Published by Pantheon
Publication date: February 23rd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Science Fiction, Suspense
Author Dexter Palmer eases the reader into his new novel Version Control with an unspecified time in the future where we have cool things like cars that drive themselves so that even if your commute is an hour long you can either get work done or sleep. What’s not to love about that? Clothes shopping is hassle-free because sensors scan your body as you walk into a store and once you tell the sales advisor what kind of clothes you need you’re presented with options that you can simply select and purchase—no trying on, no fit problems, no bad dressing room lighting. Beyond that we know that Rebecca Wright feels like something is “off” in the world, but she drinks chardonnay with her morning scrambled eggs. Her husband, Philip, doesn’t understand what’s she’s talking about, but he’s a physicist and he’s got bigger things on his mind. Namely, the causality violation detector he and his team are trying to create. For those of us without a science degree it could be called a time machine, but don’t say that in front of Philip (he hates that term).
Palmer frontloads Version Control with a lot of data, including the fact that the Wright’s have suffered a family tragedy. He also creates a large, eclectic cast whose purpose is unclear and includes Rebecca’s friend Kate, two security guards at the lab, and Rebecca’s father, a Unitarian minister with a sly sense of humor who loves to engage Philip in God vs. science debates. He is one of the novel’s high points. That Philip’s research has gone on for years with no success is a salient point in the novel, but it takes until page 286 for the plot to make its first twist—a not inconsequential time commitment. After that, the pace is uneven with so many pages spent on Philip and Rebecca’s backstories that it’s hard to stay engaged. Also, pages of physics material mean a dedicated interest in the science is warranted.
And yet, Palmer’s social commentary on this future world is marvelous. Rebecca works for an online dating company that has been compiling the data of subscribers for years—to the point that they can clearly identify the groups most likely to fail at a match and how to keep them on the hook. Namely by using technology to prey on their hopes of meeting a dream partner so that they continue to pay larger and larger fees in hopes of meeting this person. The cynicism about corporate America is not unfounded and gives even the most casual internet user reason to think about the copious amounts of self-data we dump into our smart phones, iPads, tablets. In the same way Version Control seduces with the idea of technology that takes decisions out of our hands and makes life easier. Right up until that software fails and only a human reaction can avert disaster. All of that, plus the way Palmer toys with the weighty issues around time travel (beyond the initial ‘wouldn’t that be cool, I’d never have gotten that perm’ desire) and it’s a lot to absorb. Each tangent makes for suspenseful reading (don’t get me started on my favorite—the theory of “multiverse”) but when combined leaves Version Control with the all too real problem of feature creep.
If Big Tobacco’s cunning had once involved dosing brands of cigarettes with particular chemical cocktails so that you’d quickly come to prefer them above all others, and Big Pharma’s talent was convincing people that what they thought were minor inconveniences or unfortunate quirks of character were in fact problems that required medication, then Big Data’s gift, the way it kept itself growing stronger, was in its ability to persuade the majority of people that the unique collection of physical and personality characteristics that they naively referred to as the “self” was in fact made up of a complex matrix of statistical values, too complicated for humans to process but not so hard for computers to comprehend.