This is it. Already. The best book of 2017.
Jenny enticed me, saying that this book is “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?).”
The metaphor does work, because when I looked it up (at National Geographic),
I found out that porcupine quills “detach easily when touched.” They can’t pull them in, but if you get too close, you’re involved.*
I got so involved. From the first image from the main character’s dream (“tomatoes that hung heavy on thorn-laden vines, juicy, icy blue”) and the initial description of her party for her husband’s work group (to view his appearance on “the Pscience! network, one of those half-dozen cable channels that broadcast sensationalist science and nature programs twenty-four hours a day, an endless procession of flashy animated renderings of Jovian orbiters, and experts on supernatural phenomena, and lions tearing out the throats of their prey”), my intellect was pleasurably engaged in what I thought of, at the time, as sorting out the fascinating details about this world of the future from the main character’s descriptions of “a certain subtle wrongness” about her life.
The novel has a first layer, which starts with the description of a world that has a “Pscience! network,” and then the rest of the story builds layers of structure on top, to gradually reveal a new perspective, visible only from the height of the superstructure.
I love the way Palmer reveals information about the characters; these are the kinds of people I know best—smart, driven, and more concerned with ideas and the life of the mind than anything else. Even the main character, Rebecca–whose roles include wife (of a physicist), mother, and part-time employee (of an online dating service)—is more interested in ideas than anyone around gives her credit for (not that I identify with that or anything). She asks the deceptively simple questions, like “what is history made up of, if not people’s lives and stories and memories?”
And I love the way my image of this world gets built up. At first it’s funny and weird:
“If you had never watched that much television, then you might wonder how it was that the President of the United States had found the time to record a video introduction to every program that appeared on every one of the hundreds of available channels—not just a generic twenty-second speech that gave his imprimatur to the program about to commence, but a short monologue that always seemed to be tailored to the program’s subject matter, linking it to some larger political or spiritual meaning. But keen-eyed viewers knew that the President repeated himself: he almost always delivered one of a finite number of canned speeches, perhaps tweaking a word or two in a halfhearted effort at personalization.”
Later in the novel, though, we find out that “these days it was hard to even have a conversation without the President butting in,” which he does on a phone call between Rebecca and her father because “things had gotten really bad in the Dakotas: a member of one or another secessionist faction had actually assassinated North Dakota’s lieutenant governor, which made it lot harder to pretend that these guys were just a bunch of wackos that could be dismissed as crackpots or handled with drones….So for the past couple of weeks the President had been showing up everywhere, on a major PR offensive.”
When I read a novel for the first time I turn down a corner of the page anywhere I find something interesting that I will want to think more about, and usually those are the quotations I write about here. My copy of Version Control, however, has the corner of the page turned down on almost every page; it’s not selection, it’s just the record of my enthusiasm. I had to go back to select a few that I want to share here so you get a feeling for how lovely the thinking and writing are:
“In Dad’s day, when you graduated from a four-year school, you magically found a forty-hour-a-week job that let you take on a mortgage if you wanted. But the paths to success were not so well marked out for Rebecca’s generation, and so with diplomas in hand they returned to their old bedrooms for a period that was part extended adolescence, part premature senescence. The period did not have a name, because to name it would be to acknowledge its existence, which would in turn lead to an admission of failure—of the promise of higher education, or of methods of parenting, or of such vague concepts as the System or the American Dream.”
There is a lot about identity in the internet age, much of it said by characters who are not as smart and self-aware as some of the others—for the arch, ironic tone, but also to create occasional moments of insight, for the character and the reader:
“When you’re meeting people online, you’re not totally out there at first….you message each other for a little while. Then you can…switch over to IMing, which is like talking in person, except you can edit yourself: if you find yourself about to say something stupid, you can just delete it and say something better.”
The plot of the novel revolves around time travel, but that’s not the whole point of it, and I find that anytime I try to give an example of something really great about how the “causality violation device” works–the one that Rebecca’s husband Philip has dedicated his life to building and testing—it doesn’t convey the idea well at all, because the idea is expertly woven through all 495 pages. The best I can do for you is to quote a sarcastically short explanation given at one point by Philip’s post-doc Alicia, one of the most dedicated and driven members of his team:
“First of all, time travel is real: you just have to believe. Second, when we get that machine working, I’m going to be the first one to use it, because you know what I’m sick and tired of? Reliable birth control and the right to vote. Just absolutely fed up.
Old times were great, weren’t they? You got an apron and a bunch of squalling kids hanging on your legs, your husband just died from some damn disease hasn’t even been discovered yet, you bit into a boiled turkey drumstick and it pulls out two of your front teeth.
Then your mother says, ‘I warned you: this is what happens to a woman when she turns twenty-three.’
Seriously, to hell with time travel.
I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
That gives you a taste of how complicated the idea of time travel is in this novel, without which passages like this don’t work as well:
“She was sitting on the couch, watching this time travel movie. It was about the time of the civil rights movement: you know, there are these black maids scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets and white women not even noticing they exist, except when they want something from them….** The kind of movie you watch so you can get good and pissed off and talk to the screen, you know? ….”Oh, if that white woman talked to me like that it’d be her first and last time. I’d snatch that apron off and slap her like she’d lost God’s love….See why it’s a time travel movie? The time machine isn’t in the movie, on the screen: it’s in your head. You watch a movie like that and you get to imagine yourself going back in time so you can trash-talk a bunch of dumbasses.”
In addition to all this good stuff, you get momentary delights like descriptions of the best tattoo ever and the future of clothes shopping. Oh, and biting analysis of where we might be headed with the relationship between technology and power.
This is a novel that everyone I know should read. Eventually I’m going to insist, so you might as well get started now.
*I don’t want Nick Harkaway to retract anything, ever.
**could he be any more explicitly referring to The Help?