The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
September 17, 2017 9:42 AM - by Neal Stephenson - Subscribe

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. — Amazon

Magic is real, and it works, and it allows time-travel. Or rather it did work until we invented photography, which did something Quantum, and witches lost their power to, among other things, project themselves or other people back in time. But then a fringe research project funded by the US military finds a way to possibly get around the contemporary jamming of magic, and even finds someone who might be able to perform it. And so the Department of Diachronic Operations is born, only to find that time travel is even more complicated than you might expect.

There are some very interesting themes here about time travel, the mutability of history in some models of it, and the risks for abuse thereof. These are nicely foreshadowed early on, when the headquarters of the DoD is referred to by a rather unfamiliar name, and the astute reader realises that there is going to be some payoff for this, and - given that the book features attempts to travel into the past - just what it might be. It's also a collaboration (not Stephenson's first - he wrote two novels, Interface and The Cobweb, with his uncle George Jewsbury) although the stylistic quirks are very much those familiar to Stephenson's readers.
posted by Major Clanger (17 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
OK, having kicked off the post, my own thoughts...

I quite enjoyed reading this, but from the outset the whole premise bugged me, because it felt awfully familiar. And that's because I've read both Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Jodi Taylor's Chronicles of St Mary's series, which had the unfortunate consequence that The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. came across to me as if Clarke and Taylor's books had been thrown into a blender and then had Stephenson's distinctive style sprinkled on top.

(Let me emphasise that I am not for a moment suggestion plagiarism or imitation. Neither Taylor nor Stephenson and Galland are the first to depict an organisation whose mission is to travel back in time to investigate or interact with the past - see Connie Willis, for example. And if you're going to set up such an organisation, it stands to reason that it will need departments for historical research, time-appropriate costuming, the briefing and training of investigators, and some very specialist security staff, so I'm hardly surprised that the org chart of D.O.D.O in its fully-fledged form is so close to how Taylor describes the set-up of St Mary's. That said, the tone is quite different; the St Mary's novels have heavy doses of both comedy and tragedy, whereas D.O.D.O. is more of an adventure romp.)

Now, I have to say that Neal Stephenson has managed to get past what our very own cstross once referred to as "the patent Neal Stephenson 'and then weird shit happens which has nothing to do with the rest of the plot' ending." (See: Snow Crash.) Unfortunately, he has substituted for it the 'run back and forth nudging plot threads into colliding at the same time' ending (see: Reamde) and I felt that D.O.D.O. did suffer from this a bit. For that matter, the novel did not so much end as stop, and I almost expected a 'TO BE CONTINUED' or at least 'D.O.D.O WILL RETURN' on the final page.

And yes, the moment our characters referred early on to 'The Trapezoid' I realised that we were in 'A Sound of Thunder' territory, and sooner or later someone was going to tread on the proverbial butterfly.
posted by Major Clanger at 10:03 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

This book should have been right up my alley because Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors (though after Reamde he was no longer on my automatically-purchase-in-hardback list), and I love Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Connie Willis' time travel books and anything that involves magic and bureaucracy, but for some reason I bounced off this one so hard after just a few chapters. I'll probably give it another try at some point (I'm honestly having a hard time following through on a lot of books since the election) since I almost gave up on Seven Eves and liked that a lot more upon rereading.

(Please do not mistake this for Your Favorite Author Sucks - he is one of my favs and I cannot figure out why this book was so damn impenetrable to me, so I'm really interested to see what my fellow Mefites thought of it.)
posted by skycrashesdown at 11:32 AM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wasn't bothered by a shaggy dog time travel with beauracracy story being derivative (was The Big Time the first of those?), but something about DODO felt off-kilter to me as well, and I also have a hard time putting my finger on it.

