Review: Version Control, Dexter Palmer

What a weird, weird book. It reminded me a little of Nick Harkaway with the quills retracted (does that metaphor work? do porcupines retract their quills ever?). Version Control is a time travel novel with very little time travel, a story about humanity and loss from whose human characters I felt distant, a novel of ideas that sometimes made me think brand new thoughts and sometimes made me feel very tired of humanity (although not in the way the author maybe intended).

Version Control

Philip Wright has not built a time machine. It’s a causality violation device, and so far it has always had null results. His wife, Rebecca, works for a dating service called Lovability that is monumentally successful at reducing people down to data points and matching them up with the data-driven correct mates. They are recovering from a tragedy, and Rebecca can’t shake the feeling that the world isn’t quite what it was supposed to be. It’s nothing to do with the time machine. It’s a causality violation device, anyway.

Version Control takes a very, very long time to get to its premise. I was warned about this, so I bore with it to get to the pay-off, and in fact I think the pay-off was worth it: Dexter Palmer has a take on time travel and its paradoxes that I don’t think I’ve ever seen done before. When the characters finally unravel (ish) the central mystery of the book and attain (ish) a resolution, it felt eminently satisfying.

On a character note, eh, not so much. It wasn’t exactly that Rebecca and Philip and Alicia and Carson and Kate were paper dolls in service of a novel of ideas, but they didn’t feel like real people, either. Actually! They felt very similar to how Rebecca felt about the world in general: Similar in most respects to what people would be like, but somehow not quite there. Maybe this was intentional on the author’s part, but it’s not my preference — I like to read stories about people who have conversations, not people who perpetually exchange monologues, and I particularly like to read about people who admire and like each other, the way virtually nobody in this book seemed to. I was always very aware that the book wanted to get across ideas more than it wanted to write about humans.

A mixed bag, then, but a very worthwhile one.

Agree or disagree: Time travel is always more trouble than it’s worth and we should 100% stay when we’re at, even if someone we know has built a time travel machine.

  • Jeanne

    This post is designed to attract me, from the Harkaway comparison at the beginning to the broad stance on an idea based on reading at the end!
    I disagree. People who are content to stay where they’re at in the presence of something like a time machine are like people who have an ultrasound and say they don’t want to know the sex of the baby. I have no patience for people who are content not to know stuff they could know.

    • NONSENSE. Nonnnnnnnnnnnsense. I would absolutely want to know the sex of the baby, because that allows me to better plan my life. I would want to know when and how I’m going to die for the same reason. Time travel, by contrast, is a BAD RISK. If it were a simple question of acquiring knowledge yes/no, obviously I’d do it, but the thing with time travel is that it’s not just about gaining knowledge. Your time travel actions have consequences that not only can’t you *control,* you also have absolutely no way to *predict,* and that’s a bad risk in the same way piloting a plane without ever taking flying lessons is a bad risk. Down with time travel. I WILL DIE ON THIS HILL.

      (also, yes, you should read this! I think it’s more a you book than a me book.)

      • Jeanne

        I will read it.
        Also, I want to go to the future. I’ve read All You Zombies (and seen the movie version, entitled Predestination). What else do I need to know? la, la, la…

        • Jeanne

          I keep going on about this book (and I will probably never quit). I’m so glad you brought it to my attention!!!
          One thing I slightly disagree with you about is the characters–although I can see what you mean about them, they seem very true to life in one important way–they’re all seen from the perspective of an academic. What is important about them is what they’re thinking, whether that’s consistent, and how the way they think about someone else affects that other person.
          If you don’t think that’s true to life, you haven’t been in an email conversation with the steering committee of a local political group that includes a number of serious responses to the plea to “think about not connecting our work on Sat. with the religious/Christan holiday on Sunday—-I am not a Christian, and while my “ethic” may be somehow religious-spiritual, my participation is completely secular. So, if Easter remains part of our/your understanding of Signs on the Square for Saturday, I’ll remain on the sideline that day.” I mean yes, distinctions are important, but they can sometimes mean the death of actually moving any ideas forward.
          So it is with the characters in this book–the intellectuals are so busy teasing out possible meanings that they don’t see the breakthrough as soon as the adjunct type (that’s how I think of her, anyway–a person with a part-time job…).

