Book review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Magic is real.  Time travel is real.  And there’s a military-operated startup that has the technology to make both happen.  But what if they were too successful?  Will those with the passion for the technology still run the show, or will they be replaced by bureaucrats with an ego far larger than their accountability?  And will said bureaucrats bring about the end of the world as they mess with the timeline?  This delightful book, which combines subtle and endearing humor with Stephenson’s signature in-depth exploration of a new premise, has the answers to all these questions.

Dr. Melisandre Stokes is unhappy with her work as a dead languages lecturer at Harvard, when she quite literally bumps into Tristan Lyons.  One thing leads to another, and she is hired by him to translate a number of historical texts into English.  She soon finds out that all the texts are dealing with magic and witches.  Mel and Tristan slave away on the texts and soon realize that magic used to be real, up to a point in the 19th century when it disappeared.  They come to conclusion that magic was killed off by the advent of photography, which replaced the fluid reality that witches could manipulate with a static one.  Through a little more research, they find a researcher, Dr. Oda, who had proposed to build a device inside of which reality was flexible once again, and where witches could perform their magic once again.  Their motley crew is completed by Erszebet Karpahty, a real witch who slowed down her aging, so that she could still be alive after nearly 200 years to be available for the resurrection of magic.

The device doesn’t come cheaply, though, and D.O.D.O., as they call themselves, must prove their worth by manipulating the timeline to make money.  In a comedy (and drama) of errors and misunderstandings, they finally manage to secure a very rare book from the past, which they end up selling at an auction for an obscene amount of money.  The US government, thus convinced, invests heavily into the expansion of the technology, in order to influence the past timelines for American advantage.

This expansion comes at a cost: the original members of the small outfit, the most knowledgeable and passionate about the project, are pushed aside in favor of bureaucrats and managers with their policies and procedures and no regard for people’s feelings, and with no desire to learn about the product they are now managing.  Even though the expansion is initially successful, the byzantine bureaucracy is slowly becoming vulnerable to one-off events.  An overly ambitious witch, recruited from the past, triggers a chain of events that results in several key figures being trapped in the past, naked berserker Vikings rampaging through a Wal-Mart, and a very real danger to all scientific progress over the last few centuries.

If the previous paragraphs made little sense, welcome to the writing of Neal Stephenson.  As with most of his previous books (we pretend Interface never existed), he is long on exposition and short and hectic on action.  This book is slightly different in its humor and humanity, which obscures Stephenson’s usual obsession in exploring a new premise in the smallest detail, but that obsession is still here.  Let’s start with the premise: magic can send people across time, and they can do all kinds of shenanigans in the past.  Stephenson first devotes his time to explaining why and how magic could have existed, and why it is not around anymore, and then he devises a method to bring it back.  In doing so, he also establishes very strict constraints about how magic can be performed.  He then moves on to exploring time travel and comes with an incredibly complex system, which prevents all time travel paradoxes.  This system then plays a major role in the novel, forcing the protagonists to face so many obstacles that they are on the verge of abandoning time travel altogether.

Action comes late in the book.  Most of the story consists of day-to-day business of the Department of Diachronic Operations, or D.O.D.O., the development of the technology, and the description of certain time travel operations in Boston, London and Constantinople, ranging from a few centuries to about a millennium ago.  There is some foreshadowing of the events to come, but when the action really starts, it takes place over a few days, as opposed to the book’s timeline of about five years, not counting the time travels.  In this regard, the book’s structure is highly reminiscent of Anathem, but the content is not as dense and the worldbuilding not that heavy.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is not really a story about time travel, though.  It is a satire about corporate America.  As someone who started in a company of six people and through a series of acquisitions found himself among 140,000 employees of a large conglomerate, I could sympathize with the plight of the protagonists, as they find themselves as nothing more than cogs in a much larger machine than what they signed up for.  They know the most about the technology, still feel possessive and act subversively, just not enough to get fired, but still get pushed to the sidelines.  They are replaced by a host of managers and bureaucrats whose goal in life seems to be writing memos and corporate policies, show no sense of humor or sympathy to anyone who still has some humor left, and seem to go out of the way to make the company as inefficient as possible.  As I said, D.O.D.O. sounds just like the company I’ve spent my last 14 years in…

For a Stephenson book, the characters are surprisingly relatable.  In line with the satire theme, the protagonists are all quite idiosyncratic, with strong and distinct voices, and even though they go through some development, they are easily recognizable between the beginning and end of the story.  The good guys are good from the beginning, the bad guys are bad, and the bumbling idiots remain such throughout their ordeal.  The characterization is further helped by the antiquated structure of the book, reminiscent of classics like Dracula where a single narrative is replaced by a series of personal journal entries, correspondence, memos, newspaper articles and other sources.

I found the story delightful.  My inner geek was fully satisfied by the working of magic and time travel.  The real-world me was sympathetic to the entrepreneurs who found themselves stuck in a large corporation.  And the literary me appreciated that there was no real life-threatening crisis the protagonists faced; instead, all their troubles were rather comical or at worst mildly frustrating.  That’s not to say there was no violence and death, but that was mostly brought against the faceless hordes, in a quick and clean way.

If there is one fault I found with this novel, it is a series of leads that were never successfully concluded.  In particular, the antagonist befriends a witch with the goal to have the witch’s descendants help her in the present time.  There, however, the presumed descendant is on the side of the good guys, with no explanation or hint about turning against them in the future.  This sounded like an unfinished or abandoned idea, and it was especially grating in a work where the writing was very tight and rational.  The book’s ending hints at a sequel, which may pursue some of these threads further, but somehow I have a feeling that this will not happen.  Consequently, I feel a little unfulfilled.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is an incredibly inventive book with subtle yet effective humor and delightful characters.  I certainly did not expect anything as light-hearted from Neal Stephenson, and I was very pleasantly surprised.  The novel may not be his most memorable work, but it is certainly one of his most approachable ones.  The story crosses several genres, from corporate satire through historical fiction to science fiction and fantasy.  It may not suit readers who are too entrenched in one genre, but those with various interests will appreciate it.


Notes: I’d like to point out two things I did not feel belonged to the review itself.  First of all, the book was written by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, but throughout the review I’m only mentioning Stephenson and comparing this title with his other works.  That’s because I’m not at all familiar with Galland and her work.  I like to believe that she is responsible for the delightful characters and the humor, but I can’t prove it.

Second, I’ve read the book and later listened to it.  The print version I’ve read has distinct graphic design for every type of journal entry, memo or other communications.  This makes it easy but also fun to read.  The audio version uses distinct voices.  All voice actors are superb, especially those for Melisandre and one of the witches, Grainne.  In addition, the audio version further highlights some of the fun parts of the book, which reading may not make evident, such as when Melisandre tries to correct her cursing.  This is one of the rare occasions where I can recommend the audio version more than the written book.

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