Stephenson: D.O.D.O.

Neal Stephenson, like Greg Egan, is a hard science fiction author who never fails to delight me with something new and tasty. Both Stephenson and Egan seem able to leave footprints in otherwise well-trodden ground. Stephenson, in particular, often makes me LOL.

That’s not an acronym I use very often, but it seems especially appropriate here given this post is about The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. The book has so many tongue-in-cheek military acronyms (DODO, DTAP, DEDE, MUON, etc) that it has a glossary at the back.

The story concerns parallel worlds, wave-function collapse, and witches.

Yes, witches. I’ll get to that. For now let me say I found this book delightful. I liked it more than Seveneves, Anathem, or Reamde, for instance, and I liked those plenty. (Slightly less impressed with Fall: or, Dodge in Hell, but still enjoyed the read.)

The setup and context are rich enough that I won’t even have room to get into spoilers. Suffice to say, in the final scenes, there is tension, conflict, and excitement.

I do think this 592 page book, which is a damn good story on its own, is open-ended in a way that begs for a sequel. As the book ends, it’s clear the real conflict is ahead.

That said, I still found it satisfying because, one sees where it has to go, and spelling it out seems unnecessary. But I’m more accepting of open-ended stories than some, so be warned this seems like it could be a Book One.

Or not. I thought Seveneves seemed (even more) like a Book One, but Stephenson has never returned to that reality. (So far?)

§ §

Chronologically, the story begins with a chance meeting between U.S. Army Major Tristan Lyons and Dr. Melisande “Mel” Stokes, an expert in dead languages. Lyons was meeting with Dr. Blevins, the Chair of the Harvard Ancient and Classical Linguistics department.

The meeting didn’t go well. Lyons abrupt exit makes him collide with Stokes, who happened to be lurking outside. This leads to Lyons offering Stokes a job on a top secret project, the nature of which he can’t disclose unless she signs an NDA.

Intrigued, slightly attracted to Lyons, and wanting to escape Blevins (an onerous boss), she agrees, signs the NDA, quits her job, and joins Lyons in creating  D.O.D.O.

The project is so classified at first Lyons won’t even tell her that D.O.D.O. stands for Department of Diachronic Operations. (She has some fun guessing in the meantime.) From the name, you may guess time travel. You probably wouldn’t guess parallel worlds (à la MWI), and you almost certainly wouldn’t guess witches.

I’ll get to that.

There’s a bit of reverse Hawkeye & Margaret dynamic in how Lyons is buttoned-down military and Stokes is wry, slightly cynical, academic. There’s also the kind of romantic tension where everyone who knows them assumes, incorrectly, they’re a couple.

Spoiler: Of course they eventually do act on it. Duh.

§

Narratively, the story, told by Mel, who is trapped in 1851 London shortly before magic is about to die forever, begins near the end of the chronological timeline.

She is recording the events leading to the present moment. Since magic will die in a matter of days, she knows she has no hope of ever returning home. She will entrust this record to a mysterious clan of German-descended bankers, Fuggers (aka Fuckers, I kid you not), who’ve been around since Medieval times.

The bankers will keep it safe until modern times. I’ll say no more about these bankers for reasons of time and spoilers, but they thread through the story.

The core is Mel’s narrative from her point of view.

At a secondary level, there are viewpoints from two important characters. In one case, from diary entries; in the other, letters to an off-screen character. (Grace O’Malley. One of several historical figures in the book, not all of whom are off-screen.)

At a third level, especially as the DODO turns into a large organization, we’re privy to various documents, emails, incident reports, office memos, and so forth, that give us access to other view points.

This structure means the entire narrative is self-reported. Mel’s writing is a first-person narrative with flourishes that remind the reader this is a written report (like crossing out modern phrases and shit stuff). All other text is clearly from written documents, often with special typographic presentation. (The letters have a gray background, for instance.)

§

There is a connection between the name, DODO (which uses the logo of the extinct bird), and the idea magic has gone extinct.

It seems that government researchers acquired documents from throughout time that speak of witches as a perfectly normal thing. Kings used them routinely. In ancient times they were powerful shamans.

But after the middle 1800s, they’re almost never mentioned again, except in the historical sense as something remembered.

A theory was that these witches had the innate ability to sort through the strands of parallel worlds and find what was desired. This gives them the ability to do (apparent) magic. It’s an ability that descends through the maternal line, and only women have the ability.

The idea is based on how the Many Worlds Interpretation suggests all choices lead to separate worlds, so anything that could have happened did happen in some strand of reality. A witch can manifest an alternate reality in this one.

It all has something to do with not collapsing the wave-function. So long as reality remains in superposition, multiple realizations are possible.

But if it’s collapsed, “magic” dies.

§

So the question DODO had was: What happened around 1850 that collapsed the wave-function?