      • anna

        I feel like I’m on board with time travel to the future but not to the past.

  • MumsyNK

    I would time travel. I know it’s completely irresponsible, but I’m afraid my curiosity would overcome everything else. But Jeanne, you are so wrong linking sex of baby knowledge to time travel! I loved not knowing the sex of the my babies. Nine months of weaving imaginary scenarios was nothing but fun for me.

    • JeanPing

      Yep, I’m also in the unable-to-resist category. I want to know what’s on the other end of that tunnel! I would be sooooo careful, I wouldn’t mess anything up! (said in pleading voice of a 6yo who then runs out into traffic)

      • Wait wait, Jean, but are you a baby’s-sex-finder-outer? Because I think it’s interesting that my mum and I have exactly opposite views on the baby-sex-finding-out and the time traveling.

        • JeanPing

          Oh, I am absolutely a baby’s-sex-finder-outer. If I CAN know it, I want to know! I found out with both of my girls.

  • I definitely agree that we should skip the time travel. Like, they didn’t have tampons and running water and flush toilets if you go very far back. And who knows what could be in the future but probably best not to know. I think I’ll pass on this book, it’s just so big and I’ve seen a few meh reviews now.

    • I know! Don’t you think it would be too terrifying a responsibility to know what the future held? I’d feel such a responsibility to try and prevent anything bad that I found out was supposed to happen.

      • Plus what if you went back in time and it BROKE and then you’d be stuck there forever because they don’t have the parts O_O. And yes the future might be terrifying or it might be amazing but either way knowing would suck!

    • Care

      I’m with Amy on the best most awesome thing about what we have NOW is modern plumbing. (Pls Trump, don’t take that away from me.) But also to Amy, there are some rather interesting race and gender discussions in this book that Jenny here doesn’t mention but the TOB does… just sayin’.

  • I think I’d be willing to time travel the way it’s done in a Connie Willis novel, with rules to keep you out of trouble and such. Then again, the rules don’t always work so well, but they typically work well enough that history doesn’t get wrecked. It would be educational, but with risks that will only affect me. I’m pretty risk-averse, but the curiosity in that situation might be too much.

    However, I would *not* want to time travel in the way it works in this book because I wouldn’t be able to enjoy having time traveled and learned things. This kind of time travel only works if you’re absolutely sure you’re in the worst possible timeline, and even then there’s the whole question of worst for who?

    And now my head hurts. Maybe it is too much trouble.

    Anyway, I’m glad you liked this! I really, really loved it and actually thought the characters were pretty realistic, if not generally likable. Plus, I’ve gone through periods where I mostly just fell into friendships with the people who were around, rather than people I genuinely liked. Some of the relationships here felt like that.

    • Hahaha, oh man, I think we’ve all gone through phases where we just befriended who was nearby. And I did appreciate the section early in the novel where the girls’ night group falls apart because the girls in question got married. There were parts I liked, but just overall it wasn’t quite my thing.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I have this on my library list. I enjoy a good time travel book though I’m with you, I’d never do it.

  • I think this book would be perfect for me. Everyone seems to enjoy it but there is always a lack of enthusiasm about it when they discuss it – no matter how much they profess their enjoyment/love for it. That makes me hesitate to read it.

    I think time travel would be interesting. I sort of want to see what other periods were like – even while knowing that I am perfectly okay in this modern world of ours. Maybe I like the idea of time travel more than the experience of it?

    • Maybe if I could time travel quietly? If I could be a transparent eyeball, like Ralph Waldo Emerson says! Time travel but affect nothing! That would be ideal.

  • Time travel is trouble but idgaf; if I spy a time travel machine, I’m taking that thing for a spin!

  • Alley

    What if there was a time machine where you could just watch history without interacting with it? Like the pensieve. I’d be down for that time travel since it’s less likely to destroy the world.

  • Care

    These comments have inspired me to attempt to remember a fun ice-breaker convo idea! Would you rather time travel or know-sex-of-yet-unborn-baby? I am a YES to time travel, NO to knowing sex of baby before birth. That’s me.