Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: A Review of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: A Novel (2017)
Written by: Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Genre: Science Fantasy
Pages: 754 (Kindle)
Publisher: William Morrow

Why I Chose It: Although I’ve never read anything by Neal Stephenson (I know!) or Nicole Galland, I’ve always had a weakness for both time travel stories and epistolary novels.

The premise:

From bestselling author Neal Stephenson and critically acclaimed historical and contemporary commercial novelist Nicole Galland comes a captivating and complex near-future thriller combining history, science, magic, mystery, intrigue, and adventure that questions the very foundations of the modern world.

When Melisande Stokes, an expert in linguistics and languages, accidentally meets military intelligence operator Tristan Lyons in a hallway at Harvard University, it is the beginning of a chain of events that will alter their lives and human history itself. The young man from a shadowy government entity approaches Mel, a low-level faculty member, with an incredible offer. The only condition: she must sign a nondisclosure agreement in return for the rather large sum of money.

Tristan needs Mel to translate some very old documents, which, if authentic, are earth-shattering. They prove that magic actually existed and was practiced for centuries. But the arrival of the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment weakened its power and endangered its practitioners. Magic stopped working altogether in 1851, at the time of the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace — the world’s fair celebrating the rise of industrial technology and commerce. Something about the modern world “jams” the “frequencies” used by magic, and it’s up to Tristan to find out why.

And so the Department of Diachronic Operations — D.O.D.O. — gets cracking on its real mission: to develop a device that can bring magic back, and send Diachronic Operatives back in time to keep it alive . . . and meddle with a little history at the same time. But while Tristan and his expanding operation master the science and build the technology, they overlook the mercurial — and treacherous — nature of the human heart.

Below is a spoiler-free zone.


Discussion: I dig epistolary novels because…well, because I’m nosy, I guess. I like voyeuristic aspect of reading a journal or a series of private letters or emails. I also like filling in the blanks between the various documents, and the sense that I’m working to piece together the larger picture. I always enjoyed research in school, and I suppose epistolary novels appeal to my inner academic. That sounds much better than “because I’m nosy,” doesn’t it? Okay, let’s go with the whole inner academic thing.

A lion’s share of this book is framed as the Diachronic Diary of Dr. Melisande Stokes, who is trapped, as we learn very early on, in a version of mid-nineteenth century London that’s on the cusp of all magic in the world going kaput. In addition to her diary, there is also a plethora of other sources for the narrative, including other characters’ journals, letters, official governmental missives, interoffice memos, emails, debriefings, historic documents, etc. The authors cleverly spend much of the early pages in Mel’s diary, a logical place for a storytelling voice, so that by the time they begin employing impersonal documents — like the occasionally redacted contents of a legal hearing — the characters involved have already been described and our investment in their actions have been firmly established.

Most time travel books have a their own rules. For example, in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, one can only move forward through time, not back. In 11/22/63 by Stephen King, time is obstinate; it doesn’t want to be changed. In The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., various Strands of time exist, and one must go back again and again to make the same change on various Strands before it will stick. But changes must also be made in small increments. Trying to shift time too dramatically on one Strand will cause Diachronic Shear — a massive explosion, which is time’s effort to repair itself. It’s an interesting premise, if a little frustrating at times, and proves to be the basis for some fun historical hijinks.

There’s a lot of information in this book, a lot of history and a lot of theoretical physics talk, and, as far as that goes, your mileage may vary. It does weigh down the narrative in places, slowing the action to the point of full-on stagnancy at times, but unlike in The Martian by Andy Weir, where I sometimes skipped whole paragraphs because they were so far over my head, the authors of D.O.D.O. made their ideas much more accessible to the layperson, and I never found myself jumping ahead.

(Side note: I loved The Martian. It’s an exciting, surprisingly hilarious read, and I highly recommend it. Just know that it can get pretty science heavy in places.)

In addition to the history and the physics, there are also a lot of crazy acronyms, like D.O.D.O., which provides quite a bit of the book’s dry-as-the-Sahara-Desert humor. Anyone who’s spent time in an organization that employs acronyms for the sake of “efficiency,” or those who simply enjoy wordplay, will appreciate the length these authors will stretch for a joke.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games, not once the government gets involved. In time, D.O.D.O. grows, and the story’s core duo, Mel and Tristan, a self-proclaimed agent of a shadowy government agency, end up as pawns in an organization that they built from the ground up. Or from the past forward. That they built themselves.

The authors do raise some ethical questions about the characters’ actions, but they’re fewer than the ones I had, and while this made sense for Tristan — who is, first and foremost, a soldier — Mel’s lack of concern feels a bit disingenuous in places. On one hand, she’s a linguist who, by design, becomes more and more focused on her specialty as D.O.D.O. grows. On the other hand, she’s high enough in the organization to see more of the big picture than many, and she doesn’t begin to question things until they’ve progressed rather far along. This is framed as a blindness caused by pure academic interest, but there were points where it strained my sympathy for her.

There is also slow-burn romance in the book that could have been more fully developed. While I understand the need for the slow burn — this story is set over a number of years — the progression, or lack thereof, becomes contrived after a while. Granted, the romance is a small storyline amid a host of other storylines, but I got fairly invested in it early on, and I wish more pages had been devoted to its development. Then again, that’s probably a pretty big ask for a book that’s already closing in on the 800-page mark, and it is a minor issue in a sea of major enjoyment.

Overall, Stephenson and Galland made the choices of their characters feel like ones that mattered, like actions that could, or already have, affected our own Strand of time, and when a time travel story reaches that bar, I consider it a win.

In Conclusion: As mentioned above, I’ve never read anything by Neal Stephenson or Nicole Galland before, so I can’t say how this compares to their other works. However, based on this book, I will be seeking out more reads by both authors in the future. This is a clever, compelling take on time travel, and the authors use the epistolary style to their advantage at every turn.

Also, if you finish this book and are looking for another story in the same universe, you can download Bound and dive into The D.O.D.O. Files, an episodic narrative written by Jamie Ortiz and David N. Ishimaru.

2 Comments

  • Shara White January 17, 2018 at 8:02 am

    Have you read other time travel books? I’m thinking you might be a fan of Connie Willis’ series, two come to mind: for more serious, read DOOMSDAY BOOK (my first Willis and I loved it), for more light-hearted (yet still in the same universe!), try TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG.

    Reply
  • Weasel of Doom January 17, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Sounds intriguing! Also, I second Shara’s recommendation of Connie Willis’ books.

    Reply

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