Version Control, by Dexter Palmer

Version ControlThis book was not quite what I expected. I saw the premise — a woman who thinks the world is slightly off-kilter with a husband who’s invented what is totally not a time machine, thank you very much — and I was immediately sold. Time travel! Possible unreliable narrator! Give it to me now! And then when I started it, I thought it might end up like The Fold, another strange little not-quite-time-travel-y book.

But instead of The Fold‘s crazy-pants plot, Version Control gave me something more Margaret-Atwood-y, with interesting characters and interesting circumstances that revolve around the plot rather than moving it forward. This book is definitely more about its world than its premise, and what a strange world it’s got.

The book opens up with the stuff I came for, the off-kilter feelings and the potential time travel, but though that all comes on strong in the beginning it becomes much more subtle over the course of the story. What comes to the front instead is a world not entirely unlike our own, with millennial unemployment and malaise and interactions that take place almost entirely online, including those very important interactions of dating. The bulk of the story is really about our protagonist Rebecca’s relationships with her friends and her husband as they all sort of belatedly come of age and try to make their own paths in a tough world.

In the meantime there’s that time travel business, which mostly manifests itself in the social awkwardness of physicists and some strange lab experiments that totally don’t work, except they really should be working, and seem to the reader to be working, but are definitely not working. Probably. There’s a lot in this bit of the plot about the politics of science and the relationships between coworkers and the, you know, ephemeral nature of time. No big.

Also peppered in throughout the novel are little discussions about race and presentation and living in a “post-racial society” that seem a little out of place when they start popping up but do a good job of fitting in to the whole story when it wraps itself up.

I had hoped that the time travel part of the book would be more active and exciting, because, you know, time travel, but in the end I very much liked that it stayed primarily in the background, which is quite appropriate given how things end up. I like the way the author plays with time and with the characters’ actions and conversations throughout the novel, but it’s hard to say why I like it so much without sort of spoiling the book. It’s not that there’s some big plot twist or action sequence that would be ruined; it’s more that the novel has a lot of moments that are great because you recognize how they fit in with something else and I don’t want to take away that delight of discovery.

What I can say is that pieces and ideas from this book have lodged themselves in my brain for at least the next little while, and the parts that aren’t making me nervous about my mental health are giving me a lot to think about. I need you all to go read this book so I can have people to help me figure it all out!

Recommendation: For fans of Margaret Atwood, mildly alternate universes, time travel, and books that make you go, “Aha!”

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