I'll probably remember DODO mostly as a vehicle for the WalMart saga. Which I thought was interesting since it relied on shared knowledge of a space which is, however, not the same space for each reader.
posted by joeyh at 2:16 PM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a longtime fan of Stephenson, happy to ride along on the adventure and forgiving of the weird endings mentioned above. Plus, I love time travel stories. So I was pretty psyched for this. Unfortunately it left me a little cold. I might have to re-read it to be fair, because I blew through it pretty quickly, but as much fun as all the adventure was I couldn't get over how myopic the main characters felt to me. I get that that's partly the whole point: the remorseless logic of the bureaucracy, etc., but they just ended up fixating for so long on time travel and ignoring everything else magic might imply or lead to that I couldn't take it. I mean Jesus, how much brainpower does it take to think of disguising an ATTO as a porta-potty at some international summit and playing mind games with whichever world leaders you can snag? By the time we got to Gráinne's big play at the end I was having a hard time feeling sympathetic for the main characters, because hey at least she was trying to accomplish something meaningful. I also got a kick out of Magnus' storyline. He was another one who actually seemed to have an internal motivation beyond "time to advance the plot!"

I guess the ultimate problem I had with this novel was that Stephenson and Galland wanted to explore the pernicious bureaucracy side of this story way more than I did.

I don't know Galland's other work well but Wikipedia says she has a background in theater and I wonder if parts of this plot would have worked better as a play. In my experience plays are better at artificially confining the implications of their plots to whatever we see on the stage, just because of the nature of the medium.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:51 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I also had this snarkier take: it would have been way more fun if, somewhere around page 300, Mel had paused in her mooning over boring-ass Lyons long enough to remember/realize that Blevins is an ass and is going to inevitably fuck everything up and just conspired with Erszebet to deal with him much sooner and on her own terms. The second half of the book could have been "fun adventures trolling the bureaucracy with Mel, Erszebet, and the Odas" and it would have been great.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:58 PM on September 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm a big fan of Mr. Stephenson, and would have bought this except I saw it first on the new book shelf at the library. I won't be buying. I didn't actively hate it... but you manage to technologically restore magic to the world, and the large bureaucracy can only think to use it for time travel? It's like Homer Simpson getting three wishes. At about page 700 I was starting to get that creepy feeling that "Neil's going just stop, there will be no ending." And going through 768 pages to find out the book is the first in a series? What's next, "The Startling Return of D.O.D.O."? Marrow should have at least put "Volume One" on the cover.

I always love visiting the worlds Stephenson creates, the little details he puts in are a delight. But sometimes they overload the story.

After "Snow Crash," I've always thought Neil needed an editor, I thought having a coauthor might serve here. I was wrong
posted by Marky at 3:41 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

First off, big thanks to Major Clanger for making this fanfare.

I really enjoyed the book but it did have some major flaws. The ending was very compressed, as they are in a lot of Stephenson's books.

The pacing was quick. I read it on a Kindle, and didn't realize that it was a 750+ page book until after I finished it. I don't have time to devour books like I used to, so it was nice to blast through this one in 3-4 days.

I'm a big sucker for government bureaucracy meets magic. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has been mentioned already, I'm also reminded of Stross' Laundry Files and Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych.

The book is obviously ripe for sequels and spin offs. It alludes to so many interesting subplots but then decides not to follow them. This isn't a bad thing, I think the authors did it consciously. One prime example is Mel's deliberate glossing over of Felix's adventures in carrying the seeds from Constantinople to to western Europe.

Specific spoilers below:

I was surprised not to catch any easter eggs such as including a Shaftoe or a Waterhouse.

I felt like the San Francisco plot is a loose end that will come up in the inevitable sequel. How does Julie and her family fit into everything?

What exactly happened to cause the Trapezoid into the Pentagon? I enjoyed that it implies that we are living in the altered reality.

I agree that Blevins should have been neutralized earlier. His plotline was frustrating because the original DODOers seemed so helpless. I guess that's part of the bureaucracy setting.

Any ideas on the significance of the Fugger's dilated pupils?
posted by Telf at 6:47 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Marky wrote:
And going through 768 pages to find out the book is the first in a series? What's next, "The Startling Return of D.O.D.O."? Marrow should have at least put "Volume One" on the cover.

