At a reading this past winter, Dexter Palmer introduced his latest novel, Version Control, by sharing private messages swapped between Rebecca Wright, the story’s protagonist, and her would-be suitors through an online dating site known as Lovability. The series of awkward exchanges met with gentle scoffs and knowing laughter from the assembled audience. As social satire of the OkCupid age, Version Control had hit its mark.
But Lovability is more than just a venue for Rebecca’s romantic foibles. In Palmer’s novel, the corporation’s promise of courtship through computer algorithm brings the information technologies that underpin our social world under fresh scrutiny. In permutations both silly and sinister, the novel examines data-driven connection as it picks its way from the near-past of the 1990s toward the not-so-distant future. To be sure, in Version Control’s rendering of that future, technology has advanced beyond our present moment, but it has done so in ways that seem plausible, even familiar: streets teem with cars that drive themselves, identification badges fade along with one’s security clearance, and screens flicker with digitally rendered avatars. All this carefully calibrated speculation invites the question: at what point do we leave the realism of 21st-century technoculture behind and enter the universe of science fiction?
While Palmer’s first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion (2010), played out in an alternate version of the 20th century, the line between reality and fantasy is one that Version Control teasingly tests, and it’s what makes the matter of genre an ongoing question for readers. Compounding the generic confusion are the physical laws of space-time that remain stubbornly fuzzy in the novel, although this fuzziness feels familiar too: as the discovery of gravitational waves earlier this year reminds us, we are witness to the shift from science fiction to hard science on a daily basis. It’s fitting, then, that much of the novel’s plot takes place in and around a physics lab devoted to the construction of a time machine (though the lab’s staff prefers to call it a “causality violation device”). In the laboratory, conversation often turns to the consequences of scrambling chronology: who would time travel help, exactly? Whose lives would be the better for it?
Working through these questions, the novel explores the social dimensions of scientific speculation. While some science fiction depicts technological progress as a universal good, Version Control cannily probes the breaking point of techno-utopian fantasies when tested by the realities of race in America. In this respect, Palmer follows in the literary tradition of Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, Charles Saunders, and others who use the tropes of science fiction to speculate on, as critic Mark Dery put it, technology “brought to bear on black bodies.” In a 1990s interview with Dery, Delany pointed out that “the flashing lights, the dials, and the rest of the imagistic paraphernalia of science fiction functioned as social signs—signs people learned to read very quickly. They signaled technology. And technology was like a placard on the door saying, ‘Boys Club! Girls, keep out. Blacks and Hispanics and the poor in general, go away!’” Version Control puts scientific paraphernalia in the same space as gendered, raced, and classed bodies. What results is a deeper engagement with the complexities of social relations and the private struggles that shape characters. So while Palmer’s tale shares science fiction’s penchant for technological wonder, it never fully succumbs to the dictates of the genre. Even at its most speculative, the novel could pass as realist fiction sent to us from the future.
The interview that follows was conducted over email and touches on race and realism, science in fiction and science fiction, literary influence, and the process of crafting Version Control, continuity errors and all.
JS: In Version Control you paint a vivid picture of the near future. What about the near future appealed to you as a setting for this story?
DP: Version Control takes place over a few decades: some events in the novel occur as early as 1996, while the date of the near future that occupies the bulk of the novel is left unspecified. The reader might guess that the “near future” of this novel is “a few years from now,” but not “decades from now”; hopefully that will still be the impression the novel gives if it’s read within the next few years, though almost all works of near-future science fiction become quaintly dated as the world in which they exist becomes increasingly dissimilar to the worlds such works depict.
When I came up with the idea for Version Control, back in 2008, I was primarily looking for a change of pace. My first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, was set in an alternate-history version of the mid-20th century: its setting was largely derived from documents from around the year 1900 that attempted to predict what the next hundred years would be like. Realizing the world of that novel took a considerable amount of research, more than I expected it would when I started writing: I spent 14 years on that book from the time I began it to the time it was published. Perhaps foolishly, I thought that a novel set in New Jersey and New York, partly in the present, partly in the past, and partly in the near future, would be easier to complete.
But every idea for a novel is accompanied by its own set of problems: firstly, my memory of the past is as muddled as everyone else’s through the process of repeatedly retelling one’s life back to oneself, and it took a fair amount of research just to accurately recreate the world of, say, 1996, without introducing objects that didn’t yet exist, such as iPhones. And what counted as “the present” kept changing as I worked: over the eight years the novel took to write and publish, I continually had to rewrite paragraphs, and sometimes entire chapters, to account for the rapid pace of technological development.
As for why the near future appealed to me: well, there is the exercise of figuring out how things might look a few years from now, which affords its own pleasure (and my predictions here are intended to be partly realistic, partly satirical). And I think that a novel that’s set partly in the present and partly in the future might have a certain kind of emotional immediacy for the reader that wouldn’t be there in a novel whose setting is completely disconnected from our own (either because it is not in the reader’s living memory, or it is in a future that the reader hasn’t yet experienced). The near future might seem more real for the reader if he or she can see how the world might possibly get from here to there.
