July 06, 2017
(++++) MAGICAL UNREALISM
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. William Morrow. $35.
A huge and sprawling novel of more than 750 pages, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is a mashup of fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, character comedy, magical realism, and a very impressive amount of genuine thoughtfulness. Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland have worked together before, on the interactive project The Mongoliad, but both are better known as solo authors – he of science fiction, she of historical novels. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. manages to transcend both genres, always in an involving way and frequently with tongue in cheek. Just consider the title: would anyone want to work for an organization whose name practically guarantees its extinction? Would anyone want to create such an organization? Even in jest or semi-jest? Of course the answers are all “yes” or there would be no book. But there is one, and quite a book it is.
The narrative begins suitably, in medias res, with Melisande Stokes (interesting first name) writing from the year 1851 to an audience in the future, which is her past. Yes, this is a time-travel book, complete and replete with all the paradoxes that implies. But wait – there’s more. Mel got back to Victorian England courtesy of a hyper-secret black-budget government entity – yes, one of those, the sort of outfit that has construction jobs done by people who all introduce themselves as Max and technology handled by people who all gives their names as Vladimir. But wait – there’s more. Mel is in her current predicament – the deep-seated culture clash involving her feelings about lacking modern toothpaste and wearing a corset surely comes from Galland – thanks to the machinations of a mysterious operative named Tristan Lyons (another interesting first name, and could that last name be portentous?). Lyons is, among other things, a passable physicist, which in this context means he can see ways to bend and rearrange 21st-century physics but gets sufficiently lost in the details so that they need to be explained to him – an excuse for someone, presumably Stephenson, to throw in some exegesis that is crucial to the plot but does not slow down the action all that much.
But wait – there’s more. The reason for twisting and contorting physics has to do with the possibility of using the multiverse to reinstate, umm, magic. Don’t blanch – the world (worlds?) created in The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. include one in which magic does not exist at all (a variation on our own modern one, but not actually ours) and one (ones?) in which it most assuredly does, but is about to wink out of existence because of developments in, well, physics. And if all this sounds extremely complex, with plots piled on plots and a bewildering variety of potential loose ends that will require tying up eventually, that is simply because the novel is extremely complex, with plots piled on plots and all the rest of it. Hence the 750-plus pages. And a cast list at the end. And a glossary, also at the end, which will help readers unravel the many fascinating acronyms – this is a book in which acronyms play an unusually large role, and D.O.D.O. is but the first of a long line of them (the glossary is two single-spaced pages long).
Multifaceted and exceptionally stylish, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is expertly paced throughout, from its start as, of all things, a linguistic puzzle (Mel is a linguist recruited by Lyons to translate documents from a multitude of languages, for mysterious governmental purposes), to its continuation in venues as scattered in time and space as 16th-century Antwerp, 13th-century Constantinople, and mid-19th-century San Francisco. The authors have clearly had great fun with the details here as well as the overarching plot – their enjoyment is evident not only in the matters of corsetry and toothpaste but also through the inclusion of several genuine historical figures plus several bankers named Fugger who did not exist but certainly could have been descendants of Jakob Fugger (1459-1525), our-world banker extraordinaire and possibly the richest man who ever lived. True, not everything works: the book is for the most part filled with wry and even erudite humor, but the introduction of a straight-from-central-casting idiotic bad guy named Les (get that first name) Holgate, after 250-some pages, seriously undermines the carefully constructed world and personality set that has been so expertly crafted until that point. Stephenson and Galland, having created nuanced characters rather than caricatures, did not need boring, unoriginal bull-in-a-china-shop idiocy from the Pentagon – here initially called the Trapezoid, one of many indications that the primary world here is not exactly our world – and it is disappointing that they chose to introduce it. Yet the badly spoiled flow of the book caused by the use of this character recovers even from this.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. crosses plenty of genres: there is a bit of steampunk, some clever use of the whole “language” theme (with which the book both starts and ends), a touch of traditional mad-scientist trappings, plus the whole magic-and-witchcraft thing, and even some puttering around in the land of ethnic cliché. What unites the whole sprawling potential mess and prevents it from flying off the narrative tracks are two crucial things: characters’ voices that genuinely differ from each other and carry aspects of the story beautifully (through media including letters, journals, official white papers, PowerPoint presentations, an extended poem in the alliterative style of Beowulf, and more), and a core of humanity that emerges again and again throughout the novel – almost of its own accord, it seems, but in reality because of the considerable skill of this authorial team. The human elements have always given speculative fiction its staying power, and they are the ties that bind here, both in matters of conflict and in ones of the heart. Thoroughly engaging and involving, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. practically throws its complete unbelievability in readers’ faces and dares those who pick it up to find it an incomprehensible mishmash. It could easily have been just that, but Stephenson and Galland, against all odds, make the whole thing work so wonderfully that “I can’t believe that” is quickly and permanently transformed into “I can’t believe I believe that.” Both fiction and metafiction, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. claws its way through multiple categories to establish itself in a lineage that includes, among many other works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – whose creator, readers may or may not recall, caricatured himself within that tale as a dodo.