Review of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
by Neal Stephenson
To whoever finds this,
I say unto you now thrice, look, this isn’t really a novel.
Reader, I write this with the hope that, one day, we might be successful in undoing (redoing? doing? DOing?) what has already been undone. But if you are reading this and scratching your head, then perhaps all our efforts have come to naught.
I believe that a concerted time-travel project (or “diachronic operation”) has been carried out, in secret, for years, for the express purpose of rewriting our timeline (Strand) to the betterment of the authors Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland.
Stop and think for a moment: is there really any reason you would willingly sit down and read nearly-thousand page books full of extraneous exposition? And this particular example is, actually, one of the shorter Stephensons I’ve read. Either it’s Stockholm syndrome or there are temporal shenanigans afoot. Alas, since I am not a witch, I have no ability to sense the GLAAMR that might surround each and every copy of these pernicious texts.
Stephenson and Galland (whose work I’m not familiar with) have previously collaborated on The Mongoliad, a cross-platform, intertextual storytelling experience. As such, I can understand some of the influences on the structure of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. One might argue that Stephenson and Galland are intentionally experimenting with what makes a book a novel. Just as writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century departed more and more from the epistolary style of narration and broadened our understanding of novel narrative, Galland and Stephenson are almost returning that more primitive form, while simultaneously expanding the channels of information.
In one sense, this is an AGU (ambitious and grand undertaking). No doubt it required the coordination of many a KCW, across multiple DTAPs, and countless DEDEs pushing the Strands every which way. Reader, I applaud Stephenson and Galland for their courage, even as I urge you to fight against the obvious dominion under which they have yolked us. Regardless of one’s opinion of or enjoyment of this book, it’s definitely an interesting attempt at doing something different. Perhaps, ultimately, that’s why I am still given to reading Stephenson’s experiments, despite liking few enough of them.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. succeeds and suffers upon Stephenson’s fascination with particular things (history, swordfighting, other arcana)—I blame Stephenson more so because I’m familiar with his oeuvre, so, having no direct experience of Galland, have a more difficult time identifying what traces she may have left upon this manuscript. As with many a Stephenson story, this one seems to be a “what if” experiment crossed with the research for an intense D&D campaign.
It pains me to admit, but upon my soul, I am a sucker for time-travel adventures. And ultimately, whether you classify this as science fiction or fantasy or speculative fiction or whatever, that’s what this is. I admire the blend of science and magic, the attempts to syncretize explanations of how magic might work and why it faded away with modern quantum physics technobabble. Galland and Stephenson’s attempts to emulate the discourse of national security apparatuses isn’t quite as smooth as Charles Stross (and even he tries me at times), but I suppose it livens up the narrative somewhat.
Time grows short, my supply of paper shorter still. Soon I must surrender up this letter into the hands of the Fuggers, who I pray might keep it safe, and melt back into the crowds, lest the agents of Stephenson and Galland find me, and devise a DEDE such that I trouble these Strands no more. So, to summarize: if you pick up this book and say, “Huh, a 750-page book by Neal Stephenson. I probably shouldn’t bother” then don’t bother. This is not going to change your opinion of Neal Stephenson one way or the other. If, on the other hand, you really enjoy reading these massive Stephenson tomes, then … hey, here is yet another one. This time with time travel!
Indeed, if The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. accomplishes anything, it’s by grasping at a fundamental philosophical dilemma surrounding time travel. Supposing it is possible to travel into the past and alter it, are such actions moral? Indeed, one might argue that such actions are morally imperative, and that not altering the past would be evil. Alas, these ideas, while hinted at throughout the story, never find themselves centre stage until quite literally the final pages of the book, and that saddens me to no end. I would much have preferred such debates over the tedious foreshadowing and telegraphing of Gráinne’s machinations. Even skimming certain portions I was able to foresee the outcome of that plot from dozens of pages away.
Ours is a strange reality, yes, one altered beyond my very ability to recognize. I have fuzzy memories of an alternative Strand, one where … a woman became President of the United States … and there is some kind of video game called “Half-Life 3” (why anyone would begin a franchise with the third instalment, I have no clue). Are these just delusions of my increasingly restive mind? Or have the diachronic operations of these two authors twisted our universe out of shape so intensely? I suppose, ultimately, we will never know.