Agreed. I'm about sick of getting stuck in unfinished trilogies. I've enacted a GRRM/Jordan/Rothfuss rule of not starting unfinished series and feel a bit tricked on this one.
posted by Telf at 6:53 PM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Getting muddled in bureaucracy was typical Stephenson, but some of the other stuff was new and fun. I particularly liked how our team of characters kept trying to save their organization and finally lost it completely. I loved that Gráinne took it all over. Maybe they will start doing something more interesting than exploiting talented women throughout history. I have no idea of whether there will be more books, but I hope so. I had a good time reading this. (After Reamde my expectations were low.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:19 PM on September 19, 2017

I enjoyed Reamde but it did feel like a very different beast. I guess the fungibility of wealth/money/information is a common theme.

This book would make a good TV series but maybe we enough shows like that now.
posted by Telf at 2:06 AM on September 20, 2017

Telf - I was curious about the Fuggers too, but I guess that's for another book...

The Fugger family was and is a real banking family (Though there was no Athanasius as far as I can tell). They had immense wealth and helped finance the Hapsburgs' rise to power through the 1400s-1500s. I don't think they're as big a deal these days but certainly still doing ok. I'd be very curious what the point of divergence in the DODO universe was that led to them being more than just a bunch of rich Germans.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:34 PM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]


Sorry for the delay on this response. That's interesting! I'm surprised that they used an actual family. I just sort of assumed they were a Rothschild equivalent. I wouldn't have even bothered to look that up as Fugger seemed liked a silly joke name. Thanks.
posted by Telf at 2:39 AM on October 7, 2017

I have no actual proof but I would be willing to bet that Stephenson or Galland just thought the Fugger name was funny and that was reason enough to use them. I don't recall the name popping up in the Baroque Cycle books, but Stephenson surely must have come across the name at some point while researching the early history of banking and the Hapsburgs for that series.
posted by Wretch729 at 3:45 PM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I picked this up cheap in an Amazon Kindle sale and have been working my way through it over the holidays. I'm about a third of the way through, and am finding it a slog. I think the concepts are interesting but the execution is clumsy and it comes off like bad fanfic. I rarely give up on books but I don't know if I can deal with another 400 pages of this.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 11:33 AM on December 27, 2017

sevenyearlurk ,

Sorry to hear that. I think it was one the more enjoyable books I read last year. I'm mid-thesis so my reading has been pretty dry to be sure.

Unrelated to your point, I've been thinking about how the agents were forced to clean out their microbiome every time they travelled. Surely that would cause some huge issues in health and digestion. No amount of kombucha and yogurt is going to fix wiping out your gut flora every few weeks.
posted by Telf at 4:45 AM on January 9, 2018

Well, I finally finished it and I really liked it, though there were some weak spots like (a) having to do the same missions over and over again kind of dragged to read, (b) Melisande's romantic feelings for Tristan are more tell, not show than anything else so eh on that, and (c) no resolution ending + no news of sequel = me being annoyed.
But I enjoyed the witches and the plotline once Grainne's plot started to get going and I was ripping through it at the end.

Has anyone checked out the DODO stories on their Apple app? I have Android so I can't check it out, but it sounds like author sanctioned fanfic on there.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:27 AM on January 21, 2018

I finally picked this up again and finished it, but it was difficult. There are the germs of a good story, but it is almost lost within the "comedic" framework that the authors chose to use. The parody of a bureaucratic structure being forced onto the agency is incredibly broad and forced, and not helped by incredibly the thin caricatures that pass for antagonists. Telling big parts of the story through a series of unconvincingly-framed letters, emails and wiki posts is clumsy and exhausting. Overall, it felt like an uninspired and unskilled copy of Stross's Laundry Files. The book would be a lot more enjoyable - and believable - with a lighter touch.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 11:42 AM on February 8, 2018

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