The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O: A Novel, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Neal Stephenson has written some of the most densely plotted sci-fi thrillers of the past few decades. In this book he teamed up with Nicole Galland, who has contributed to several of theĀ Mongoliad books as well as writing several books set in early England, to create a lighter-than-usual book on time travel.

D.O.D.O. is a secret US agency, the Department of Diachronic Operations. The agency has been established because it has been determined that magic was both real and common up until 1851. At that point magic weakened and then became nonexistent.

Melisande Stokes, a polyglot and specialist in languages, is recruited to assist in the investigation of what event might have triggered this change. And it’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong because the book opens with her own penned narrative of how she somehow became trapped in London of 1851 with no apparent way back.

To aid the work the agency also recruits the services of a famous Harvard physicist and a 250 year-old Hungarian witch. The physicist has created a device in which magic still works, while the witch was encouraged to extend her life (apparently by Melisande herself) in order to assist the work.

D.O.D.O. faces several issues, not the least of which is a knack for embarrassing acronyms. There are elements in the government that want to defund the agency. This leads to an attempt (ala Jodi Taylor) to go back in time to place a rare book in a spot where it can be dug up and sold to help fund operations. Unlike the operations of Taylor’s St. Mary’s historians this is a much more complex action, requiring multiple trips into the past and into various timelines to try to get the scheme to work properly. During one of these multiple trips it becomes apparent that some other entity is interfering with the plan. This leads them to an earlier point in England where a beautiful Irish witch, former lover of Christopher Marlowe and correspondent/spy for Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, is recruited but clearly has an agenda all her own.

Galland offers a lighter touch with more humor than Stephenson normally offers on his own, and brings up some interesting historical ideas, such as that many of the plays of Shakespeare, evenĀ Romeo and Juliet, have intentionally anti-Irish themes. The story ranges from early San Francisco to Istanbul with some really wonderful characters. It’s told through various points of view, including snippets of interoffice memos and redacted documents.

For those who are expecting a straight-ahead Stephenson thriller this is a book that could bring some disappointment. But anyone with an interest in books on history and time-travel this is a very fun shift in the Stephenson canon, with more attention to character and historic detail than many time travel books.