JS: There’s a memorable conversation in Version Control about genre that takes place between two security guards, Terence and Spivey. Terence passes Spivey a paperback copy of something by Octavia Butler and Spivey responds, “Science fiction: never been much for it. Dreams and cartoons is all it is.” Why did you want to include a conversation about SF in the novel?
DP: First, I should clarify that things my characters believe aren’t necessarily things I believe. You would think that would go without saying, but I’ve gotten in trouble for this before.
Now, there are two answers for this. The first is: in the science fiction I’ve read, it’s often the case that the genre of science fiction doesn’t actually seem to exist in the worlds being depicted, even if those worlds are set in futures that clearly have our present as a starting point. For example, in Star Trek (and I’m going to stick to the original series, the one I’m most familiar with), many characters seem to be quite educated when it comes to works of literature from prior centuries. We know that they are familiar with Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, and Dante. But we would not expect Captain Kirk to own a copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune, even though in the science fiction community that novel has the status of a classic. Nor would characters read what for them would be contemporary science fiction (that is, you wouldn’t expect a young Captain Kirk to read a novel detailing the adventures of a starship captain in his future who is similar to Jean-Luc Picard).
If I’m writing a novel that’s set in my near future, then acknowledging the science fiction that exists in my present makes that future seem somehow more complete to me, as well as letting me give credit where it’s due. And including discussions of science fiction in the novel allows me to indulge in a little metafictional play as well.
Let me get into the second answer by telling you an anecdote. When I first started writing Version Control, I was at a party in Princeton with some astrophysicists, and I mentioned to one of them that I was working on a novel with physicists as characters. The astrophysicist’s reaction was to say: “Well, I hope it’s not science fiction, because science fiction is shit.”
I continually had to rewrite paragraphs, and sometimes entire chapters, to account for the rapid pace of technological development.
Now, one response of a science fiction fan might be to offer a full-throated defense of the genre: “Well, what science fiction have you encountered? Are you aware of the work of the true giants of the field, etc.,” then rattling off a list of books designed to make one’s opponent aware of his ignorance. But that’s a fan’s job, not a writer’s job: if a writer gives a fair hearing to criticism, no matter whether or not he or she thinks that criticism is uninformed or wrongheaded, then that criticism might lead the writer in a new artistic direction. And if you believe, as I do, that science fiction is fully capable of the emotional and intellectual range that is usually considered the province of what’s called “literary fiction,” then it is worth considering why so many people think science fiction is inherently trivial, or superficial. It seems to me like a willful blindness to refuse to acknowledge that common perception (which is Spivey’s perception, at that point in the novel), even if I think that perception is false.
JS: The novel has a complicated relationship to genre, so I’m curious to know how you would describe Version Control to a reader who’s unfamiliar with your work.
DP: When I started writing this novel, I began with the premise that a perfectly written science fiction novel set in the near future would be indistinguishable from a realist novel by the time that near future arrived. Which, as I suggested above, is an impossible thing to achieve—if I had that kind of foresight, I would use it for other things besides writing novels.
But another way to approach this idea is: if you took a contemporary realist novel and somehow tossed it back in time 50 years, what would it look like to its readers? For those readers in the mid-20th century it would appear as science fiction, in a fully realized future with technological advancements that its inhabitants don’t bother to take notice of, because in their present they are commonplace. Perhaps in comparison to other science fiction of the period, there would appear to be a greater emphasis on character development and a lesser emphasis on setting. And yet those 20th-century readers would not find this novel’s world to be wholly alien: the concerns of the novel’s characters would be their concerns, because though technology changes, human needs and behaviors and desires don’t change that much. (Philip K. Dick, in particular, was a science fiction writer who understood this.) A realist novel sent back in time would become science fiction that would not be so much about a future world, as it would be about how people would relate to each other in that future world. Not a better kind of science fiction, but a different kind.
JS: As a graduate student at Princeton, you studied Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, two authors who incorporate scientific concepts into their fiction. To what degree has studying their writing influenced you?
DP: I think one thing that people who end up as authors learn if they come across Pynchon’s finest work while still in their formative years—and for me, I first encountered Gravity’s Rainbow around 17 or 18—is that you don’t have to limit the amount of seemingly disparate material you have in a novel, as long as that novel is still carefully structured. Part of the pleasure of Pynchon at his best derives from the cleverness with which he demonstrates that “everything is connected.” However, when writing Version Control, I think James Wood’s review of Pynchon’s Against the Day in the New Republic influenced me more than anything by Pynchon himself. It’s a negative review—he suggests that Against the Day is “a book for children”—but it is an interesting one, and well-written in that it let me live in the mind of someone who thinks about literature differently than I do. It does indulge in Wood’s habit of making sweeping general statements: there’s a strong implication in it that science fiction (which Wood reads Against the Day as) isn’t capable of the depth of character or the moral seriousness of the novels by authors that Wood seems to prefer: Musil, Proust, Mann, and so on.
