While all of Neal Stephenson’s — always excellent — novels share common themes and tropes, they’re also told in many different modes, from the stately, measured pace of the Baroque Cycle books to the madcap energy of Snow Crash to the wildly experimental pacing of Seveneves. With The Rise and Fall of DODO, a novel co-written with his Mongoliad collaborator, the novelist Nicole Galland, we get all the modes of Stephenson, and all the tropes, and it is glorious.
DODO is a novel told in many ways: it’s combination of journal entries, chat-logs, intercepted letters, and, significantly, bureaucratic memos sent around a shadowy, officially deniable government agencies. It’s also a novel with a gigantic cast and settings spanning the whole of human history. Finally, it’s a novel that spans many kinds of storytelling: adventure tale, absurdist comedy, science fictional speculation, alternate history, and, not least, raunchy sexytimes.
At its core, DODO is the story of an upright young military gentleman who recruits a top-flight — but academically stalled — Harvard linguist to help him translate a huge corpus of documents that reveal the true story of magic: once a mighty force in the world, but mysteriously snuffed out in the 1850s. As the two of them use up the last of the young man’s secret black-ops military budget, they stumble upon a disgraced, retired MIT researcher who has inadvertently discovered a way to make magic work in the 21st century, and just as they do, they are contacted by the last living witch, whom they apparently approached more than a century before with a warning about magic’s impending demise, and convinced to cast a last spell, allowing her to live indefinitely, so she could join them in the 21st century to bring magic back to the world.
Now joined in fellowship, the four of them merely need to figure out how to convince the secret military black-ops bureaucracy to continue to fund their fantastically expensive operation, whose liquid helium budget alone runs to major sums. Through a set of absurdly hilarious twists, they hit on the strategy of having the witch send one of their number back to colonial Massachusetts, to secure and hide away a copy of a rare book as it comes off the printing press, so that it may be dug up and sold off in the present day and fund the organization’s operations.
But, of course, it’s not that easy. As their irascible witch had tried to warn them, the past has a way of healing itself, and if you want to affect the present, you have to change the past over and over again. Which they proceed to do, travelling back in time repeatedly, only to be stymied by a change in the old Cambridge that requires them to travel back even further, to London, to rescue the past from its predecessors.
When they eventually prevail — through a combination of swordsmanship, seduction, and skullduggery — their shadowy military masters are sufficiently impressed that they move in a new command structure. The general who leads them is such an arrogant, stiff-necked prick that he is promptly killed by their witch. This so impresses the military — at last, a lethal application! — that they receive an even more comprehensive administrative layer, including a process optimizing specialist who proceeds to pen a series of bureaucratic memos explaining how a black-ops time-travel corps must still be ISO 9000 compliant.
Over 740 pages, DODO veers from the kind of genteel absurdity of Three Men in a Boat to something like an RPG campaign book to a caper novel (with vikings!) that is such a goddamned romp that I was absolutely delighted when I realized that this was but book one of a much longer series.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: A Novel [Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland/Morrow]
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