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Version Control cover

The Sand Men cover

In neither of the books on review, so sophisticated are their authors, and so comfortable with the saddles they ride, can one really detect the small nagging voice of an SF story trying to be heard from within. The homunculi bones of genre may ghost the paginations, but then no novel written in the second decade of the twenty-first century can be free of the Old Age of the World of Story. Or not yet. In any case, the near future, into which both novels embracingly settle themselves, is, of course, as we all know and experience daily, us. The future has become a catechism for us to memorize daily. Luckily therefore the Modernity-Lite Sci-Fi-in-the-City tone both authors simulate to get us comfy soon saltates smoothly into dis-ease, in both cases, as it must if we are to continue reading to the end. This is good. Both novels reward a sense that they were meant to be read all the way through, and that something terminal there may catch in the mind's eye long enough to be remembered.

There are two books using identical words in the plenitude of Dexter Palmer's Version Control. There is an SF novel—a tale whose terms begin to unfold on the first page through its protagonist's detection of a "wrongness" in the world she perceives—and a seemingly mundane, frequently profound anatomy of her presentation of self in daily life at a time (ours) when presentation (which is to say version control) precedes essence: the wrongness she perceives under this second reading is the wrongness any of us may feel when the turn of the planet belates us. The small miracle of Version Control is that the two readings feed each other effortlessly; the larger miracle is that, with only a few precious-darlings chapters that convey little more than the author's skill at depicting social interactions in the smart parts of New Jersey, the two readings enrich each other for 500 pages. This synergy may be due to little more than the author's acute, seemingly effortless depiction of intelligent people talking (but if it were easy to convey intelligence on a page, then we might see more of it), a thrum of connected and connecting thought that suffuses and subtends every page; but I think there is something more, something more deeply humane here than Palmer's extraordinary ability to narrate cognition. I think one might call Version Control a tale full of qualia.

It might be useful, not least for me, to try to distinguish between a couple of terms here. "Haecceity," a word I've used altogether too often and to almost universal merriment, seems more or less to mean "the thingness of things," the quality of the world as distinguished from its measurement; I tend to use it myself to point to texts shaped to revere the perceivable world, perhaps (in SF not infrequently) through the formal device of ekphrasis, where the pulse of story stops to see something, usually in the guise of describing an ostensibly pre-existing visual artifact or work of art: which in SF can be a novum. "Qualia"—learned users, maybe none of them bird-lovers, seem to prefer the plural form to "quale," which in any case sounds exactly like "quale," an unconnected earlier word from the Germanic meaning plague, from which we gain the term "quale-house," a place you torture folk in—"qualia," as I was saying before I was interrupted, is the quality of the world as perceived by a person. Until around the end of the twentieth century, it might have been fair to think that authors adherent to the great tradition of the mimetic novel more or less uniquely produced texts suffused with qualia. That this is no longer really the case, that authors adherent to the larger enterprise of fantastika may more realistically hope to capture the quality of the new world we inhabit as perceived by a person, seems inarguable; though I have been assured it is not. Whatever. As far as these current paragraphs are concerned, Version Control is a tale suffused with qualia through its astonishingly intimate capture of the world we inhabit, today and tomorrow, as perceived by a person.

Rebecca Wright lives in the near future of New Jersey, in a made-up town called Stratton, at whose university her brilliant physicist husband has been employed for the last eight years in what may be a doomed attempt to produce results from the "causality violation device," which no one dares call a "time machine" to his face. One pole of the device has been "anchored" to a particular time and place in Stratton—which the lazy among us will simply think of as Princeton—a time and place very arduously determined (and constantly calculated) by processes a tad reminiscent of some of the perplexes haunting the protagonists of Gregory Benford's Timescape (1980). The task is to enclose a robot in the alarmingly womblike device and "send" it back down the "wormhole" to that fixed point; success would be measured by discrepancies in the robot's internal time monitors. Palmer describes all of this with a nuance and fluency that almost should certainly maintain suspense for readers not familiar with the SF megatext (and they will not lose through any delayed reveal); an SF reader might, on the other hand, assume that no successful act of time travel into the past can be registered in the present, because that present will be the present created by the successful act of time travel. This, complexly, is the case in Version Control. So non-SF readers may treat the novel as a gradual unfolding of material whose revelation is surprising; SF readers may think of the novel, on the other hand, as a sustained exercise in dramatic irony whose protagonists (some of whom should perhaps know better) understand less than the reader about the forces telling their lives. So the novel is duplicitous, and complicit (with us). Rebecca, as it turns out, is closer to that reader than she is to her husband.

