The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O.
By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
752 pages, $35
What doesn’t exist anymore? Magic – at least in this new novel, “The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O” (Department of Diachronic Operations), by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. The book is a category-bender, a near-future thriller combining history, science, magic, mystery, intrigue and adventure that “questions the very foundations of the modern world.” I can think of other threats more daunting than this harmless, charming, too-long and jejune thriller.
It begins with Melisande Stokes telling her story in July 1851 in Kensington, London, England. Melisande is writing in the preamble of her Diachronicle when we meet her. She doesn’t belong there. She’s hoping to get back to the present. You can probably figure out what comes next.
She writes, “I am not a native of this place or time.” Also, she writes that “magic is waning, and will cease to exist at the end of the month, July 28.” In fact she’s a 21st century person who has somehow gotten locked in a time warp. She’s whining, among other things, about an unsuitable corset, borrowed from her hosts.
Fast-forward a bit: Melisande is an expert in linguistics and languages, who meets Tristan Lyons, a military intelligence operative in a hallway at Harvard. The chance meeting is “the beginning of a chain of events that will alter their lives and human history itself.” This prediction seems a little far-fetched, but it gets the novel off to a good start and, the way the world is trending, who knows?
Travis has just been thrown out of the office of Dr. Roger Blevins, Head of the Department of Ancient and Classical Linguistics at the university, when he ploughs into her. Blevins didn’t want anything to do with what Travis was offering. Travis is handsome and Melisande’s cute, although not the sort, she offers, that ROTC boys “ever took an interest in.” Travis asks Melisande if she’d like to go for coffee at the Apostolic Café in Central Square, 10 minutes down Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard University, and a long explanation of the plot begins. (Blevins, by the way, stays in the plot.)
Stephenson and Galland have written a number of popular novels and they know what passes for readers' interest in 2017.
The premise of this novel – one that I wouldn’t have thought about – is that magic doesn’t exist anymore. Does anybody care? The authors think magic disappeared with the invention of photography, around 1850. That’s questionable. But, separate from the novel, the critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) understood how photography changed the modern mind. He refers to photography as “the dynamite of the tenth of the second, a phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image.” So I see the point of one piece of "magic" replacing the other.
Of course much depends upon how one defines magic. For some reason, within this speculative novel, D.O.D. O., the Department of Diachronic Operations, has a bead on this question. (You must be wondering what "diachronic’"means. It’s about studying how language evolves and changes over time.)
So what is magic in the context of this book? Here is one way to think about it: Sometimes hard-arguers who dismiss the idea of God gin up concepts like magic in its place. Why? Because people want to connect with the god-like, the inexplicable, something or someone that will give us a resolution to our enduring questions. Enter witchcraft and mad science, which include an Ontic Decoherence Cavity from MIT. Magic seems a reflexive, poor substitute, but it depends upon who’s being tricked, believer or non-believer.
Late in the novel, a character with a forgettable name, Erszebet, sums up the human situation unforgettably: “Humanity existed without making much of science for a very long time. This is true regardless of what magic, a main theme, ever did or did not do. Science has brought good and evil to the table.”
Tristan calls this remark “such bulls---,” but it seems an accurate statement to me.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News.