My favorite book so far this year is, without a doubt, Dexter Palmer’s Version Control which I reviewed in March. It’s about the wife and colleagues of a physicist named Philip Steiner who is working on a device that he hopes will disrupt the space-time continuum, allowing time travel (though he doesn’t want to become a laughingstock in the physics community by actually using the term “time travel”). In the novel Palmer employs several well-worn science fiction tropes to freshly and humorously explore an array of human experiences. Version Control is exactly what I am always looking for in a science fiction story — heavy on the science and heavy on the humanity.
After I finished Version Control I had a few questions for Dr. Palmer and appreciate that he took the time to answer them.
I hope you all love Version Control as much as I did. One commenter with a US address will win a copy!
Kat Hooper: Some of the characters in Version Control are physicists working in a laboratory on something they call a “Causality Violation Device” (not a Time Machine!). As someone who has spent many of my formative years in a science laboratory, I was amazed that a person with a Ph.D. in English Literature so realistically depicted scientists working in a lab — their personalities, habits, language and culture. How were you so successful?
Dexter Palmer: Some of this is because I have a number of scientists as friends, just from having lived in Princeton for a number of years — mostly an assortment of astrophysicists, evolutionary biologists, and molecular biologists. So I was able to ask them questions about the culture of science, and I also had firsthand exposure to certain behaviors that are somewhat typical of the career scientist.
In addition, I did a fair amount of research in the subfield of sociology of science — studies by sociologists of scientists can give a different perspective than the sort of things that scientists would say about themselves. (Harry Collins’ books Gravity’s Shadow and Gravity’s Ghost and Big Dog, and Joseph Hermanowicz’s The Stars are Not Enough, were books of particularly good use here.)
Finally, a physicist friend of mine, Sylvia Smullin, read a draft of the manuscript during the editing process, and made a number of comments that helped to steer me toward the realism I was attempting to capture.
I’d say you achieved it! Something else that helped, I think, was that less than two weeks before Version Control was published came the big news that physicists had finally detected gravitational waves. In your story, Philip’s Causality Violation Device was based on his research into gravitational wave detection. What did you think of that real-world news when you heard it?
That was an interesting coincidence. When I started writing this novel, in 2008, the general consensus seemed to be that gravitational waves might never be directly observed, though that consensus changed over the next few years.
In fact, as I was completing the manuscript, because of the structure of the novel I found myself having to place a bet on whether direct detection was going to actually happen in the near future — this was complicated by the fact that there was a period of about eight months before publication, where revision would have inconvenienced so many people as to be considered impossible.
So just before I turned in the final version of the manuscript, I asked a few physicists what they thought about the chances of direct direction, and got responses ranging from “probably within the next few years” to “definitely within the next decade.” Though no one said “a few months from now,” their opinions were enough to convince me to make some last-minute revisions to account for the possibility.
A few weeks after the book came out, I got an e-mail from someone who pointed out that I’d almost correctly guessed the actual title of the article in which direct detection was announced. This was an informed guess, though — again, Harry Collins was a big help here, since much of his book Gravity’s Ghost and Big Dog details a discussion among physicists of what a title for such an article might be (a discussion that is perhaps tedious unless you’re a physicist, a sociologist, or a novelist writing about physicists).
So readers won’t think Version Control is only about physicists, let me ask about your main protagonist, Philip’s wife Rebecca, who works in customer service for an online dating company. The interactions she has with her customers are absolutely hilarious and I think I could have listened to her do her job all day. Do you have, or know someone who has, experience with online dating? I mean, were these clients inspired by real people?
I’ve never used an online dating service to find a date, though I have plenty of friends who have, and who were willing to tell me stories. Nothing in that is directly based on any of those stories; I was aiming for something more exaggerated and satiric (though a few people have told me that my depiction of online dating isn’t satiric so much as accurate, which unnerves me a little).
That is a little scary.
Did you listen to the audio version of Version Control? What did you think of January LaVoy’s performance, and did it change how you perceived your story?
I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but I’ve quite liked what I’ve heard. The producer of the audiobook sent me samples of her work beforehand for my approval, and we both agreed that she was the right choice. (She’s particularly good with portraying lots of distinct voices — also, given the amount of dialogue spoken by women in the novel, the producer and I agreed that it would be more pleasing to the ear to have a female narrator occasionally performing men’s voices, rather than a male narrator constantly performing women’s voices.)
I completely agree. I thought January LaVoy was brilliant.
That said, listening to an audiobook recording of one’s own writing can be a strange experience, largely because you know every single word that’s coming in advance and have your own idea of how those words sound. I can find myself analyzing the performance rather than enjoying it. It’s hard for me to appreciate an audiobook of my writing in the same way that a new listener does, at least until enough time has passed after publication for the novel to feel to me as if it was written by someone else.
I know that you like to play video games, especially those that are intellectually stimulating with rich worlds and lots of numbers and stats. What’s your current favorite and why do you like it?
I’m in a period that’s more or less between books (I’m doing research for a third novel, which I’ll start writing in earnest in the next few months), and so I’m catching up on some of the games I missed while writing Version Control. Right now I’m playing XCOM 2, which is growing on me — it’s a bit more difficult than the previous game (which I probably put hundreds of hours into over a few years), but enjoyable once you get used to the faster pace at which the game wants you to play.
A third novel? Will you tell us about it?
My next novel will be a work of historical fiction, set in Georgian England — a big change of pace for me. I’m not ready to say too much about it yet, but I think people who liked my first two novels will also find this one interesting.
I can’t wait. One last question: at Fantasy Literature, we always like to ask if you have any favorite drinks or drink recipes that might be involved in your work somehow (perhaps something your characters drink or that you drink for relaxation, creativity enhancement, etc.). Do you have anything to share?
There is indeed a considerable amount of drinking in Version Control (in fact, too much drinking for at least one character). I imbibe a lot less than those characters do, but I do like to have a glass of bourbon sometimes (Woodford Reserve is a dependable favorite for me right now). And much of my first-draft writing is done in bars, with a beer beside me.
Thanks for chatting with me, Dr. Palmer. I eagerly await your next novel!
Readers, I encourage you to pick up a copy Version Control and I hope you love it as much as I do. As I mentioned, this is my favorite book of 2016 so far.
One commenter with a U.S. address gets a free copy!