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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O - Textual Relations June 2021 Reading

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is a science fantasy novel by American writers Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It was published in 2017.

From Amazon.com: When Melisande Stokes, an expert in linguistics and languages, accidently meets military intelligence operator Tristan Lyons in a hallway at Harvard University, it is the beginning of a chain of events that will alter their lives and human history itself. The young man from a shadowy government entity approaches Mel, a low-level faculty member, with an incredible offer. The only condition: she must swear herself to secrecy in return for the rather large sum of money.

Tristan needs Mel to translate some very old documents, which, if authentic, are earth-shattering. They prove that magic actually existed and was practiced for centuries. But the arrival of the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment weakened its power and endangered its practitioners. Magic stopped working altogether in 1851, at the time of the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace—the world’s fair celebrating the rise of industrial technology and commerce. Something about the modern world "jams" the "frequencies" used by magic, and it’s up to Tristan to find out why.

And so the Department of Diachronic Operations—D.O.D.O.—gets cracking on its real mission: to develop a device that can bring magic back, and send Diachronic Operatives back in time to keep it alive . . . and meddle with a little history at the same time. But while Tristan and his expanding operation master the science and build the technology, they overlook the mercurial—and treacherous—nature of the human heart.

Neal Town Stephenson is an American writer known for his works of speculative fiction. His novels have been categorized as science fiction, historical fiction, cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, and baroque.

Nicole Galland is an American novelist, initially known for her historical fiction. She has written The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. in collaboration with Neal Stephenson. She wrote the contemporary comedic novel Stepdog. Under the name E.D. deBirmingham she wrote Siege Perilous, the fifth novel of the Mongoliad cycle.

Let's keep text spoilered until the 20th of June please!
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I'm curious how this is going to relate to Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky, which seems to cover at least some of the same ground.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
You'll have to let us know! I haven't read that. Hoping to start this today or tomorrow.
 

John

(he/him)
I'm enjoying it so far but goodness gracious is this a Neal Stephenson book.
I just got to a part where they paraphrased "I don't know how much you know about Japanese culture (I'm an expert)". The expository dialog in this is really bad, and the interpersonal stuff reads like someone writing how Cool College Kids act in YA novels (except they swear sometimes). That said, it's still a breezy read, I went through 50 pages in a short time this morning, and I'm not a fast reader anymore. I think they just teased time paradoxes in a pointedly obvious way, so I'm looking out to see if that will be done interestingly or just copying what other stories have done before.
 
Just picked up my copy! I have a meeting for another book club on Wednesday and need to wrap up that one and will start this. Glad to hear it's breezy as I hadn't realized how big it is!
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
Page 232 / part 2:

Well now we’ve got sassy sex workers in Elizabethan England and it turns out the beer Tristan’s obsessed with is a sex work joke. This is definitely a Neal Stephenson book.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I've gotta say, I was not expecting this book to be more of a slog than Wildfell Hall. There's an entire section that's supposedly "powerpoint slides" that quickly devolves into just big blocks of otherwise ordinary narrative with occasional "slide" headers and no paragraph breaks. Which, yes, haha that often happens with powerpoint slides, please don't put it into your book. One of the witch characters is named "Gráinne" and while per Wikipedia it's pronounced Grania, her sections are filled with her making jokes about how the English can't pronounce her name, which feels to me like a clear wink-wink at the character's name being "Granny" as in the traditional appellation for witches. And time travel stories are already rough; DODO has somehow found a way to make them even more tedious by making them all about revisiting the same events over and over.

Also wondering if the book is going to get into the implications of "witches are always women" and also "witches never bothered to develop a theoretical understanding of the principles of their magic but this retired, disgraced male quantum physics professor is on the case".
 

John

(he/him)
I'm still "only" 250 pages in, and feel the story so far should've been edited down to 50 pages. There's just so much that doesn't need to be there, and the stuff that is should've been trimmed significantly. The metanarrative possibly being that this is a diary/epistolary novel to be sent forward so that future Melisandre can fix everything doesn't fly, because why should she need to detail every single thing that happens. And if it's an epistolary, then who has compiled her notes in with the ones from Rebecca's journal, and now Gráinne's correspondance? Maybe it'll be revealed somewhere in the next 500 pages.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I'm more than half way through the book. And yeah, its definitely a Stephenson book. But I knew that going on. I'm wondering how this is going to be wrapped up at this point because the authors have spent so much time on just setting everything up. I can't help but think that the conclusion is going to be rushed and disappointing.

I do enjoy Grania though! But maybe that's because I'm reading her with a strong Irish brogue (which improves everything.) Also this section introduced me to Grace O'Malley, a famous pirate I've never heard of but now want to learn a lot more about!
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I'm still "only" 250 pages in, and feel the story so far should've been edited down to 50 pages. There's just so much that doesn't need to be there, and the stuff that is should've been trimmed significantly. The metanarrative possibly being that this is a diary/epistolary novel to be sent forward so that future Melisandre can fix everything doesn't fly, because why should she need to detail every single thing that happens. And if it's an epistolary, then who has compiled her notes in with the ones from Rebecca's journal, and now Gráinne's correspondance? Maybe it'll be revealed somewhere in the next 500 pages.

I'm feeling the same way. My hope is that the flagrant inconsistencies in what we know of Mel's plan and the time travel physics we've been introduced to so far is actually a plot point. Like, General Asshat dying in the past was a permanent change in one go. So far both the book and the East India Company Investments aren't. Mel seems to think that sending her diary forward will be. What's the difference? Well, the General didn't return from his trip, so that's one possibility, but Mel's entire scheme is to create a means of obtaining a return ticket. We know the Fuggers are involved with the East India Company Guy, so maybe they're foiling both schemes? And, generally speaking, the "make changes on multiple timelines" requirement comes from needing to work around other magical changes?

But so far I'm left here going "this time travel physics makes no sense" even while the text repeatedly assures me it makes sense.
 

John

(he/him)
I think you are going to be disappointed
I did read a review on Amazon saying this book just sorta ends, and is supposed to continue in the next book.

I would've eaten this book up as a kid, especially during summer vacation. Grab a huge hardback from the library, try to finish it by the 2 week return window. I would've taken some pride in just how thick the book was, but now that's just time I could use for something better.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I hit the Senate hearings bit and holy shit their plan is to populate a database of "historical facts" by digitizing the library of congress and use that to seed their predictive algorithm for manipulating timelines. And by all appearances this is being presented straight, rather than as a "you've confused factoids and history to catastrophic effect" swerve. Never mind that in the real-world we've just had multiple clear real-world demonstrations of exactly how hard digitizing historical text is.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I finished it.

Holy crap was this book bad. When I first moved to California back in 2008, a friend lent me Snow Crash, and my reaction at the time was "that was a really neat premise, it's a shame he didn't have a story to go with it".

That's pretty much my same reaction here. To start with, the romance between Tristan and Mel is incredibly forced. The characters have no chemistry, and if it weren't for every other character telling us they have chemistry practically every time the two are in a scene together, there'd be no reason to assume there was any interest at all.

The entire middle section of the book is wasted on a lot of style-over-substance segments framed as in-narrative documents; many of them have a bad case of AAA Audio Log, and the remainder are simply longwinded, awkward, or pointless. Yes, I know that Stephenson has a sour view of bureaucracy and thinks regulations and formality are a major buzzkill. I don't really need to read dozens of pages reiterating that in nominally different character voices. Similarly I'm not fond of spending dozens of pages laying out theories about the physics of magic and time travel that you then go on to immediately disprove or just blithely disregard.

Toward the end of the book, this just gets ridiculous. Magnus double-crosses Granny, then crosses back, all off-stage. Suddenly Magnus' single-strand scheme to go plunder the gold of the Americas with vikings in the middle ages is going to have unavoidable modern-day repercussions, rather than requiring the convoluted and easily-Fuggered multi-strand schemes that DODO had to execute. Whoever's trying to kill him, meanwhile, is engaging in a complex multi-strand assassination plot instead of just triggering diachronic shear on top of him and deleting him from every timeline.

And that's even before we get to the percentage of the book that exists solely for the sake of being a double entendre.

TLDR: good time travel stories are hard to write, and Stephenson doesn't even bother trying.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
You said it better than I could. It would have been fine if the authors had bothered to even try to follow the guidelines they set up.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
You said it better than I could. It would have been fine if the authors had bothered to even try to follow the guidelines they set up.

Yeah, I'm fine with characters being mistaken about the physics or metaphysics of the world they live in. We don't have perfect understanding of the physics of our own world, after all. What leaves me cold is when they have lengthy speculation/exposition about relevant laws and then immediately break those laws. It totally ruins the impact! And yet this book does that constantly.

Worse is when they break the laws they've supposedly established and none of the characters notice that what's happening totally defies their prior understanding.
 

John

(he/him)
I'm still at 38% on my kindle copy, but switched from dedicating time to read this over to reading for 5 minutes in bed to fall asleep. Pretty sure I'm not going to get much farther, now that Ratchet & Clank and FF7R DLC's are taking my leisure time.
 

Paul le Fou

Pickle Bus Owns Tulip Town
(He)
I was interested in this mainly because it was co-written with someone who wasn't Stephenson, which I hoped might help it avoid being so...Stephenson-y.

Looks like my dithering has saved me a lot of disappointment.
 

Egarwaen

(He/Him)
I wanted to post about something else that bugged me.

The "only women can be witches" thing is weird. Like, this is 2021, even gender essentialist assholes are aware of the notion that gender is a social construct, biological sex is not binary, etc. But DODO just... Ignores all of that. Doesn't even try to engage, or so much as flirt with the notion. Witches have easily verifiable magic powers and are exclusively women, and can detect each other without magic. And that's just played, excuse the pun, straight. Not a single person in this supposedly sprawling and academic organization thinks to ask "wait, women? What does that even mean?" The notion that it's a biological trait somehow passed from mother to daughter is introduced and leveraged without a single person among our nominally credentialed crowd of protagonists asking "how exactly does that work, on a genetic level". We get a detailed subplot about institutional jargon policies, but this one just flies by.

It feels off in a way I can't quite put my finger on. Especially since all of the Clownish Institutional Marks are men (Blevins, etc), and the one character who's set up to be a Clownish Institutional Mark and then subverted (Stoll) is a woman. And IIRC there's no gay characters, outside of the near-slapstick Marlowe segment, where both of the men get blown up so hard they vanish from every timeline at once. There's no wlw characters that I can recall. The whole book just feels aggressively straight in a way that a lot of modern SFF has left behind.
 
Half-page long text of Powerpoint slides. I don't even put up with slides written like this at work. WTF is this book, why was it on so many lists and how does it still have a 3.8 rating on Goodreads!?

Also looking it up on Goodreads revealed that there's a sequel. I don't understand.
 
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