Book Review: Version Control, Dexter Palmer (2016)

February 22nd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Intelligent and provocative; as much about humans & our institutions as the space-time continuum.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through Edelweiss. There’s a clearly marked, mild spoil warning near the end of this review.)

The compelling story of a couple living in the wake of a personal tragedy. She is a star employee of an online dating company, while he is a physicist, performing experiments that, if ever successful, may have unintended consequences, altering the nature of their lives—and perhaps of reality itself.

Rebecca Wright has gotten her life back, finding her way out of grief and depression following a personal tragedy years ago. She spends her days working in customer support for the Internet dating site where she first met her husband. However, she has a persistent, strange sense that everything around her is somewhat off-kilter: she constantly feels as if she has walked into a room and forgotten what she intended to do there; on TV, the President seems to be the wrong person in the wrong place; and each night she has disquieting dreams that may or may not be related to her husband Philip’s pet project. Philip’s decade-long dedication to the causality violation device (which he would greatly prefer you do not call a “time machine”) has effectively stalled his career and made him a laughingstock in the physics community. But he may be closer to success than either of them knows or imagines . . .

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Version Control is a difficult book to review, if only because it’s so damn smart: complex, richly layered, and filled with nuance. The time travel sure complicates matters – if a character travels back in time and picks at a thread that undoes his very existence, how does he go back in time to begin with?; paradoxes, yo! – but the real backbone of this story is Palmer’s insight into humans and our relationships with one another.

To be perfectly frank, there was more than one moment, early on, when I nearly gave up on Rebecca and Philip (or, perhaps more to the point, Philip’s causality violation device; he’d greatly prefer you not call it a “time machine,” okay). The story starts out very slow, with Palmer going off on multiple, seemingly unrelated tangents. While his writing is both skilled and lovely – Palmer has an especial knack for explaining complex scientific concepts in a way that’s easily accessible to the layperson – I was itching for action: this is supposed to be a book about time travel, is it not? While the plot unfolds with the speed of molasses, unfold it does; things escalate rather quickly once you hit the second act. Hang in there; your patience will be rewarded tenfold, I promise!

While it was the time travel aspect that initially drew me to the story (and eventually captured my imagination), ultimately it was Palmer’s astute cultural observations and social critiques that won me over. He tackles a multitude of social issues, armed with keen insight and a wry sense of humor: the politics (and business) of science; the effect of technology on social interaction; racism and sexism in academia; racial identity and black authenticity; the perils of online dating; microaggressions; alcoholism; the scourge of mansplaining; grief and the performance of bereavement; food deserts; big business and Big Data; and the continued erosion of privacy, from both private and public sectors.

Some of my favorite scenes involve the President’s interruption of our protagonists’ everyday activities, such as dinner out or phone calls with family members, to butt in under the guise of providing helpful, personally tailored advice. (“Muriel Fox, from the great state of Utah: you definitely want to use bleached flour for your angel food cake, not unbleached.”)

Ditto: Rachel’s foray into a barren shopping mall in search of a party dress. Instead of trying garments on in the fitting room, the store’s cameras surreptitiously take her measurements, so that the computer system can recommend a few dresses specially specifically selected for her body. Even as I shuddered in disgust, I could also see the allure of such a system. The nerve! The convenience! (Clothes shopping, yuck!)

Palmer is also quick with pop culture references – everything from Octavia Butler (Parables FTW!) to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Jill Swing merit a mention. These familiar anchors – coupled with a plethora of technological advances, such as self-driving cars and robotic lab assistants – confuse the reader’s sense of time and place: is this our world, a few decades in the future, or another version of Earth entirely?

I also love how Palmer tells the story from the disparate perspectives of a wide range of characters (some of them seemingly minor). Every time you think have a handle on a character – her personality, motivations, etc. – insight from another observer threatens to upend your judgments. And then a third POV will send you right back to square one!

That said, I’m not a huge fan of the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, so suffice it to say that this particular flavor of self-sacrifice leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Also, it sticks in ye old craw to see two people who behaved so horribly end up together, and happily so.

** spoiler alert **

(To be fair, this was in alternate timelines; and perhaps the point is that they were meant to be together all along, and it was the feeling of wrongness that caused them to … misbehave. But this interpretation absolves them of all responsibility for their actions, which seems a little too generous for me. Also, I don’t think it’s so cut and dried; Alicia’s attitude toward Sean tacks a niggling little question mark onto the “final” version of history.)

** end spoiler alert **

As hard as Version Control is to review, it’s even harder to rate: while I loved the bulk of it, a few minor issues in the beginning and the end compelled me to dock it a star. Reluctantly so, since this is a book I’m sure talk up to strangers in the coming year.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Rebecca suffers from alcoholism and sometimes drinks so heavily that she experiences blackouts. It’s implied that her mother and best friend Kate are alcoholics as well. Rebecca also struggles with grief after the death of her son Sean. In another version of history, Sean’s pediatrician “regularly hint[s] that he might turn out to be on the spectrum.” After he discovered that his graduate adviser was manipulating his research data, Philip tried to commit suicide. Carson, one of the physicists who works in Dr. Steiner’s lab, is black, as are the security guards Terence and Spivey.

Spivey likes to mess with Carson by “mistakenly” calling him Carlton, after the character played by Alfonso Ribeiro on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Spivey looks down on Carson for ‘acting white.’ He also doesn’t think – and wisely so – that it’s in the best interest of women and black folks to mess with time travel. (As he laid out his argument to Terence – then nose-deep in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower – I found myself silently screaming “KINDRED! KINDRED! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SOMEONE PLEASE MENTION KINDRED!” The main character Dana, a woman of color from 1976, experiences the horrors of slavery firsthand when she’s transported against her will to the antebellum South in order to protect a white ancestor, slave-owning rapist named Rufus. IT WAS RIGHT THERE!)

Gaia Williams, head of Lovability, is “black, though it was hard to say”; or “maybe….Hawaiian or something? Sort of Asian, but not really? Polynesian. Maybe?” Rebecca’s avatar, Marcus, is The Ultimate Black Man; her/his “mark” is Catalina, a middle-aged black woman.

Animal-friendly elements: In the future, people eat meat grown in labs; a fringe religious group lumps this in with time travel as a perversion of God’s laws.


Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply