Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
November 2016

Title: Version Control
Editor: Dexter Palmer
Publisher: Pantheon

Note: This novel was published in February 2016, and though I usually review only recent releases, I suspect Version Control may appear on some “best-of-the-year” lists in the coming months, which I feel qualifies it for discussion. Also, it’s hard for me to resist a time travel story.

Physicist Philip Steiner and his wife Rebecca host a party to celebrate the broadcast of a special “Pscience!” documentary about Philip’s eight years of work on a “causality violation device.” We are in a near future populated by 3D printers, self-driving cars, next-gen social media, and domestic political tumult. As the day unfolds, Rebecca is nagged by the feeling that something is off about reality, the sense of “a fishhook stuck in your brain. Tugging.” What’s the source of her alienation? How did she and Philip meet and fall in love, and then become somewhat estranged, as they appear to be? What has led Philip to become so consumed by his work, besides his obvious desire to rewrite the history books (pun intended)? What’s Rebecca’s job like? Why is she a recovering alcoholic? What do her friends think of her and Philip? What about his friends? And perhaps most important of all: Will Philip’s machine ever work?

Introductions made, the novel proceeds to recount Philip’s and Rebecca’s backstories, with extensive side ruminations on every element of their world, and detailed answers to all of the above questions. The novel’s writing style becomes clear; long sentences, monolithic, erudite paragraphs, articulate monologues and lengthy philosophical exchanges. But despite this slow prose pace, the novel’s intellectual pace is dazzlingly fast, with a brain-melting array of subjects deeply and vigorously unpacked. While the plot crawls forward, the ideas race.

In fact, ideas are so central to—and occur in such profusion in—Version Control that cataloging them all would not only prove exhausting, but ruin some of the novel’s most thrilling moments. And yet the acute, almost voyeuristic focus on the character’s inner lives, their domestic infelicity, their familial tragedy, their sexual experiences, the difficulties of their jobs and their complex relationships with technology and with one another—all might suggest that this is at heart a novel of character informed by science fictional tropes. On the contrary, however, I believe it’s a novel of ideas in which the characters themselves have become self-posited ideas about what characters should be, endlessly refractive and self-aware.

This is not to imply tediousness, though you must have an appetite for hearty digressions. The writing is polished, and the social setups are sometimes quirky and humorous. Extrapolations tend to be linear, and satirical streaks are straightforward: Think Max Barry, with an infusion of David Foster Wallace, rather than Neal Stephenson or Charles Stross. More than anything else, the novel is powered by Palmer’s unbounded confidence in the belief that everything—ideas, emotions, memories, impressions, doubts—becomes richer when granularly deconstructed, and that the reader is served best by relentless, almost manic descriptive specificity. I could imagine the ever-analytical Philip being the author of this book, rather than Dexter Palmer (who has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton). Expect at least two hundred pages of backstory before getting back to the mystery of Rebecca’s profound feeling of not-belonging, and then three hundred more to resolve it. What in a more typical plot-driven novel might be sly misdirection is here giddy overelaboration.

Big Data weaves through every narrative strand. One of the novel’s central images concerns the online avatars made by people in search of soulmates. Individuals can learn “to see themselves in terms of the data they generate because it is in their best interest” (or so they choose to believe); all that is needed is a “small abdication of individual selfhood.” In a sense, the characters in Version Control have been self-consciously modeled on those same avatars, and part of the novel’s strangeness and ambition is to ask us to believe in their reality precisely because the novel already knows that they cannot be real, and is therefore one step ahead of us. Another recurring image is that of self-driving cars, operating on an invisible grid run by mysterious algorithms, asking only for the relinquishment of control to optimize one’s experience—just like we must do as readers, when confronted by a text. And then there’s the constant, all-pervasive social media: “Even if you looked lonely, you felt free.” Like with literature?

Near the novel’s end, a character provides what may be a key to unlocking the narrative: “The reading is slow, but he enjoys it, though he’s never spent much time reading novels: Ulysses is not a story, so much as a system of the world. A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Palmer has in turn given us not so much a compelling story as a system of the world, a possible future world in which the question of whether the nature of reality can ever be elucidated—by science, religion, philosophy, or even time travel—remains as relevant as ever.

When Rebecca is getting to know Philip, she reflects that “for all his awkwardness and eccentricity, he provided the certainty that he was what he appeared to be. All his words and actions betrayed his absence of artifice. This was a guy you could let your guard down around; you probably even had to. You’d feel like you were cheating him if you kept it up.” I wish the novel was more like this, better at disguising the artifice of its virtuosity, and its sheer intellectualism. As much as I found it stimulating, I never completely let my guard down.

