“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger… And it is more interesting.” ~Stuart Firestein
Dexter Palmer’s Version Control is my kind of science fiction. I loved every moment of this book. The story is set in the near future and focuses on Rebecca Wright and her small circle of family and friends. Rebecca, who drinks wine at breakfast and works from home as a customer service agent for an online matchmaking company called Lovability, is married to Philip, an ambitious physicist. Early on we realize that the couple has recently suffered a tragedy that affects their relationship. Rebecca’s best friend Kate is a slightly unstable woman who has an on-again off-again relationship with Carson, a postdoc in Philip’s lab. Alicia, another postdoc, seems abrasive and intimidating to Rebecca and Kate. Each of these characters is deeply explored and richly portrayed.
A couple of minor characters — security guards named Terrence and Spivey who stand at attention outside Philip’s lab — are given just as much authorial attention to detail. Terrence would prefer to spend his time reading Octavia Butler, but he’s forced to listen to Spivey’s constant chattering about racism and his diabetic sister. Terrence and Spivey could entertain me for hours and I could happily spend several more hours listening to Rebecca field complaints from her customers at Lovability. I usually have little tolerance for characters who stand around chatting, but Dexter Palmer’s insights into human nature, which are depicted through his characters’ thoughts and dialogue, were so fascinating, ironic, and humorous, that I didn’t want them to stop.
You might be wondering why there are security guards outside Philip’s lab. It’s because Philip, Carson, and Alicia are working on a “Causation Violation Device.” (Please do not call it a time machine; they hate that.) They’ve been working on this project for years. They think they’ve got the theory down and that it’s just a matter of programming, but they don’t have the code quite right… Or do they?
Dexter Palmer uses the Time Machine trope, Multiverse Theory, and the Butterfly Effect to explore several facets of the human experience, most notably how we change over time and how seemingly very small events change the course (or “version”) of our lives. Palmer gives us a glimpse of how profoundly we may be affected by a change in even one of our myriad tiny daily choices and how our personal histories make us into the person we are today. Thus, there are different possible versions of our selves depending on which paths we take in life or chance (?) events that happen to us. But at the same time, there are already multiple versions of our selves when we present ourselves differently to the various people we interact with. And perhaps there are even different versions depending on how different people perceive or remember us. Related topics that Palmer made me think about include free will, politics, religion, racism, sexism, relationships, and technology. These are serious topics that Palmer explores with engaging open-mindedness and a sense of absurdity. I love Palmer’s sense of humor. Here’s Rebecca thinking about a guy she met at Lovability (before she met Philip):
And though he said he thought she was cool, he didn’t say why: he gave no real sign that he’d even read her profile in the first place. This might be a batch message, like so many others. But it was so well written: it was amazing to her that she’d come so quickly to find proper grammar and spelling to be a turn-on, but here she was. Look at that properly nested series of punctuation marks after “don’t hate me.” That’s hot. Look at that semicolon! Bradley might have been the first guy to message her who’d used a semicolon.
Palmer’s setting has some wonderful little futuristic elements — self-driving cars that cause problems when software updates are not applied universally, communication devices that allow the U.S. president to talk to every American citizen individually and simultaneously, nanobots that have military applications, and Big Data dress shopping (I can’t wait for that).
I was constantly impressed by Dexter Palmer’s ability to write about physics. Palmer is an academic, but his doctoral degree is in English Literature. It doesn’t at all surprise me that he understands the physics he writes about, how the scientific method works, how scientists are more interested in what they don’t know than what they know, or how they fail much more often than they succeed. What surprises me is that he has a real feel for the culture of a physics laboratory — how scientists interact with each other (mentors, students, and colleagues), how they attempt to appear well-rounded, how they tend to be a bit arrogant, how they are apt to be very precise when speaking with colleagues. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he’d spent his grad school days in a lab. (I’ll be asking him about this in an upcoming interview.)
Version Control is powerful and moving. I cried at the end. This novel hit all the right buttons for me — rich, entertaining characters, mind-blowing plot, new ideas, a wonderfully dry sense of humor, an emotional connection to the reader, and meaningful thoughts about the world we live in. Version Control will definitely be on my “Best of 2016” list and I fully expect it to be in the top slot.
And, just in case you thought this review couldn’t get more effusive, let me tell you about the audio version. It is A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Actress January LaVoy is the narrator of Penguin Random House Audio’s version and I do not believe I’ve ever been so impressed with an audio performance. LaVoy handles the diverse cast with ease — intimidating female physicist, race-conscious African-American male bodyguard, hard-bitten female flirt, upset customers of Lovability. When plot twists require LaVoy to suddenly change strategies, she pivots like a politician and continues to stay spot-on, delivering a stunning performance. Thanks to her narration and Palmer’s exquisite characterization, I always felt like I was listening to real people. The audiobook, which is 19 hours long, is a wonderful experience.