Technology in the early twenty-first century is changing our lives — the way we do tasks; how we interact with friends; how we meet potential partners. The rise of Big Data, assisted by our willingness to offer up our daily minutiae to large companies in in our ever connected world lets them know more about us than we do about ourselves, and readily exploit that knowledge. It is not so much this world, in its relative infancy, that forms the backdrop to Dexter Palmer’s Version Control (2016), so much as further along the path, perhaps twenty years hence, where the Instagram generation are approaching their forties. A near-future where autonomous cars zip along the streets and clothes shops just use your social media statistics to select your perfect fit. Goodbye, changing rooms!
Our primary focus in this world is Rebecca, a part-time operative at Loveability, a latter-day match.com, who has been feeling “a certain subtle wrongness” with the world. Her husband, Philip, doesn’t share her concerns; in fact he doesn’t see the world in the same way. His focus is almost completely on his laboratory where, surround by his small team, he wastes all hours of the day working on his causality violation device, a project he wishes others didn’t call a time machine. That these two met at all is curious, given the toe-curling introduction he makes on the aforementioned dating site, showing him inflexible at changing his tone from academic papers to flirting:
The whole package, with the formality of his introduction and the weirdness of the accompanying videos, was so bizarre that it was doomed to failure — his admitted handsomeness aside, it was hard to see how any woman could read that note, and watch the lecture and the unaccompanied drum solo, and be attracted to this guy.
Yet, somehow, Philip (“clearly guileless and unguarded and unembarrassed”) is the winner of Rebecca’s heart from a field of online players. Their subsequent narrative traverses time, leaping back and forward between the now and then, padding out their histories and introducing a further circle of characters drawn from personal and professional relationships, though all roads eventually converge on the laboratory and the causality violation device.
In spite of the seeming complexity of Philip’s device, the science fiction elements of the story are eased into, with most touches being passing references to near-future ways of life, such as insect protein bars (and shakes) and touchscreen restaurants, that are certainly already in contemporary existence but perhaps not commonplace to still be unusual. The device itself is little more than a MacGuffin that allows Palmer to spin his story off a single incident and present a triptych of alternative timelines. Such a device, and the discussion of its possibility, is grandiose, although Palmer ensures that by focusing a relatively mundane situation it is easily understandable.
Across the tapestry woven there is much given over to the exploration of ideas. The balance of religion and science, epitomised by Rebecca’s father and husband respectively; or that of cold hard facts versus creativity between, again, Philip and his son, Sean. Gender and Race are also prominent, brought about by the lack of diversity within scientific circles — pale, stale, and male — and also in the experience of relationships, explored within the online dating scenarios tapped from Rebecca’s job. One black scientist, recalling his creative writing days before moving into physics, reflects on his attitude to race (“excruciatingly uninteresting”) against others’, and is perhaps a pre-emptive strike from Palmer on how to approach his work of fiction —
The message was clear: that while the work of Corey’s white students would be take at face value, whatever Carson turned in was doomed to be read through the lens of his race. If the story was not explicitly about race, then the tale would instead be of his reluctance to speak on the one subject that, surely, must occupy all his walking thoughts.
— when the approach would be different when dealing in other areas:
No one would look at a published scientific article and comment with a sorrowful shake of the head about its author’s reluctance to confront issues of identity. The author would merely relay the results obtained from the data; the data, which knew neither race nor gender nor any other demographic, would be free to speak for itself.
Yes, what really concerns Palmer is the nature of data in the new information age, how it’s used, and the dangers inherent. One one level data is a democratising force, everything being a series of zeroes and ones, but at the same time it’s the data that captures us within demographics. As we move into the future defined in Version Control, there are powers out there able to exploit us based on the data we give up freely. The routes we take in our autonomous cars; our parameters for online love; every video watched; every post made online; or status update liked. All this manifests itself in the regular on-screen appearances of the President, who regularly interjects himself into peoples’ lives, like a high-tech Clippit, his comments always tailored to their concerns — be it in handling bereavement or giving tips for home baking — in an emotional manipulation that offers hope for everyone in the nation.
The ideas are all solid enough, but where the novel really struggles to engage is in their presentation. Admittedly the adage of show, don’t tell can only go so far when trying to get complex information across, but rather than drip feed we get long passages of expository dialogue to get us up to speed.
“First, the idea of the multiverse is essentially the fantasy of preserving perfect information. One of the hard things to deal with in life is the fact that you destroy potential information whenever you make a decision. You could even say that’s essentially what regret is: a profound problem of incomplete information. If you select one thing on a dinner menu, you can’t know what it would be like to taste other things on it, right then, right there. “
Version Control concerns itself with all possible worlds but Palmer’s prose feels more like all possible words; each page is a slough of text that leaves no detail to the imagination. Brand names, songs, and social networks come and go: it’s all too much world building for something almost exactly our own. The novel could arguably be slimmed to half its five hundred pages to give it some zip, as it’s extremely dull to wade through. Plus, paired with characters that are neither interesting or engaging, Version Control saps goodwill, thus turning the final page gives a sense of achievement over satisfaction. That said, the final coda see’s Palmer’s writing at its most energetic: the pace picks up, the more purple prose packed away. But along the way there is too much overwriting, such as when an angry babysitter, on Rebecca’s return three hours late, is shown “tapping the place on her wrist where a watch would have been in an earlier century.” or when what is set up like a Chekhovian gun is later found to have been firing blanks.
Throughout the novel there are references to Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s perhaps fun to consider Version Control as some sort of loose template placed over the Odysseus myth, casting Steiner as the journeyman, lost for years in his work. Rebecca, her fidelity to the absent Steiner while her job sees her directly interacting with suitors in online dating has shades of Penelope, caught between her father’s man of God and husband’s man of science. Telemachus finds himself boxed in the body of their son, Sean, an artist as a young man. Joycean it’s not however, and it feels like ten years have passed in plowing through the book, rather than a single Bloomsday.
As a light science fiction, Version Control easily presents its alternative world but struggles at times with presenting smoothly its weightier concepts. Palmer allows himself to travel along all narrative roads to see where they lead and, in doing so, this version is rendered overlong and, in places, sluggish. Maybe there are other versions – less incomplete, more edited – for the story here could, quite simply, do beta.