Title: Good Morning, Midnight
Author: Lily Brooks-Dalton
Publisher: Random House

Lily Brooks-Dalton’s debut novel opens with a fine description of sunrise in the Arctic, which both sets the stage for one of its twin storylines, and also establishes the evocative tone of everything that follows:

“When the Sun finally returned to the Arctic Circle and stained the gray sky with blazing streaks of pink, Augustine was outside, waiting. He hadn’t felt natural light on his face in months. The rosy glow spilled over the horizon and seeped into the icy blue of the tundra, casting indigo shadows across the snow. The dawn climbed like a wall of hungry fire, delicate pink deepening to orange, then crimson, consuming the thick layers of cloud one at a time until the entire sky was burning. He basked in its muted glow, his skin tingling.”

Some science fiction readers may not find this heart-pumping enough, or may feel it lacks an obvious dramatic hook, but I was immediately captivated by the lyrical yet understated nature of the prose, and intrigued by the unstated questions: Who is Augustine (later Augie)? Why has he been in this desolate place as long as is implied (the Sun “finally returned”)? Is he basking in the Sun’s glow merely because he craves its physical warmth, or as consolation from something else chilling him on the inside?

Augie Lofthouse, it turns out, is a septuagenarian scientist who has been working at the remote Barbeau Observatory when some kind of worldwide calamity strikes. Despite “murmurs of war,” he isn't sure about the nature of the catastrophe, nor does he particularly seem to care. When offered one final chance to rejoin civilization by an Air Force captain, he declines, and watches the plane “disappear into the pale sky, the rumble of its engine fading into the moaning wind.” The world appears to have conspired to give Augie exactly what he desires, a bleak and desolate landscape in which to spend his remaining days accompanied only by cosmic vistas and an utter lack of human emotions. Except that he discovers a young girl named Iris has also been left behind, and he must now adapt to a new reality in which he cares for her needs.

Meanwhile, aboard the spacecraft Aether, the first manned expedition sent to study Jupiter’s Galilean satellites up close, the crew is confronted by silence from Mission Control on Earth. The Aether’s communication specialist, Sullivan (Sully), investigates other means of picking up signals from home base, but none are forthcoming. Her consciousness has been fully occupied by the wonders of science, with Jupiter’s exploration having permeated even the lower levels of her awareness: “Her sleep had been full of Jupiter ever since the survey last week: that overwhelming, unstoppable girth; the swirling patterns of the atmosphere, dark belts and light stripes rolling in circular rivers of ammonia crystal clouds; every shade of orange in the spectrum, from soft, sand-colored regions to vivid streams of molten vermilion; the breathtaking speed of a ten-hour orbit, whipping around and around the planet like a spinning top; the opaque surface, simmering and roaring in century-old tempests.” But she must now adapt to a new reality in which their findings are irrelevant, because there’s no one with whom to share them. As the Aether heads back home, the crew begins to unravel.

These two apparently separate narratives do have a point of intersection, revealed about two-thirds into the novel but guessable early on, which is poetically poignant but contrived. And yet I didn’t mind its unlikeliness: Brooks-Dalton’s rich descriptions, and the masterful way in which she gradually reveals to us her characters’ informing loneliness, and how their depopulated environments force them to rediscover their own humanity, is more than enough grounds to read the novel. Augie, who previously “valued intelligence above everything else,” must allow himself to experience emotions he has been putting off for years, and accept the ugly implications of his self-serving, deeply manipulative behavior: “He felt shame, and deep inside the husk of his illness he named it.” Sully must likewise accept the consequences of her prioritization of science and research over everything else.

Two of the insights offered by the novel most effectively are the realization that relationships and human connections, in the end, matter more than anything else—though such knowledge may often arrive precisely when the terminus into their impossibility has been crossed—and that humans can only sustain themselves when they have a clear sense of purpose and usefulness. In this context, Good Morning, Midnight’s darker plot developments don’t feel unrealistic.

I also didn’t mind the lack of resolution to one central question, though surely some readers will. But I do wish Brooks-Dalton had de-emphasized the question’s importance to her characters, as for example Cormac McCarthy did in The Road. As good as she is with character development and description, she can sometimes be fuzzy on science (what exactly did Augie do, for example, at the observatory?) and at least one of her key plot revelations is telegraphed too strongly. But her novel’s heartrending depiction of interiority, married with her supple use of language and the haunting quality of her settings, make for an unforgettable debut. After emerging from the icy depths we too will want to bask in the Sun’s glow, no matter how muted.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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