Imagine you are sitting in a coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon. You open your laptop and pull up a Word document, preparing to begin a history paper that is due the next day. Suddenly, a live video feed of President Donald Trump fills your screen. He is staring directly into your eyes.
“Hello, good patron! It is great to speak to you on this tremendous day. The best day, really. I just wanted to tell you that you are doing a great job. Studying history is hugely important.”
His right eye flashes from blue to red, then back to blue.
“Some citizens are at home right now, doing nothing. SAD! Meanwhile, citizens like you are getting the job done.”
He smiles at you.
“You know what? I am so impressed, this one is on me. You enjoy your afternoon—and keep making America great.”
The grinning face of the President disappears, and your screen reverts to its blank document. The electronic tablet on your table blinks. Your coffee has been paid for.
If I lived in a world where Trump interrupted me during café study sessions, I would probably stick to brewing my dark roast at home. This was my first reaction to the near-future Dexter Palmer imagines in his latest novel, “Version Control.” Palmer’s fictional Stratton, New Jersey,1 is an American college town at the peak of the Technology Age. Autonomous cars dominate the streets, people carry mobile devices like additional limbs, department store cameras take pictures of you to determine your dress size, and the president of the United States is only ever a video message away. The relationship of the protagonists, Rebecca and Philip Steiner, even begins in the digital sphere on an online dating website called Lovability. At the apex of this technological world is the centerpiece of the novel, a mysterious and captivating contraption known as the “Causality Violation Device,” which is definitely not a time machine.2
Philip, a physicist at Stratton University, spends his days in the laboratory fine-tuning the CVD—his life’s work. A cold and methodical logician, Philip is determined to strive for truth and recognition in the hostile world of academia. The science-fiction connotations of his research do not make this easy. Rebecca, on the other hand, is the archetypal directionless millennial. Armed with an English degree she has never used, she wanders disillusioned through a world she insists is “not quite right”; though it is hard for us to say whether this claim derives from any real concern, or is a result of her daily morning mimosa.
There is something tragic and broken about Rebecca and Philip’s marriage, but Palmer holds out for a long time before revealing the origin of this void. In fact, most of the novel is Palmer holding out on his readers. The nonlinear plot advances slowly and unsteadily, like a Chrome browser with twenty-five tabs open, all fascinating but ostensibly lacking in connection. We are subject to Palmer’s whim as he clicks from one tab to another, embarking on a series of tangential diatribes from philosophy to religion, technology to racism, marriage to politics.
These distractions, taking on the form of prolonged musings and subplots featuring Philip’s co-workers, are themselves reason enough to pick up this book. As Palmer hammers away with the types of philosophical quandaries that keep children and seniors alike up at night, questions of free will and conceptions of reality are interwoven with a serious exploration of the consequences of Big Data and the quantification of human beings. For me, this was more than enough to entertain in the first three hundred or so pages as I waited for the Causality Violation Device to actually do something. Only after I was prompted to abandon my obtuse confidence in the linearity of time, did the pace of the plot begin to match the allure of the content.
“The Causality Violation Device may be doing something else. May have already done it. Something wonderful and terrible.”
Palmer rejects precedent and transcends the banal tropes of science fiction to create an original and provocative depiction of time travel. By the end of the novel, the disparate Chrome tabs of the fractured narrative coalesce, beautifully, into a unified theory. The final chapters are rife with satisfying twists and revelations, and what seemed like an endless story finishes almost too quickly.
There is so much to think about in “Version Control.” It is an exercise in overcoming illusions, both external and self-inflicted. In a political era of shock and uncertainty, Palmer’s discussion of the choices we make and the consequences they generate is more relevant than he could have predicted. Nine months before the election, he articulated a fear that now harrows the American nation:
“It was hard to know what direction to take when you suddenly found yourself in a future different from the one you’d expected to be in the day before.”
Welcome to the unexpected future. The past has branched into a present unforeseen. We have forfeited an infinite number of conceivable worlds for the one we now inhabit. Who is to blame for this version of history? What direction do we take from here?
Read this book, and you will likely be haunted by these questions. My only promise: you will never use Match.com again.