Tag Archives: time travel

VERSION CONTROL – Dexter Palmer (2016)

Version Control

“History lives in the gap between information and the truth.”

Let me get this out of the way: Version Control – Dexter Palmer’s second novel – is BRILLIANT. Recurrent readers know that I don’t often slap on such high praise.

It might just be the best 2016 book I’ve read, and it might just be the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’s either this or Zero K for both questions – I’m having a hard time deciding. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Then again, maybe Version Control might have one thing speaking against it that Zero K has less of. More on that later, especially as this one thing doesn’t really matter right now.

The book didn’t get a lot of attention from the online sci-fi community, so maybe a few introductory remarks are at hand. Version Control is a near-future novel, set in about 10 to 15 years from now. Rebecca Wright is the main character. She works in customer support for an Internet dating site, the same site where she met her husband, Philip Steiner. Philip is a physicist working on a “causality violation device” – a kind of low-key time machine one could say. His work has stalled his career and the physics community doesn’t really take him serious anymore. The couple has lost their son a few years ago.

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THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland (2017)

The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O.Neal Stephenson wrote one of my favorite books: Anathem. His last book, Seveneves, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. So I looked forward to this new tome – 752 pages – especially since the blurb seemed to promise good old-fashioned fun.

Yes indeed, fun! Anathem & Seveneves are dense, serious books, but The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. has the aura of a Dan Brown book: the discovery of old documents, secret government agencies, the past that turns out to be different from the official narrative, betrayal, mystery, magic.

Could it be that Stephenson again tapped into that youthful enthusiasm that characterized his brilliant sophomore effort Snow Crash and the outrageously bonkers The Diamond Age – a book that’s probably a bit too self-aware for its own good.

And what to think of the addition of Nicole Galland – with whom Stephenson (and a bunch of others) co-wrote The Mongoliad trilogy, and who primarily writes historical fiction? The dust jacket has this on their labor division:

Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson’s work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland’s storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible, and take you to places—and times—beyond imagining.

Yet the colophon places the copyright solely with Neal Stephenson, who “asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work”.

I’m guessing the main idea came from Stephenson, and he wrote the bulk of the book, with Galland acting as editor / beta-reader deluxe to keep things “warm” and the sentences light. Why? To make sure Stephenson’s latter-day heavy-handedness doesn’t get in the way of revenue. This is clearly a commercial release, aimed at a big audience. Both covers show this: the secret file, the comical dodo, the military stamp lettering, the cheesy slogan – “Think you know how the world works? Think again.”

That’s not necessarily a negative. Summer’s here, and to start the season I was up for escapist beach reading: a few thrills, a bit of alternate history, some cool technology and lots of adventure.

Did I get that?

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THE END OF ETERNITY – Isaac Asimov (1955)

The End Of Eternity 2Colonial studies have been part of the curriculum for over two decades at literature faculties on universities across the globe. I wonder how many professors and scholars realize lots of science fiction can also be considered as literature that deals with colonialism. There’s the obvious Prime Directive in mainstream culture’s Star Trek. There’s a variant of that in Banks’ Culture novels: how and when to intervene in other – technologically less developed – cultures? There’s Ursula Le Guin. China Miéville explored the theme a bit in Embassytown. And so forth… The fact that lots of SF deals with encountering and engaging with other, alien cultures makes it a perfect genre to explore real world colonial issues.

The End Of Eternity fits into this way of looking at SF as well. It is one of Asimov’s stand-alone novels, and is considered among his best by many. The protagonist is Andrew Harland, one of the few who live in Eternity, a location outside place and time, where “Eternals” enact “Reality Changes”, small, calculated shifts in the course of history made for the benefit of humankind. Though each Change is made for the greater good, there are also always costs.

For those who have read it, 1971’s The Lathe Of Heaven of Le Guin instantly springs to mind. I have written extensively about my view on utilitarianism – an important theme in both books – in Lathe‘s review, so I will not repeat those here. Le Guin is more overtly critical on the matter than Asimov, who doesn’t necessarily fault utilitarianism, but instead faults placid, safe, stale thinking, and pleads for ambition, difference, diversity and risk.

“Whom do you mean by ‘we’? Man would not be a world, but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of its own in an environment of its own. there are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety… That is the Basic State of mankind.”

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CENTURY RAIN – Alastair Reynolds (2004)

Century RainNot Reynolds’ best at all, but not a disappointment like both Pushing Ice and Terminal World.

Basically an original take on time travel that isn’t time travel, and some other likable SF ideas, coupled with a detective story. Fast moving and interesting enough to keep oneself entertained, albeit predictable. Near the final 200 pages (of 600), it becomes a bit too much though, with lots of action that drags at times, and basically always is resolved by yet another deus-ex-machina.

The book should’ve been 100 pages shorter, and it had been better if some stuff hadn’t survived the cut, like the Amusica virus, that doesn’t advance the story one bit and has a silly back story. Reading the acknowledgements at the novel’s end, Reynolds read some Oliver Sacks and wanted to incorporate some of it, willy nilly.

The characters are also very good at guessing key plot elements.

A final remark, on the “war babies” – vicious adversaries to the protagonists. Evidently, Reynolds kind of reverse engineered a familiar trope in horror movies: scary ghoulish children, like those in The Grudge, are given a credible SF back story. If it weren’t so obvious, it might have worked well, evoking a shiver instead of a chuckle. Reynolds has the tendency to give similar nods to popular culture in other works as well, and it never works.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a starting point for Reynolds’ newbies, but I did enjoy it. I just hope he returns to the Revelation Space or House Of Suns universes before he decides writing a sequel to Century Rain.

originally written on the 11th of July, 2015

(Update 10/2018: I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential.)

THE TIME MACHINE – H.G. Wells (1895)

The Time MachineThis novella (95 pages in a pocket edition) deals with a future world the outline of which is mainly based on flaky ideas about evolution. It must have been highly, highly original in its time, but over a century later there is not very much to amuse a 21st century reader.

The prose is still readable, albeit a bit wooden, but the story is rather thin and the evolution of mankind that is sketched is totally unbelievable to the eyes of any contemporary sociology or biology scholar. Also, it is based on a GIANT plothole: if the Eloi became complacent and dumb because of a lack of danger & strife, what’s up with the danger from the Morlocks hunting them?

Another minor sidenote: also the physics don’t add up: the time machine supposedly doesn’t move in the 3 dimensions of space, only in the time dimension, but that disregards the fact that Earth rotates and tilts, and that our solar systems moves around in space too. By Wells’ own logic, the machine should’ve ended up somewhere in or near our solar system’s vacuum.

Of course, because of its massive historical importance, those interested in the history of SF should definitely read it. Others, not so much.

originally written on the 3rd of March, 2015