Neal Stephenson wrote one of my favorite books: Anathem. His last book, Seveneves, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. So I looked forward to this new tome – 752 pages – especially since the blurb seemed to promise good old-fashioned fun.
Yes indeed, fun! Anathem & Seveneves are dense, serious books, but The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. has the aura of a Dan Brown book: the discovery of old documents, secret government agencies, the past that turns out to be different from the official narrative, betrayal, mystery, magic.
Could it be that Stephenson again tapped into that youthful enthusiasm that characterized his brilliant sophomore effort Snow Crash and the outrageously bonkers The Diamond Age – a book that’s probably a bit too self-aware for its own good.
And what to think of the addition of Nicole Galland – with whom Stephenson (and a bunch of others) co-wrote The Mongoliad trilogy, and who primarily writes historical fiction? The dust jacket has this on their labor division:
Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson’s work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland’s storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible, and take you to places—and times—beyond imagining.
Yet the colophon places the copyright solely with Neal Stephenson, who “asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work”.
I’m guessing the main idea came from Stephenson, and he wrote the bulk of the book, with Galland acting as editor / beta-reader deluxe to keep things “warm” and the sentences light. Why? To make sure Stephenson’s latter-day heavy-handedness doesn’t get in the way of revenue. This is clearly a commercial release, aimed at a big audience. Both covers show this: the secret file, the comical dodo, the military stamp lettering, the cheesy slogan – “Think you know how the world works? Think again.”
That’s not necessarily a negative. Summer’s here, and to start the season I was up for escapist beach reading: a few thrills, a bit of alternate history, some cool technology and lots of adventure.
Did I get that?
Sure. The first 3rd was even awesome. Fast paced, interesting, the works. The basic idea is vintage Stephenson: what we call “magic” works because of the multiverse – one of the main ideas in Anathem. The explanation why magic suddenly stopped working is brilliant and again a classic Stephenson theme: the advent of science (see The Baroque Cycle). The technology involved taps nicely into postmodernism’s obsessions with both representation & photography, and quantum physics – that’s Schrödinger’s cat on the cover, yes. There’s also some linguistics & code in D.O.D.O., and all that makes it thematically the ultimate Stephenson cocktail. Galland gets some pages on Shakespeare, but that’s about it as far as I can see.
The second half of the book adds another layer. D.O.D.O. morphs into part satire on military operations and bureaucracy. Even formally the book changes: it becomes a mixture of memos, email conversation, log entries, etc. It works, as it keeps the reading experience varied.
That formal diversity was necessary, because I have to say the middle part of the book dragged often: too much stuff was over-explained and repeated. What started as a page-turner slowly became a bit of a bore. Still fun, sure, but the book lost its vigor.
It got better again towards the end, but at the same time the ending was an anti-climax, and pretty predictable. It’s also clear there’s room for a sequel, again underlining the commercial ambitions of this book. (I’m pretty sure the bidding for the movie rights has begun as well: this was written with the big screen in mind.)
Next up, the elephant in the room: time travel. I’ve written on the Terminator paradox before and I hate to say Stephenson doesn’t even try to avoid it. While Asimov at least had a story that didn’t need that paradox, the mechanics of D.O.D.O. can’t function without it. Mild spoiler in this next sentence: the witch they use to start time traveling is a witch they contact via time travel.
But it seems like nobody minds the fact that this story short-circuits: none of the numerous Goodreads reviews I’ve read even mentions this. I guess I shouldn’t nitpick either, as it seems part of the genre. I think Stephenson is very well aware of this: like Arnold Schwarzenegger, D.O.D.O. people sent back in time do so naked. There’s also references to Groundhog Day for that matter. (And MacGyver, and Robot Wars.)
That one paradox notwithstanding: there’s lots of time travel goodness. The book’s time mechanics are fresh and original, and there’s truly some clever ideas that avoid time travel becoming a too powerful tool. There’s no just going back and killing Hitler, and traveling to the future has caveats too.
There’s something that needs to be said about gender in D.O.D.O., but I’m not sure what. Only women can perform magic. Probably because of the standard “women are more intuitive” reason, but it’s never explained in the book. Some reviewers have also complained about the lack of female agency: there’s lots of female characters, but the only one that hasn’t her agenda set by a man, turns out to be the evil witch. I can see where that line of reasoning comes from, but it’s at least partly in the eye of the beholder: both Melisande and Rebecca seemed like strong characters to me. There’s some sex and prostitution, but nothing that’s out of sync with reality, so I don’t subscribe to the critique some characters are overtly sexualized. It’s also of note that practically all point-of-view passages – the bulk of the book – are written by women. I’m guessing a female co-author should excuse all of these problems? Just like Dr. Dre can say ‘nigger’ all he wants?
Moreover, also the male characters are stereotypes, with agency that’s questionable too. They have agency because they are in the military or because they are greedy vikings. It’s safe to say you don’t need to read this book because of character development or psychological depth. It’s a Hollywood plot novel, plain and simple.
The book is certainly aware about identity politics: there’s an hilarious scene about Halloween and the cultural appropriation debate.
TL;DR: excellent beach reading indeed. Not so much for its artistic merit, but it has enough good ideas and the entertainment value is satisfactory. The parts that drag can be skimmed over, as the prose is light, clear and readable. Next!