I’ve started and set aside several books in the last couple of weeks in what was starting to seem like a futile quest for a really good story. I very nearly decided to give up my intention to read as many Tournament of Books contenders as possible and just turn someone I could count on the give me a good story. But then I picked up Version Control by Dexter Palmer and was caught up in it.
Rebecca Wright, the main character in the novel, is married to a scientist named Philip Steiner who is working on something called a causality violation device (not a time machine!). She drinks too much and is uneasy about what’s happening in the world around her. She’s grieving the death of her son, and her husband is buried in his work. And then… events ensue. (There’s a
time machine causality violation device involved, so the nature of the events should be no surprise, although the details may be.)
The first half of the book is mostly uneventful. It’s a lot of set-up, but I enjoyed getting to know the characters and situation too much to be bothered. The world of the book is in our near future. Self-driving cars are the norm, the president can pop onto our screens to talk to us anytime he pleases (shudder), and kids are given customized lessons on tablets at school. It’s just different enough to feel futuristic, but not so different as to feel implausible. And Philip’s scientific work is as much about tedious trying and trying again as it is about making big discoveries. We get the story not just of Rebecca and Philip’s daily life but also the history of their courtship and eventual marriage. They’re an odd pair, but I found their story pretty sweet, even though I’m not sure I could deal with really being close to either of them.
Once the big events ensue, we see how different experiences change and don’t change who people essentially are. Rebecca still drinks a lot, her friend Kate still has a fractious romance with Philip’s colleague Carson, and the guards at the lab still muse over what time travel really is. Yet everything has changed.
The book is jam-packed with characters who like to talk about big ideas. Rebecca’s father, a Unitarian minister, has regular debates about God with Philip. Kate and Carson both muse to friends about whether Kate is secretly or subconsciously racist and therefore unable to live happily in her relationship with Carson, a black man. And Rebecca’s colleagues at Lovability, the online dating service, discuss to what extent their clients are people vs. bits of data. Some of this may come across as false to some readers, but to me, it felt realistic. Not everyone talks about this stuff openly, but some people do. And Palmer avoids turning these discussions into places where he can drum into readers his own ideas regarding these issues. They’re part of the fabric of the world and worth considering, for the characters and us as readers.
I’m still mulling over whether the actual resolution of the plot really works. Is the world the novel ends up with the right one? How can we know? What makes a world the right one? There’s also a lot of scientific talk about transfer of matter and causality that sounds good—good enough for me to shrug, accept, and keep reading. How realistic the science is doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that it’s a good story with some interesting ideas. On that front, it delivers.