The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Cover Artist: Designed by Bonni Leon-Berman
Review by Wes Breazeale
William Morrow Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: 9780062409164
Date: 13 June 2017 List Price $35.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
While time travel stories have been around for centuries, it has really been in vogue recently on TV, with shows like Timeless, Time After Time, Frequency, and even a comedy, Making History, in the mix this past year alone. Time travel, in whatever form it takes, provides an author the chance to examine current events in the context of some past or future time. It is within this historical context (no pun intended) that Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland provide us the distinct pleasure of their novel The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
We are introduced to Stephenson and Galland's take on time travel right out of the gate, via a journal written by Melisande Stokes, a researcher from our time who is currently stuck in 1851 London. Melisande is writing furiously, as she has been stranded mere weeks before the date on which magic finally disappears from the Earth. When that happens, there will be no way for her to ever return to her own "present" time.
How Melisande got where she is, and how the practice of magic is returned to our present era, is, of course, the focus of the book and the first third or so of the nearly 750 pages focus on just how that comes about. Stephenson and Galland provide the reader with a fascinating fusion of Hard Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy, where the power of science and an understanding of quantum theory ironically serves as the answer for bringing magic back to the world.
Melisande is our primary focus, though at times she seems to lack her own agency, reacting more often that doing. She is an associate professor of linguistics and languages at Harvard University, where she literally bumps into Tristan Lyons in the hallway outside of her classroom. Tristan is a government operative looking for an expert to translate some documents--documents which could prove that once upon a time magic was real and practiced by witches throughout the world.
Their meeting leads them to eventually solve the mystery of why magic went away and what it will take to bring it back. They pull together a group of experts with the skills and talents needed to bring working magic back to our time. And of course, with working magic comes the question of what to do with it. And deciding what to do with it, of course, involves layers of government bureaucracy, meddling, secrecy, and deception.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is presented entirely via second hand reports--Melisande's and others' journal pages, letters from a precocious Irish witch living in London, emails and log entries from government servers, a lengthy (and unnecessarily distracting) epic Norse poem, and several other unique story-telling mechanisms.
The story unfolds very slowly, but the book itself moves very quickly. As with any work of this length, there are parts of it that drag just a bit, where the authors seem almost too amused by their own creativity or cleverness. Conversely, for a book of this magnitude it is a surprisingly quick, action packed, and amusing read. In particular, the first half--which covers the time while the initial bones of D.O.D.O. are being formed and everyone is learning the hows, whats, and whys of magic's disappearance and what will be needed to make it workable again--is particularly readable and hard to put down. The pace and tone of latter half of the book, when functional magic has been worked out and the actual governmental application of said magic is being focused on, changes just a bit. While equally interesting, it does slow down just a tad and lose a little of the thrill from the first half.
There is quite a bit of both subtle and broad humor throughout, which was very enjoyable. Organizational acronyms are one of the high points and are particularly entertaining and some of the subtitles in Melisande's journal are highly amusing.
The characters themselves are particularly stock, though it doesn't distract the reader in any way, plucked right out of central casting. Melisande is our plucky, academic and somewhat na´ve heroine. Tristan is the handsome rogue. We have a condescending boss--picture the mayor from Ghostbusters or the principal from Ferris Bueller's Day Off; a couple variations of the conniving woman trope; and an absentminded professor type. Again, this doesn't detract from the readability of the book--perhaps their familiarity to the reader even enhances it somewhat--but for some, this could be viewed as disappointing.
All in all, however, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is a fun, thought-provoking, laugh-inducing, thrill ride that fans of Neal Stephenson will thoroughly enjoy. Readers of this site will likely be less familiar (if at all) with Nicole Galland's work, but I would hazard a guess that part of the readability and character quirks are thanks to her, and they are a nice addition to Stephenson's sometimes formidable prose. It is a successful partnership and a read well worth the time.