We get to know her and her women friends very well, perhaps (in chapters like the cleverly named "Blackout Season" or "Brictor's Party") more thoroughly than we need to, as only her friend Kate/Kathryn (depending on which half of the book we're in, whether or not we've passed into the second version of reality created by Rebecca trying to cure the world of wrongness, her own life of tragedy) is really wanted on voyage. Kate and Rebecca are both nearing forty, mired in and aerated by the media landscapes of their era, creating minutely varied versions of themselves within which to face minutely varied days. Rebecca herself works for an online dating agency, her primary task being to version-control customers' interactions so as to control success rates (instant success cuts revenue and reduces span available for data mining) and to persuade them to upgrade their contracts, each upgrade miring them more and more deeply into option chaos. Her husband is not only better-educated but in fact more intelligent than she is, as are most of the first-rank physicists in his team, but of course they share a precarious problem-solving narrow-beam up-the-spectrum kind of intelligence. Palmer either captures perfectly or perfectly creates a plausible semblance of this high-achievement up-the-spectrum physicist-speak, slightly purblind, hilariously pedantic, deeply smart, using the word Asperger's only once in the text. None of this crew detects the uncanny-valley wrongness Rebecca is haunted by, an intensification of what Version Control seems to present as normal to the social world of 2020: a slow and irretrievable loss of density, engendered by a nearly infinite choice of presentations of self (in those who remain wealthy enough to choose), a kind of seasickness that has been thinning out the relatively immutable, time-adherent consciousness we all used to boast in 2016, that we all took for granted: for we all took for granted back in 2016 that we were who we remembered being. But of course that is not the whole of what Rebecca is sensing. For reasons the plot uncovers, she is peculiarly sensitized to the success of her husband's project: because the project has been successful from the beginning, and the robot has invaded the past hundreds of times, and though it does nothing active the space-time continuum must still correct for its dumb presence. Each time the robot is sent back eight years to the temporal baseline, a new world must instantly be created in which it did not do so.

It is never entirely certain just how deeply Rebecca understands this. But the wrongness in her life, which she centres on the loss of her young child in a terrible accident, deepens. At the end of the first half of Version Control she herself enters the causality violation device. In the second half she is a widow, and her son is alive. From this point the plot unpacks ouroborally, as time-travel stories are inclined to; but far more lucidly than most. Palmer is clearly less interested in the gears of the plot than he is in conveying the sensations of irretrievable reality loss, the intolerable delicacies in the qualia of thing, the intimacies of Rebecca's response to the nausea of transfiguration. A world where information—the whole point of the space-time continuum is the preservation of energy, which means information may be rewritten but never lost—is more permanent than we are. Version Control is an intensely humane, intricately convincing foretelling of what it may feel like to become utterands in the story of the world.

There is little but praise to bestow upon the bare-bones story so mercilessly exposed in Christopher Fowler's The Sand Men, a tale told as though utterly clear ice. It is set in the near future, in Dubai, which is a gated country you can only get into if you belong to the kind of future most of us have spent most of our lives contemplating with horror; or if you belong to someone who belongs there. There are owners and owned. The cast is made up of higher echelons of the latter category: an English architect/builder brought to Dubai to troubleshoot the final stages of an appalling development for those who are so rich they seem another species; his journalist wife, whose disaffection we so axiomatically concur with that it is hard at times to realize Fowler has allowed her to respond to this world in her own terms; and their daughter, whose first response at the airport is that the place is "like a science fiction movie. Like special effects or something." The house they are introduced to is as perfect as Stepford. The malls are larger than anywhere else, and emptier, but cost salaries to buy from. There is nothing in The Sand Men that is remotely not to be expected: except the horror of seeing it all without turning away. The reader is bound to the page.

The story does little more than keep the eye fixed to this world. The impoverishment of every page is the impoverishment of those parts of London that have now been purchased. It is a book so smooth you want to read it down in one sitting, but so acid that you flinch sideways. Poor people die terribly. Rich people stink. Families fall apart. Power suffuses every page like poison. The sadness is ungovernable. Pick the book up. Put it down. Pick it up again. It is dead silent. Your brain steams. This (I think Fowler says, while also saying "Don't shoot the messenger") is the future that they have in store for humans who do not own: a dead silence swallowing the death steam.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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