Review: Philip Palmer’s Version 43

In Books on July 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Say what you will about Palmer's writing, but his cover design people are doing a nifty job!

I’m still trying to wrap my head around Philip Palmer’s Version 43. Normally, I consider that reaction a good thing – a challenge, of sorts. This time, I’m not so sure.

In a nutshell, this is a story about multiple incarnations, and life after death. The book is filled to the brim with robots, people and aliens who cheat the final rest, and through various means: technological, biological, psychic, or even cultural. But cheating death, in Version 43, comes with a price: insanity, detachment, psychosis, or genocidal rage. Come novel’s end, this will have profound effects on the reader’s experience.

In terms of genre, Version 43 drifts somewhere between future noir and cyberpunk, with a healthy dose of late postmodern fragmentation and absurdism. Think of something between K.W. Jeter’s Noir and Mark Leyner’s The Tetherballs of Bougainville, and you might get some idea about what reading Version 43 is like.

The plot – such as it is – tracks two threads: the criminal investigations of a cyborg Galactic Police Officer identified as Version 43 when the novel opens, and the celestial machinations of a near-omnipotent collective intelligence named The Hive-Rats. Each are, importantly, undying: the Version (who by the end of the novel has gone through more than a dozen reincarnations) brought back by technological means, and the Hive-Rats through a combination of biological process (they evolve once they have consumed the bodies and minds of their enemies), and temporal manipulation.

Version 43 arrives on the planet Belladonna, to investigate a horrific murder – a murder committed by means which violate intergalactic law, thus necessitating the intervention of the cyborg Cop. Belladonna is a unique planet in the universe, as its inhabitants arrived through a one-way teleportation device, designed so that only 50% of those arriving would survive. It is, in effect, a prison planet, though it resembles more of a Utopian Wild West than a penal colony. Essentially lawless, populated by medical miracles who are incredibly hard to kill, the entire planet is dominated by organized crime, and a shadowy force later revealed to be called the Anciens.

The investigation rapidly becomes unhinged, however, as Version 43 discovers the depths of corruption in Belladonan society. Palmer does a good job of showing how deeply unsympathetic the Cop is to the accepted lawlessness of the planet’s culture: even the good cops here rely on a system of bribery to get things done. And when the Cop is unable to wrap his head around how to interact from a legal perspective with the citizens of Belladonna, he simply takes over the whole show, becoming a crime boss himself (the closest thing to legitimacy this society has, apparently). This leads to a wild, downward-spiral of murderous rampages and revenges, followed by the inhabiting of the roles the Cop initially vowed to stop. The action and brutal warfare of the novel is utterly over-the-top, reaching cartoonish levels of destruction in the large-scale space conflicts that conclude the novel. “Scale” is not something that bothers Palmer: rather, it is the psychology behind omnipotence, power, and time that compels him to keep upping the ante.

But, when we speak of “the Cop,” we’re really speaking of all the Cops: the original man who provided the “core” of the Versions, and all the ones who come before and after 43. The narrative is told from the perspective of the Cop, but it changes noticeably over time. Palmer’s interaction with “former selves” is most interesting when grappling with the psychology of the Cop. This figure alternates between two modes of self-critique. The first is a conscious choice based on strategy. Of Version 43, Version 44 notes, “He had been slow-witted and incompetent, he had perpetrated a unjustifiable and unnecessary death-whilst-resisting-arrest on a local gangster, he had failed to follow basic clues, and he had been duped by an obviously duplicitous female witness.”

This kind of critique is a lot of fun: it takes the trial-and-error of crime solving out of the hands of a team or a few principals and puts them into the hands of one person – who is also many people. But the multiple incarnations of the Cop give way to the crucial question of culpability and self, and thus we get the strange, dizzying self-awareness of the latter parts of the book: “What had I done! In pursuit of my mission, I had devastated all these peoples’ lives, and allowed the veil of reality to become cracked.”

It is the “I” that is at question, here: while the Cop is able to receive the memories of the former Versions, there is nonetheless an inkling of individuality within each later iteration. While the people who surround him think him only a “copy” – particularly the police officer Aretha – he struggles to articulate his own individuality, all the while being consumed by a legal and programming imperative.

My favourite parts of this novel centre around the Cop’s on-and-off obsession with the Belladonnan policewoman Aretha. This comes and goes from version to version, but throughout, she exists as a kind of cypher for his lingering humanity:

                Barely a week had passed, and already I had evolved an approach that would allow me to defeat my enemy.

