Version Control, book review: Who knows where the time goes?

Dexter Palmer's multi-faceted second novel explores life and relationships in the near future, the practice of scientific research, time travel, and more.

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Version Control • By Dexter Palmer • Pantheon Books • ISBN 978-0-307-90759-2 • 495 pages • $27.95

For Rebecca Wright, the protagonist of Dexter Palmer's new novel, Version Control, reality doesn't feel right. Lots of other people feel the same way, she notices, but it's obvious why she might: her only son, Sean, was killed in a car accident two years ago.

Somewhat drunk, she was not-driving their automated car when an escalating many-car crash led the car to ask if she wanted to take the wheel. She knows she shouldn't have, and that having done so she shouldn't have turned right. Left would have saved her son, her physicist husband, Philip Steiner, has explained. Since then, she has given up drinking, and works at home a few hours a day in customer service -- really, selling enhanced packages rather than solving problems -- for the Lovability dating site where she met Philip. The financial practices of this data-driven site are as meticulously and cold-bloodedly worked out as those of any psychic hotline scam.

The not-quite-rightness and the title serve notice that there's an analogy brewing between life and software. When you change the story you tell yourself about your past, Palmer observes, you change your identity in the present. The analogy is underlined by Philip's work: he is doggedly, and perhaps futilely, trying to build a 'causality violation device', funded by the kind of people who hand over a phone number and say, "Call if something really weird happens". Convened to watch a TV piece about their work, Philip's lab scientists all watch as if it were a developing trainwreck. No...don't...don't call it...it's not...they called it: a time machine.

As Palmer muses (and there's a lot of room for musings in 500 pages), time travel is defined for many people by Ray Bradbury's 1952 short story A Sound of Thunder, in which a careless time-travelling tourist kills a butterfly. On return to the present, he finds a disturbingly altered world controlled by a totalitarian dictatorship. Philip's group instead creates 'Point Zero', the fixed end of a wormhole in space-time that the scientists hope to use as a conduit to the present -- a physical recovery point analogous to a Windows restore point. They turn it on and...nothing happens. Palmer's presentation of the world of scientific research is one of the best things about this book. Failure, as he shows, is essential to doing science, no matter how much Philip hates living through the reality.

Socially challenged

Philip can't help reminding you of The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper. His social awareness needs improvement, his device is increasingly an obsession, he documents his most private thoughts as comments in his computer code, and when Rebecca is the only woman to write back on Lovability he is doggedly insistent until she marries him. Rebecca herself, like her friends, lacks that intensely focused life direction; it takes her generation some years back in their parents' homes to develop adult lives after finishing their university degrees. In the book's near-future, today's cutting-edge research has become consumer products. Palmer's social observations are particularly sharp when Rebecca spends some months visiting the 'old world' in which fully present people spoke to each other instead of their screens. Only the poor and the trapped live there now.

In writing this book, Palmer could have been eavesdropping on the annual We Robot conference, where lawyers convene to hash out legal aspects of robotics and AI. As Rebecca's lawyer explains, automated vehicles complicated liability in accidents because there were so many suppliers and service providers that might be at fault, including surrounding drivers who hacked their cars because DRM was prohibiting them from playing their favourite windshield game. All that stopped when the human took over, a scenario We Robot founder Michael Froomkin called "all too real" at this year's conference. By touching the wheel, Rebecca became the sole blamant for her own destiny. Whether you see that as tragedy or comedy depends on how you prune the story.

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