This review contains spoilers.
On Monday I wrote about Zen Cho’s The True Queen and how being a fun, silly Regency fantasy novel is its whole project, and that’s really important in the context of its representation of people of colour, working class people and queer people.
Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is going for “fun historical-ish SFF fiction” too, and entirely fails.
The titular D.O.D.O. is the Department for Diachronic Operations – or, to you and I, time travel. It seems that magic was once a reality, with witches being able to manipulate different quantum states to change the world they inhabited. Sometime in the mid-1800s, the invention of photography collapsed wave functions around the world, thereby destroying magic. Now, D.O.D.O.’s invented a way to get it back, and have embarked on a programme of time travel that involves changing things in the past to consolidate US power in the present.
I quite like the way the novel links magic to uncertainty, and presents its practitioners as savvy exploiters of human perception and cultural assumptions. That’s picked up by its epistolary form: the story’s told through diaries, chatlogs, emails, presentations and letters, making it a shifting fug of different perspectives and voices, with plenty of gaps for uncertainties to fall into.
That’s about the only thing I did like, though. One of the novel’s main registers is bureaucratic comedy – jargon-loaded emails from HR, endless humorous acronyms, that sort of thing. But while there’s a kind of gossipy fun to be gleaned from employees bitching about their managers on Slack, the humour isn’t exactly sharp, and you really don’t need 750 pages, a glossary and a list of dramatis personae to tell this kind of story.
Actually, that’s what’s at the heart of my problems with The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: it is far, far too long for what it’s actually doing. Sure, there’s a time travel plot, but really it’s more of a sequence of things happening than a coherent and satisfying narrative arc. The “historical” writing (diaries and letters from people living in the past – including an Elizabethan witch and a Victorian lady) is overwrought and unconvincing: “I was incredulous and I expressed my incredulity with colorful language.” There’s a fine line between expansiveness and over-explanation when you’re writing in a historical “voice”,, and Stephenson and Galland cross it repeatedly.
The tension between science and magic here – in that the proliferation of scientific thinking literally wipes out magic – is also pretty boring: it’s something that’s been done so many times, and this novel is not adding anything to it. As it’s presented here it’s also historically inaccurate – the concept of rationality as a response to the world goes all the way back to the Enlightenment. Tying it to the first widespread use of photography makes a little more sense, but it still feels like it’s playing into a false idea of the Western world. There’s also very little scrutiny of the ethical implications of the USA’s use of magic and time travel. This is the US government literally meddling with time to consolidate their power! It has far-reaching consequences for at least one timeline! The novel registers this as a bit sinister but doesn’t do anything with that recognition; it both cares and really doesn’t.
It almost feels as if this enormous book (I repeat: 750 PAGES) was meant to be the start of a series. Certainly its ending is abrupt and anticlimactic: D.O.D.O. is taken over by a disgruntled witch who’s determined to restore magic by any means necessary – including dismantling the entire technological foundation of modern American society. A bunch of ex-D.O.D.O.-ers go rogue in order to stop her. “And that, dear reader, is who we are, and what we now are doing.”* I want to read that novel! That novel has conflict and women in positions of power and maybe some deeper interrogation of the tension between magic and science! Not this novel, with its weird black-ops vibe and support for existing oppressive systems which are literally colonising the past and nothing terribly interesting actually happening.
I just – really did not appreciate working my way through this doorstop of a novel only to find that it ends where a better novel might begin. And it’s not like the writers are bad! I loved Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which is exactly the kind of doorstop that presses all my readerly buttons, and although I haven’t read anything else by Nicole Galland it doesn’t seem like she’s an amateur or anything. It’s just…weirdly edited and weirdly conceived and, I can’t stress this enough, too long. If the job of reviewers is to evaluate whether a novel succeeds at what it’s trying to do – well, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is trying to be fun, and fun it is not.
*This is literally and without exaggeration the entire last sentence of the novel.