Version Control by Dexter Palmer (book review)

January 24, 2017 | By | Reply More

Dexter Palmer’s novel ‘Version Control’ is densely written. You get a lot of detail and in the opening chapters even product placement that would make a film studio blush. It isn’t until a quarter of the way through the book that you get some discussion on time travel which is accurate to what we know. The key element being that you have to move in space as well as time to go back to some distant event. Considering how fast the universe is expanding, you can also extend from that a limitation of how far you can go back is probably less than a day. It’s a shame that there is no explanation hoe, no matter how pseudo, this was beaten further down the line considering the energy needs required.

When romance hits Rebecca Wright with physicist Philip Steiner, you do have to wonder why until it dawns on you that this is the equivalent of a Big Bang romance without the humour. No, there is a reference to some humour but it doesn’t come out in the text. I’m not even sure if Palmer is geeky. He gives Steiner a silver case boxset of ‘Blade Runner’, something I actually own, and has him dissect one of the film versions to Rebecca, who should clearly run away from the man.

As a reviewer, I keep reading on, wondering when the actual story is going to start. The other is a problem of giving so much dense detail about events is that when something major happens, like the car accident Rebecca has, it lacks emotional impact. The same applies with her alcoholism. You can’t tell the difference between sober and drunk which tends to be another indicator of lack of emotional content. Palmer might be writing as if his novel belongs on the non-genre shelves but this lacking can’t be caught in detail, it needs variation in text and certainly dialogue. This isn’t helped by them all having similar voices and intellect and that includes the guards at the lab.

Oh, the term ‘Version Control’ is the beginning point for where time travel begins but is just starting a clock really and a bit of an anti-climax although likely to mirror what would probably happen in our reality. The result of this is Steiner’s university grant funding is somewhat curtailed although DARPA funding thinks something might one day come out of it and pays instead.

In some respects, when the time travel device is used, it’s practically anti-climatic and might actually be like that in real life. Neither the traveller or the reality knows or notices the difference. The reader does but you have to work it out for yourself but one event changes significantly. Without wishing to get too spoiler on this nexus, the problem with the death involved is that it still continues to have that lack of emotional content. The people involved just continue on as if nothing has happened and I don’t think that has anything to do with the time travel aspect. The problem with giving every last detail, including how Rebecca limits how much milk she adds to her cereal, is that emotional content ensures an element of care for the characters. The fact it is lacking is a big worry. Does author Palmer think SF readers like this or thinks we don’t care?

One of the other characters, Carson, is brought briefly into play and only then as a means to acknowledge he is black and a failed writer because he wrote SF and not about black issues at a university writing class before majoring in science. I do have to wonder if Palmer was asked to put something of this sort into the book and was it based off personal experience. SF hasn’t got many significant SF black authors although the likes of Samuel Delaney and the late Octavia Butler made their mark in the genre without having to rely on the race issue.

There are logic jumps where Steiner leaves his notes inside the time machine software and two scientists mentioned earlier in the book are clearly not noted, especially as they are working on a rival project but who know about it.

Stripping away the superficial detail the plot is hidden away under, the story is more about how time travel creates alternative realities but with only one nexus point difference. Even the less experienced SF reader would be able to point out that even from one point, it would be like a stone being thrown into water with more significant things changing along the way. With Palmer’s detailed writing, he had the opportunity to explore but ignore this. Would even the intelligence services attitude to a having a viable time machine be the same for each reality?

I’m being careful not to be too spoiler here but to leave Rebecca out of the final ‘Coda’ seems odd as I’m sure the reader would want to know what happened to her now she’s clearly in a reality not her own.

Taking the book in its entirety, I can’t help feel that Dexter Palmer wants to show he can write SF in the style of general fiction but it is swamped out the very thin SF plot which could have been covered in quarter of the time or given a better service. I think he needs to decide which genre he really belongs to. The geeky touches don’t even flatter or pander to what he sees as an SF fan, especially as the story is set in a modern day setting. It’s almost as though he’s put them in to nudge that book is in our genre and this is something for us guys and gals.

This doesn’t mean Palmer shouldn’t be read and I suspect once he sorts out some of the issues I found above, he’s bound to get a following but, for the present, I see him more as work in progress.

GF Willmetts

January 2017

(pub: Vintage Books. 495 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $16.95 (US), $22.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-10-307-95035-2)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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