                And yet, I considered that I was operating at far less than optimum efficiency. For my cybernetic circuits were sluggish, and haunted by thoughts, recollections, and speculations about Aretha. The memory of her face, her beauty, the sexuality of her body, the special glow of her ‘inner life,’ her wicked sense of humour, her look of rage when I told her I had no use for her any more.

Sheriff Heath had alleged that Version 45 had “loved” Aretha Jones. It was preposterous of course. So why did the Sheriff say it?, I wondered to myself. Was he trying to destabilize me? Sabotage me?

                And so I used my stealth skills to follow Aretha home from work that night.

                And the next night.

                And the night after that.

                I also set six remotely controlled dragonflies loose, and they flew into her apartment, and filmed Aretha at home, and followed her to work as well. And I further programmed the dragonflies to transmit their images of Aretha directly into my cybernetic brain.

                And thus, by proxy, though the eyes of my miniature hovering cameras, I saw Aretha by day, and I saw her too at night.

The Cop’s clear obsession with Aretha never brings her closer to him; she is as frustrating to him as he is to her, although his frustration, ancient memory, and invincibility leads to appalling results in the time-lapse of human life.

The backdrop to the criminal saga unfolding on Belladonna is the undisputed and sinister rule of the Anciens, who like many of the “powers” in this novel, have had their humanity shaved away by power and a control over the quantum nature of the universe. Their motivations are never really elaborated upon, and unlike the Hive-Rats, they seem to have no driving imperative other than a pure moustache-twirling domination and sadistic abandon. While I think a force such as the Anciens rising in the midst of a highly-advanced society in which medical immortality is plausible, I struggled to understand Palmer’s use of them.

My confusion about the Anciens was made even stronger by the entertaining but ultimately enigmatic role of the Hive-Rats, whose narrative surrounds and eventually subsumes the question of “self” elaborated upon in the primary first-person narrative. Their many-millioned generations, and the innovations they achieve therein, are explained through another quantum process, a kind of “slow-time.” By consuming the bodies and minds of their enemies, each of whom at one point represented a “threat” to the Hive-Rats, the collective mind is able to improve and ultimately conquer any forces who stand in their path.

The Hive-Rat story is primarily told through their voices, divided into six “Minds” (named “First” through “Sixth”). Each Mind represents a species or civilization that has been conquered by the Hive, and each represents a facet of development towards a kind of perfect being: a kind of core Hive-Rat identity (which forms the species id), a primal though fully conscious hunting focus (more or less its ego), a basic sense of social coherence, a technological and scientific curiosity, an innocence and appreciation of beauty, and finally a sophisticated military and organizational intelligence. The Minds all communicate in a big jumble that is displayed on the page as a tangle of non-linear conversations. These are represented with variations in graphics and typography, to demonstrate the different moods and personalities of the Minds.

The Hive-Rat chapters are a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the evolving social dynamic within the mind after the introduction of the Sixth voice (the humans). Palmer is at his most tongue-in-cheek in these chapters, and his sense of humour is formidable and ironic, reminiscent at times of Douglas Adams.

And yet, the intersection of the two primary story threads is loose, at best, and only really coincides at the end of the story. The separation of these threads is a symptom of style in which the novel is written: namely, breathless, exhausting, attention-deprived. The ending – or endings, as there are more than one – feel rather forced, as if Palmer was trying too hard to bring what are quite disparate ideas together. In the end, what allows the Cop to emerge victorious is coincidence and timing, and I found this to be utterly unsatisfying as a conclusion.

As a narrative experiment, I’d say Version 43 is a failure. Its best parts are when he delves into the psychology of a changed technological and biological landscape. His most compelling characters, particularly the many crime bosses of the novel, tend to get shoved aside for the self-obsession of the Cop. That in itself is no crime, and in a sense, is part of what Palmer seems to want to achieve with the Cop’s corrosive immortality. But the main character’s many betrayals do start to numb the mind after a while, and when he finally emerges as a kind of planet-wide intelligence, I’d rather lost interest in his halting development. He ultimately becomes another “force,” utterly inhuman, and out of the range of reader sympathy. And without a closer access to the other human characters in the book, we are left to wonder at the true and measurable effects of fantastic scientific breakthroughs on the human mind. By novel’s end, all we have left are warring gods.


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