Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland's The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. is a fun read for non-fantasy fans

Authors Neal Stephenson (above) and Nicole Galland.
Authors Neal Stephenson (above) and Nicole Galland. PHOTO: BRADY HALL
Authors Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (above).
Authors Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (above). PHOTO: ELI DAGOSTINO

In 1851, London held its first Great Exhibition, which was the world's first grand celebration of technology, scientific advancement and modernity.

It also managed to wipe magic off the face of the Earth, leaving witches and other practitioners unable to perform their variety of spells, charms and cantrips.

This secret history of the world is what linguistics professor Melisande Stokes comes to know about after bumping into shadowy United States government agent Tristan Lyons, who is determined to restore the loss of magic in the world.

What starts out as Lyons recruiting Stokes to dig into the history of magic soon becomes the creation of an entire organisation dedicated to recovering magic, as laid out in The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O, jointly written by historical novelist Nicole Galland and tech-geek literature legend Neal Stephenson.

It is the latest in a long line of fantasy-science fiction hybrid novels that attempt to explain magic via quasi-scientific means, which, in this case, is quantum theory.

But Stephenson and Galland gleefully took what could have easily been a tired, hackneyed concept and turned it into a satisfying romp through space and time, with their host of characters and the fast-paced, almost cinematic narrative progression.


  • Authors Neal Stephenson (top) and Nicole Galland (above).
    Authors Neal Stephenson (top) and Nicole Galland (above). PHOTOS: BRADY HALL, ELI DAGOSTINO

    By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

    The Borough Press/ Hardcover/ 768 pages/$42.98/ Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

Magic, explains Lyons, is about "choosing possible outcomes that already exist - slipstreaming between closely alternate realities - as opposed to bringing those realities into existence".

This leads to the creation of D.O.D.O - the Department Of Diachronic Operations, or a time-travelling military unit tasked with shifting historical events to the US' advantage, by going back in time and recruiting witches, and getting into scrapes in key historical events such as the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

What unfolds is the chronological account of Stokes' involvement in setting up D.O.D.O, which morphs from a small undercover outfit to a large bureaucracy.

Along the way, the reader meets Irish spies in Elizabethan England, Chinese courtesans in California at the start of the gold rush and 10th-century Vikings, as Galland and Stephenson take him on a tour of history infused with their own brand of time-travel magic.

The organisation's growth and its employee's adventures are told through a dizzying array of letters, blog posts, journal entries, e-mail threads and reports sprinkled liberally throughout the novel, inducing in the reader the sort of disorientation the characters must feel zipping back and forth in time.

There is even a grand 39-verse poem in Old Norse about the sacking of a local Wal-Mart supermarket. "Long lanes, laden with loot/Wide ways, well made for waging war," intones a Viking warrior, both impressed and a bit frightened at the excesses the future holds.

Galland and Stephenson have collaborated on the experimental multimedia fiction project The Mongoliad since 2010, and The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O reflects the familiarity of authors comfortable in their respective genres and who trust the change of style the other brings.

The book is more than the sum of its authors' parts.

Fans of either author will not be getting exactly what they have been familiar with from either of them, as Stephenson's hard- core tech-lit style is tampered by Galland's witty humour and strength in writing personable characters.

There is little of the arcane techno- babble that has become Stephenson's signature in previous works such as Snow Crash or Anathem, which makes The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O a fun and palatable read for the non sci-fi or fantasy fan.

If you like this, read: The Atrocity Archives, the first book in the Laundry Series by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2013, $19.32, Books Kinokuniya), where computer geeks perform magic through quantum computation while ensuring they do not draw the attention of Lovecraftian Elder Gods lest their brains get eaten.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland's The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. is a fun read for non-fantasy fans. Subscribe