‘My name is Melisande Stokes and this is my story. I am writing in July 1851 (Common Era, or – let’s face it – Anno Domini) in the guest chamber of a middle-class home in Kensington, London, England. But I am not a native of this place or time. In fact, I am quite
fucking desperate to get out of here.’
Having never read anything by Nicole Galland before, I may be speculating, but her influence on Neal Stephenson’s infodump tendencies seems to be a positive one and makes The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, a time-travel romp/workplace comedy/well-researched historical fiction, come together better than that description just did.
Dr. Melisande Stokes, a lowly languages lecturer despite her expert polyglot status, is approached by ‘shadowy government entity’ operative Tristan Lyons to translate very old documents. She’ll be well-paid, but must agree to be ‘an anonymous cog’ – not permitted to share, take ownership of, or even talk about her work. The salary is so good and the prospect of working without her overbearing supervisor so enticing that she agrees immediately. She’s promptly thrown into not only translating documents which prove the existence of magic, but looking for witches, time-traveling herself, and dealing with the growth and expansion of ‘shadowy government entity’ D.O.D.O.
The storyline is overstuffed and hectic, but full of engaging and, for the most part, rewarding twists and turns revolving around the resurgence and use of magic alongside cutting looks at government Black Ops bureaucracy. Neal Stephenson’s hard sci-fi background comes into play with descriptions of the physics of time travel, but he restrains himself from some of the more overwhelming infodumps he indulged in in Seveneves. The central characters of D.O.D.O are interesting and appealing, although the love story is a bit half-baked. The authors seem to leave room at the end for a sequel but the central plot points are well wrapped up. The mix of Melisande’s ‘Diachronicle’, office memos and other ‘documents’ bring the story together in a loose epistolary style which works well for the twisty, dense plot. There’s plenty of humour to lighten up the proceedings.
This novel definitely leans more towards ‘soft’ sci-fi than anyone who read Seveneves may be expecting from Neal Stephenson, but again, if this is Nicole Galland’s influence it’s a good one. The historical sections seem well-researched and the story as a whole works really well. It’s a fun read, fast-paced even though it’s a hefty 700+ pages, and worth picking up if you’re any kind of sci-fi fan. Recommended.