Well, why not? I found myself revisiting that review every six months or so, printing it out and underlining bits of it, arguing with it. (To be fair, it makes a number of good points; there were many times when I found reading Against the Day to be a forced march, and the review clarified some reasons why that might have been the case.) One passage (in which Wood describes the kind of novel that he believes Against the Day is not) drew my attention in particular:
But what if you wanted a novel that had little plot but much internal story, that was morally and aesthetically complex, stylistically difficult and demanding, determined to put language to some kind of challenge, formally lovely and alluring, humanly serious but also humanly comic (I mean a book that comically investigated deep human motive)? A novel that was narrated in the internal voices of several different characters, but characters who really have their own voices, not just vaudeville ventriloquism?
As I said above, it’s not an author’s job to defend science fiction against its critics. (I would say that Delany’s Dhalgren is a work of science fiction that could be described in the manner above, but coming up with counterexamples is not the point.) A negative assessment by a smart critic of a writer you admire can sometimes show you a new path. I don’t see anything about science fiction that precludes it from exhibiting the characteristics described above: it seems to me that if you attempted to write a work of science fiction with those characteristics, you’d end up somewhere interesting. Why not try?
As for Gaddis, the formal device that Version Control uses, with a title that accretes meanings as the reader progresses through the novel, is inspired by The Recognitions: that’s the earliest place I’ve come across it in fiction. And I probably learned more about writing dialogue from reading Gaddis’s J R than I did from any other single novel.
JS: The novel goes into quite a bit of detail describing how department stores and online dating services cull and aggregate consumer information for corporate gain. Why did you want to write about data mining? What is it that most interests you about that subject?
DP: One of the ways that the notion of identity has changed since the advent of the Internet has to do with the fact that most of our online communications are mediated by third parties that have their own best interests at heart. Twentieth-century telephone services gathered some data about customers, but nothing as detailed and finely grained as Facebook or OkCupid or Twitter does. It’s not just that these services gather data, but that the very act of assembling the data makes certain claims about identity, claims that in some instances affect the way that Internet users view the world.
A negative assessment by a smart critic of a writer you admire can sometimes show you a new path.
Consider, for instance, the news that Universal Studios delivered two different trailers for their film Straight Outta Compton to Facebook users, depending on what Facebook’s algorithms perceived to be their users’ “affinity segment.” Facebook, in a statement, disputed the framing of the articles about this incident, claiming that viewers were not shown different trailers based on race. But it seems quite reasonable to suggest that one’s “affinity segment” highly correlates with one’s race in this particular instance, to the point where the distinction is little more than semantic. Facebook doesn’t allow people to self-identify on their profiles as African American, but they do take note of whether someone is a member of an African American Chamber of Commerce group or something similar, and that is a piece of information that helps to assign a person to an “affinity segment.”
So if these algorithms observe their users and make claims about their identities, and the sites that use these algorithms are one of our principal means of communicating with each other, how does this influence how we see the world? Or how we see each other? Or how we see ourselves? How do you publicly express yourself as an individual when the very tools you use as a method of expression are designed to define you as part of a group? What things about the world are you permitted to know, or steered away from knowing, because the tools you use to view the world deliver information to you based on the group they believe you to be a part of? If you begin to express traits that place you outside your assigned “affinity segment,” or whatever a given social network chooses to call it, will you find yourself being gently, quietly corrected through the advertisements you are shown, or the number of “likes” your posts get or don’t get, or the accounts that it’s suggested you follow?
JS: As you explain in the book, the term “version control” describes how multiple, forking versions of code get incorporated into a single software program. I wondered if version control was important to your own writing process, since the novel has such a complex narrative structure. Did you write out different drafts before settling on a final version of the novel?
DP: My first draft of Version Control was handwritten, in about a half-dozen Moleskine notebooks. (I feel that handwriting the first draft of anything makes one choose one’s words more carefully—that may be superstition, but it works for me.) Whenever I completed a chapter I transcribed it into a word processing document—that transcription is when I polished for style, corrected any continuity errors, made sure I hadn’t strayed too far from my outline (or revised my outline, if necessary), and so on. My first completed typewritten draft came in at around 220,000 words: before I turned it in, I made a pass through it and removed 30,000, and then worked with my editor and his assistant to shave it down to its final length of about 180,000 words.
I owe my copy editor a word of thanks here, because the science-fictional nature of the narrative involved the deliberate introduction of continuity errors here and there: it was important to preserve the errors that needed to be there while removing the ones that weren’t supposed to be. I think we pulled that off—at any rate, if there are any such unintentional mistakes at this point, I don’t want to know, or will choose to pretend that they are deliberate.