One time I mentioned on the site that I wondered what a combination of science fiction and fantasy would be like. TomD, whose opinions on matters political, photographic and literary are always enlightening, immediately volunteered two examples, The Majipoor Cycle and the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I have previously reviewed the Majipoor books. Here I will address D.O.D.O. and just to get it out of the way the acronym stands for Department of Diachronic Operatives, a government issue time travel story.
Neal Stephenson wrote this book with Nicole Galland. I’ve heard of Stephenson but never read him before. I’d never heard of Galland before this book. So, the book finally got to the top of the pile and I just finished it on Thursday past. The first thing I can say is that this is a hybrid creation. The outline of the story is a time-travel science fiction story of the giant government project category. On that framework is a story that combines historical fiction, fantasy and a satiric contemporary novel about day to day life in a government bureaucracy. The other fact about the story is that most of it is a first-person narrative by a modern female character. And this particular character is a college teaching assistant with expertise in linguistics. And I am intimately familiar with this subspecies. And I’m not greatly sympathetic to its idiosyncrasies. Also, the story takes place in Cambridge, MA. And I am also intimately familiar with the habits and foibles of the people who live there. And I am also not greatly sympathetic to their idiosyncrasies either. So, this starts me out in the wrong place as a reader and reviewer.
Moving on from there, the story ingeniously constructs a scenario where the present-day American military becomes worried about losing a global arms race in magic. Military intelligence has somehow detected anomalies in the present that lead them to believe that someone has figured out how to travel back in time. And based on a thorough computerized analysis of historical documents, they believe the method involves witchcraft. And since witchcraft doesn’t seem to exist anymore, they need to figure out how to revive it. And reviving it hinges on manipulating quantum states of matter and invokes Schrodinger’s Cat who literally shows up in the story (the cat, not the Schrodinger).
From there we meet a Japanese scientist/Mayflower descendant, husband/wife team, which is a category that believe it or not, I’m also personally familiar with. He’s a quantum physicist who has been investigating the mechanism that the story needs to restore magic and she is the descendant of a burned Salem witch. Mix in a surviving one hundred and eighty-year-old Hungarian witch, a dashing young army lieutenant colonel, a plucky and annoying female linguist (these last two being the love interests in the story) and assorted scientists, generals, computer geeks and bureaucrats both academic and military and you have the cast that becomes project D.O.D.O. Once they succeed, we add into the stew, witches from colonial Massachusetts, Elizabethan London, thirteenth century Constantinople and various times and places in medieval northern Europe. And the non-witch historical characters include Byzantine emperors and empresses, Varangian guards, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage and a raiding party of Vikings in a Walmart.
The text is a collection of Victorian era journal entries, Elizabethan era letters, some medieval vellum codices, U.S. military documents and a copious collection of e-mail messages from a variety of bureaucratic organizations. The story is in several voices modern and antique but as mentioned above is primarily the journal of the young woman linguist who is the protagonist and the focal point of several of the original plot elements.
Despite my obvious lack of sympathy for the protagonist and several other of the main characters, the story works on its own terms. The characters are self-consistent and wherever I am competent to compare them to their real-life exemplars highly accurate. Because of the details of the time travel mechanism, the action is of necessity episodic and sometimes repetitive. This situation is written pretty well and only results in a little slowness in the action at the beginning of the book. Toward the end the pacing picks up quite a bit and the book ends by resolving the latest crisis but the finish requires that there will be sequels.
My opinion on the book is that if you are like me and rather dislike bureaucrats and modern women then you will have limited sympathy for the protagonist and several of the main characters. There is a good amount of swashbuckling action by the military officer who is a main character and likable. The story line is extremely clever as a science fiction plot. So, I recommend it as a story with the proviso that men of my generation will be tempted occasionally to toss the book at the wall when modern New England feminist empowerment rears its ugly head.