Science fiction is best when it is about the near future, and thus, about now. Too often, we're writing about situations distant in space and time, so characters and dialog have some warrant to be unrealistic. I'm certainly guilty of a lot of that.
Palmer writes better than most people in our genre, and Version Control held my attention from start to finish. Palmer pushes both detailed observation of specific personality types, social and professional milieus, and stages of life, and wider-scale cultural criticism, accomplishing both with real panache.
Is Version Control science fiction?
Aside from the causality violation device (please don't call it a time machine--this bit of fiddly correction is a funny recurrent theme in the book), Version Control has a variety of science-fictional trappings, from self-driving cars to a President who can speak intimately, if a bit salesmanishly, to every one of his fellow citizens.
But these are merely external features, not integrated with the basic story at all. It could have happened here and now, and really, it does happen here and now. A car crash plays a role in the plot, and Palmer has to do all sorts of explaining how it happened despite the safety precautions, but it is just a car crash, something that happens here and now all the time. This is an occasional flaw of various forms of SF, particularly alternate world SF. I remember an alternate world novel where there was a kind of magic, and there was a terrible, concealed disaster at some facility. When you dug into it, it was an industrial accident. Those used to happen all the time. Terrible, dramatic, interesting...but nothing deeply existential. A bad marriage is painful, whether you're wearing a gray flannel suit or a suit of armor.
But adding these kind of nifty (though usually not as original as they think) features is what more literary types do when the decide to "do" SF: what they are really doing is not extrapolation, but satire. There's always a covert jokey element to it, a lack of seriousness. Palmer takes his basic device and the team working on it seriously indeed, but he does not take his world seriously.
Now, a lot of SF is, at its root, satirical. Both satire and SF have reductio ad absurdum as a basic technique. Philip K. Dick, for example, was a satirist. But he inhabited the worlds that he created, and took them seriously as emotional spaces separate from our own. I guess that's the basic difference between mainstream and genre writers. Genre writers like a separate world, while mainstream writers find the very notion of such a world pointless and even ridiculous, and so merely distort the one in which we actually find ourselves, while ensuring that the reader remains grounded in the fact that it is, in fact, fundamentally our world.
The SF elements outside the basic conceit are not a big deal either way. Don't let them bother you, but don't expect them to startle you either.
What I learned from this book
Palmer knows how to pace things. Mostly that means not going too fast. Now that I think about my own work I realize that I worry that slowing down will bore the reader. That is a sign of not trusting the reader. Palmer does trust the reader. The main POV character, Rebecca, gets a post-college slow period where she hangs out with her girlfriends, and then an extended description of how she tries online dating. Each of these sequences is a delight to read, because Palmer observes closely, and builds suspense into the choice of whether to take another drink--even if you pretty sure the answer is going to be "yes". Every little emotional transaction has a bit of suspense, and a bit of a payoff. The pace actually feels fairly quick, because there are interesting little things going on on every page.
Now, I'm not sure how much understanding that is really going to help me. "Put interesting things on every page" is an aspiration, but a hard one to achieve.
What do you think is a diagnostic difference between mainstream and genre fiction?
There are probably as many answers to this as there are readers, so I'm interested in being argued with.