Version 43 is a novel of vast, widescreen scope. It is constantly pulling back its focus to reveal a wider stage for its action. It is also full of incident and rarely pauses for breath. And yet… it seems rather less engaging than one might anticipate.
Philip Palmer’s third novel takes us to the planet Belladonna, and more specifically to Bompasso, more commonly known as Lawless City, thanks to its being run by criminal gangs. The only way to reach this world is via quantum teleportation, a process with only a 50% chance of survival; the scrambled bodies of five medics would seem to suggest that, somehow, the technology is now being used as a weapon. Sent to investigate this is our narrator, a Galactic Cop, once human, now a cyborg in his 43rd iteration; he is immensely powerful and unwavering in the pursuit of his mission – which turns out to have a much larger context than he first thought.
Alongside the main narrative, we follow the Hive-Rats, a species bent on conquest, controlled by a hive-mind of the species they have absorbed, and able to alter the flow of time (and hence to subjectively speed up their evolution in response to any obstacle). Eventually, the two story-strands intersect, giving the Cop even more to contend with.
An ever-expanding canvas like this would seem to lend itself naturally to an exciting sf adventure story but, in this case, I find that the combination of the plot’s great scope and the Cop’s detached viewpoint instead distances one from the action. It becomes difficult to care about what’s happening, partly because individual dramas get lost in the throng and partly because the Cop doesn’t care – his directive is all and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt or killed along the way; there are a few moments of introspection where the Cop starts to wonder about the ethics of what he is doing but they don’t change the overall affect of the story.
Even on a scene-by-scene basis, the action is not particularly involving. It feels like watching one video-game fight sequence after another, without the immersion; this impression is reinforced by the episodic structure of Version 43, which sees the Cop repeatedly destroyed then regenerated as a new version; as he remarks towards the end: “They could keep killing me; I would keep being reborn; it would be a long slow game of attrition.” Quite so – and that, I think, is part of the problem.
There’s a certain amount of interest generated by the sheer amount of plot, as one wonders just how Palmer is going to resolve everything. And the squabbling between the Minds of the Hive-Rats is quite entertaining. Overall, however, Version 43 is not a great read.
This review first appeared in Vector 266, Spring 2011.