Every year, there’s at least one novel that catches me unawares for how much I love, and for which I wind up being an un-shut-up-able evangelist. This year, that novel is Dexter Palmer’s fantastic, fiercely smart, mind-bendingly fun novel, Version Control.
This 500-page story is brimming with ideas — about technology, authenticity, race, loyalty, causality, history, science, Big Data, and yes, even time travel. It’s fascinating and fun and heartbreaking and hilarious and all of the other things that make great fiction great.
So the deal is this: Rebecca and Phillip are a mostly average middle class, middle-aged couple. She works for an online dating service, spending her days trying to upsell poor dateless saps to the Platinum level. He’s a physicist who has spent the last decade or so working on what he calls a “causality violation device.” Yes, what this really is is a time machine, but you won’t confuse this thing with any time machine in, say, H.G. Wells or even Stephen King — the only goal here, with the physics to back it up, is to send a robot back to a pre-established Point Zero, have it stay there for an hour, and return with evidence (a clock that’s an hour off) that it’s worked. Sadly, it doesn’t work, and Phillip’s once-promising career is flagging.
And so we spend the first several hundred pages hanging with Philip and Rebecca, and their friends. We get the couple’s backstory, how they met, how Phillip got into physics, etc. When Palmer is focused on plot, and building affinity for his characters, he’s really entertaining. But where he’s at his best is when he’s mixing in frequent and profoundly insightful ruminations on things like Kant’s categorical imperative, our relationship with technology, how we are not the sum whole of what all the parts of our data say about us, and much, much more. All through this novel, I kept thinking, “Man, I wish David Foster Wallace was still around to see this. He would’ve LOVED this book.”
But really, the less you know about what happens plotwise after the “getting to know you” phase, the better off you are, and the richer your reading experience will be. Just know things happen you won’t expect and you’ll have to put down the book, think hard, and go “wow.”
This is truly a novel that deserves a wider readership. I was as totally engrossed by it as I was in awe of how smart it is, and how Palmer uses so many different elements of our modern world (even though this is set 10 years or so in the future) to explore his themes. I really loved it — a definite candidate for favorite of the year.
(This post originally appeared on my blog, The New Dork Review of Books.)