years back, which arguably may be the best thing he's done and which I see you haven't reviewed yet.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Rolling with laughter at the Drimble Wedge & the Vegetations link!! Too funny!! Yeah, for sure the second Golden Age of pulp fiction is far more life draining than inciting. I've a half-finished article on the e-pulp generation sitting on my hdd for some time now, but without concrete facts (only empirical observations) I'm reluctant to continue.

      I fully agree with the import of Swanwick's comment in the link you provided, but question the details. I think you can embed sf&f tropes/devices/ideas into fiction without it being world changing and yet still have a quality story. What I am fully in agreement with, as Swanwick articulates in further detail in the interview link below, is the overall dilution of talent in the field. Far, far fewer and far between are there strong voices with true knowledge how to construct and develop short fiction, let alone novel-length.

      On a related note, I assume you've read Paul Kincaid's Widening Gyre article, yes?!

      Regarding Ken Macleod, he is an oft frustrating author for me. He is intelligent, has some writing chops, and has written some relatively sophisticated sf. But in the main, he's writing more commercially oriented stuff. His first four novels are generally unique in the wider spectrum of sf, and while The Execution Channel runs a relatively familiar gauntlet of spy vs. spy, thriller plotting, the underlying content expresses a frustration with the state of terrorism politics that I can respect. Everything else I've read by him is rather average. It's precisely for this reason Intrusion sits on my shelf unread. I trust people like you that say it's his best, and so want to save it for a 'special moment' - that last, dying spark...

      Ken, if you're reading this (you're not, alas...), take the drone-heavy society you created in Descent and develop it into a novel! There is a huge amount of room there to develop material rooted in privacy, individual vs. public rights, rights of the press, ownership of airspace, etc. Do it!!