Until now, I’ve never had so much difficulty writing about something I absolutely loved. But in the case of Dexter Palmer’s Version Control (2016), I suppose that’s only thematically fitting. Imagining all the different ways this review could go, faced with infinite possibilities, I’ve been afflicted by a paralysis of choice. Well, I’ve finally found my way into the review, so I guess you’ll have to settle for it—meaning, the review I wrote in this reality. But I’m sure the versions I wrote in alternate timelines are similarly effusive, because this is a magnificent science fiction novel.
Version Control enlivens a pair of classic SF tropes—time travel and alternate worlds—with an inventive, insightful near-future backdrop. It chronicles the experiences of Rebecca Wright, a woman whose marriage to quirky physicist Philip has been challenged by a tragedy from which she’s still recovering. The day-after-tomorrow scenario Rebecca lives in is a vivid, next-gen iteration of our present, where technological change has blurred the very nature of reality. It’s a world rife with shifty social networking interactions, artificial intelligence constructs so real they almost pass for human, and world-shaping statistical manipulation by the Big Data industry. That’s one layer of the “versioning” going on in the novel’s metatext, but there’s also Philip’s experiment: the creation of a “causality violation” device, which may be subtly, strangely revising history. While it doesn’t appear that Philip’s time travel experiments are working at first, there may be more going on than can be perceived…and it’s Rebecca who may ultimately be the unlikely key to proving Philip’s theories and revealing the true nature of the multiverse.
Version Control is one of those huge, heavy novels full of robust paragraphs, and it looks like a daunting read, but I practically flew through it on the strength of its humor, heart, sharp insight, and nifty concepts. Palmer populates his narrative with tangents and digressions and color, largely in the name of exploring ideas and theme. This will no doubt read as over-writing to certain readers. I’m not one of them: the well-drawn characters and their involved conversations, set against this eye-poppingly imagined futuristic backdrop, are highly entertaining and often fascinating, so much so I learned to trust Palmer’s instincts whenever he wandered away from the beats of his greater plot. As the early sections of the novel, which code like a Black Mirror-esque reflection on the world-shaping technological challenges of our present, give way to the latter stages, where the causality violation premise becomes mind-bendingly literal, Palmer’s grand strategy pays off. This isn’t a novel strictly about fraught decision points and major life changes; it’s also about the day-to-day, about simply getting through, about wonder and and regret and hope and fear and potential. Life is full of speculation on past decisions and future outcomes, and that theme is encoded into Version Control‘s winding, thoughtful passages, its quiet moments, and its “throwaway” scenes. The cumulative effect is remarkably thought-provoking.
Science fictionally, the minutiae is just as engaging as the high-concept, sense of wonder premise. Palmer’s future is a compelling blend of just-around-the-corner speculation and Philip K. Dickian irreality, which would have been more than enough to sell me. But this is also a novel about the past, and about now…the novel is concerned, much as the characters are, with fear and hope and possibility. This creates a a powerful, dramatic resonance—a nice bonus, layered as it is atop neat skiffy details, witty humor, likable characters, and heartfelt sentiment. Version Control was, for me, an impulse purchase that practically leaped off the shelf into my hands, and I pity the alternate versions of myself who didn’t get to read it, because it’s an absolute triumph.