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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Neal Stephenson
Nicole Galland

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To purchase The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Title: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
Author: Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 742 pages
Availability: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. - US
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. - UK
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. - Canada
Der Aufstieg und Fall des D.O.D.O. - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : busy and entertaining -- though rather lite -- time-travel story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 16/6/2017 James Lovegrove
The Guardian B 15/6/2017 Adam Roberts
San Francisco Chronicle . 4/8/2017 Michael Berry
The Washington Post . 5/6/2017 Everdeen Mason

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)hile the novel has the sophistication and sheen of Stephenson, it also has a healthy sense of absurdity. (...) (T)he novel explores the boundary between magic and science with wit, intellectual intensity and panache." - James Lovegrove, Financial Times

  • "The temporal complications are farcical, but thinly so; the dialogue is often banter, but containing a very low ratio of humour to blathery exposition. Jokes are telegraphed (.....) Even so, though itís no comic classic, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is big, roomy and enjoyable. The historical scenes are refreshingly unembarrassed by their hey-nonny-nonnyisms. The characters are lively, the plot moves along and the whole thing possesses heart and charm." - Adam Roberts, The Guardian

  • "Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland devise a premise that feels both familiar and fresh, mixing magic and science to pleasurable effect. (...) (A) high-stakes techno-farce with brains and heart, likely to be enjoyed by anyone willing to lift its more than 700 pages." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Thereís a lot going on here -- stylistic flourishes, comedic pratfalls, romance and science -- but itís handled deftly." - Everdeen Mason, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. begins with a 'Diachronicle' being ... chronicled in 1851, in London, by Melisande Stokes. She notes that she is "not a native of this time and place", and so it's clear from the start that, in this story, time-travel is possible -- and that things can go wrong. Melisande is stuck in the wrong place and the wrong time, and there's some urgency because the window of opportunity for her to get back to the present is closing rapidly.
       In her 'Diachronicle' from 1851 Melisande basically relates how she got there, telling the whole, long story, beginning more than five (present-day) years earlier, when she was a lecturer at Harvard and was first drawn into the 'D.O.D.O.' project and how it developed. Her account dominates the early parts of the novel, but as more people get involved in the D.O.D.O.-project the novel comes to include other first-hand accounts and supporting materials: others' diary-entries, communications in the form of e-mails and hand-written letters, office memos, a PowerPoint presentation, HR personnel dossiers, and more. It makes for a lot of variety and certainly keeps the story bouncing along; it's also an effective technique to bring in a variety of perspectives -- including some amusing bureaucratic ones -- and allows readers to see a bigger picture that individual characters are, for much of the story, missing.
       So what is D.O.D.O. ? An early running gag in the novel is that Melisande doesn't know, even after she is recruited for and involved in the project, and she keeps hazarding guesses. Eventually, however, the very classified project's name is revealed to her: Department of Diachronic Operations.
       She is recruited by Tristan Lyons, who runs the show -- pretty much solo, when he first reaches out to Melisande. She is a dissatisfied lecturer in the Department of Ancient and Classical Linguistics (which, sigh, is not a thing: Harvard has a Department of the Classics and elsewhere they do Historical Linguistics, but ...), and it is her linguistic training and abilities that are of interest for the project.
       The premise is a bit confusing (and/or very far-fetched) but seems to amount to: there used to be such a thing as magic, but it was more or less completely killed off -- in 1851, by photography. Magic worked because there is a multiverse: 'Strands' of every possible reality -- but in 1851 photography: "breaks magic by embalming a specific moment -- one version of reality -- into a recorded image". No more moving back and forth between Strands -- for those with the power (witches) -- meant no more magic. A former MIT professor's research into what is essentially the Schrödinger's Cat condition seems to offer the possibility of accessing other Strands of reality -- and this, on a much larger scale, allows for time travel and a resurrection, or at least some harnessing of magic.
       Melisande is needed first to translate ancient records of actual magic -- proof that this sort of thing existed -- but then also because linguistic abilities are necessary once any actual time travel is possible: travelers need both to blend in and to be able to communicate with the locals in different eras and places.
       They also find a surviving witch, Erszebet Karpathy: forewarned that magic was coming to an end, she was under a spell that kept her from really aging, and so was still sprightly in the present-day, when she contacted Melisande and gets involved with D.O.D.O., despite being born in 1832. With her insider knowledge of magic, she is also very helpful -- and they need witch-help because, while they can build a device to send people back in time, they need a local -- an empowered local, with the right powers -- to send the subject back. So they need to find witches in the past, who will be willing to help them. Conveniently, this also means they have to travel back past 1851 and are unable to meddle in more recent history, since there's no magic after 1851 that could get them back.
       This is a federal project, but the government has its doubts and wants D.O.D.O. to pay its own way, so their first experiments are in self-funding: burying something of value in the past that they can dig up and sell for a great deal of money in the present. This turns out to be more difficult than initially imagined, but eventually they are successful -- and once they have some cash and get the hang of things, D.O.D.O. really takes off. That includes becoming more bureaucratic, which brings a host of its own problems (as well more opportunities for office-place and bureaucracy humor -- such as memos about making D.O.D.O. job titles ISO 9000 compliant ...).
       More witches are added to the mix, and several time-travel adventures, in different periods and places, take place. Bits of history are altered -- but often enough something goes slightly wrong, necessitating further fiddling. And often that doesn't go right either, especially when others, with their own agendas, get involved. Altering anything too drastically leads to a Diachronic Shear -- a rip in place and time that manifests itself in considerable local destruction -- and that is bad news.
       Eventually, one of the witches decides she has a better plan: to make sure magic isn't killed off in the first place. Which means altering history so that technology doesn't advance to the level where even just photography really takes off. Given witches' powers, she's in a position to get control over much of D.O.D.O. -- but not everyone, and it comes to a not-quite final showdown (given time travel, there's little possibility of true finality).
       It's all quite good fun, an entertaining mix of several different kinds of novels, from high-tech start-up story to secret government agency tale to, of course, time-traveling adventures. Stephenson and Galland throw in a lot here, and while the story suffers some from the silliness of the magic-premise, past that it's very solidly founded. (Ironically, that probably undermines the novel as a whole: scientifically rigorous throughout, the magic/witch angle stands out as even more absurd.) There are some neat historical scenes -- though the authors are careful not to get too carried away with these and present much in short, summary form -- and they juggle a variety of tensions effectively, ranging from the government need for secrecy (which doesn't always work out as planned), security, and bureaucracy to the romantic tension between Melisande and Tristan. Strong secondary characters, such as the main witches or the long-suffering wife of one of the researchers, also help -- though inevitably such a big story is thin in (many) parts.
       Switching narrative forms -- and utilizing so many, and so many very different voices -- is especially effective. It keeps things really moving -- deftly also constantly changing pace -- and the variety contributes to making The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. as entertaining as it is.
       This is ultimately still very light entertainment, but it's certainly enjoyable and makes fine casual reading, a fun, big story to lose oneself in for a while.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 June 2017

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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Nicole Galland: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

       American author Nicole Galland was born in 1955.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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