In a word: photography. To quote the Wikipedia article:

The earliest scientifically useful photograph of a total solar eclipse was made by Julius Berkowski at the Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Prussia, on Monday, July 28, 1851. It was the first correctly exposed photographic image taken during totality thereby including the Sun’s corona.

And that’s why the magic died.

The photograph became world-famous. Lots of eyes saw it.

Lots of people opened Schrödinger’s box and looked inside. That killed the cat. And the magic.

There is a theme that magic and technology can’t mix, and as the latter grows, the former declines. Another theme is that magic is a resource that gets used up. A third theme is the idea that belief matters. When people stop believing, magic dies.

This is something a little different. It is due to technology, but not directly. It’s the way technology allows us to share a fixed reality. The printing press started it (even books started it), but books allow for imagination on the reader’s part. They don’t completely collapse the wave-function.

The printing press did give people the same reading experience, though, so magic has been weakening for some time.

[One thing about screen stories opposed to books is that TV and movies completely collapse the wave-function of possibilities. Once you watch the Lord of the Rings movie, Frodo is forever fixed as Elijah Wood. Until then, there was a superposition of possibilities. Video and film is super photography as far as fixing reality.]

So magic was fading due to growing technology, and photography killed it dead. DODO has a plan to bring it back, at least a little bit.

The plan is to create a working Schrödinger’s box large enough for two humans (and no radioactive sample, Geiger counter, poison, or cat). In any ordinary box there is too much interaction with the environment — the cat and the gear are linked to it which collapses the wave-function before the box can be opened.

But what if you surrounded the box with a jacket of liquid helium in a Bose-Einstein state? That would isolate the box inside a coherent quantum state, which would allow the contents of the box to be in true superposition.

Which would allow magic.

If they only had a witch.

§

As it happens, an old woman, Erszebet Karpathy, is trying to reach Melisande (through her Facebook page). Erszebet says she’s been waiting forever and when can we get started.

Erszebet turns out to be a 200-year-old Hungarian witch who says she met Mel in 1851 (“Ah, ha!” says the reader). Mel insisted Erszebet use an anti-aging spell on herself so she could be a witch in the future.

It turns out the ODEC (Ontic Decoherence Cavity) works. The first thing Erszebet does is restore her youth and turn herself into a wickedly beautiful young woman. From that point, her main desire is to return to Hungary and spit on the graves of her enemies. She’s not at all happy about having lived 200 years and wants little to do with Lyons.

But she’s stuck with them if she wants to do magic, which she loves, or if she wants a ticket to Hungary, so she grudgingly cooperates. After tedious testing to prove magic works inside the ODEC, Stokes is sent to a DTAP (Destination Time and Place) on a DEDE (Direct Engagement for Diachronic Effect, pronounced “deed”).

The main purpose of the DEDE is to obtain a book that will be rare in modern times and bury it safely so it can be recovered and sold. The secondary mission is to find and recruit a KCW (Known Compliant Witch). The main reason is that, without a witch’s help, Mel cannot return home.

(Only the living flesh of time travelers moves through time. Even the ink from tattoos is lost. Travelers arrive naked.)

§

Believe it or not, this is all basically set up. It all takes place early.

The spoilers involve what happens to DODO — the reader can’t help but note the title mentions rise and fall, so there is a crucial arc implied.

And, indeed, DODO first grows to a major organization in need of a POOJAC (Policy on Official Jargon and Acronym Coinage). There are many departments; Mel ends up the head of DORC (Diachronic Operative Resource Center). They even have an ODIN (Operational DODO Internet).

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, it’s not an outright comedy, but it’s pretty wry and sly and made me laugh. The acronym overload is part of that.

I’m especially fond of MUON (Multiple-Universe Operations Navigator) — the new official term when government HR policies and Senate oversight committees couldn’t wrap their heads around government employees with the job title “Witch.”

§

Despite some ruthless editing (like the bit about how this reminds me a bit of Greg Egan’s Quarantine, let alone some cute parts of the book), this is still too long, my apologies.

So I’ll just say it’s a 600-page book and there’s a lot of really good stuff in it I didn’t mention. I gobbled it down in three long sessions.

And I L.O.L.

Stay diachronic, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

7 responses to “Stephenson: D.O.D.O.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Thinking about it, this might be my favorite Stephenson since Snow Crash, although I really did like Anathem and Seveneves. I still have a soft spot for Snow Crash, which I’ve read a bunch of times and may well read at least once more. It’s just that tasty. I can see myself reading D.O.D.O. again, too.

    Although, if I lived long enough, I’d read the other ones I’ve only read once again, too. I like Stephenson that much. (I’ve already read a lot of Greg Egan twice. I’ve read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books four or five times (some maybe even more). Definitely my favorite favorite.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Hmmm. So the MWI was right until 1851, after which the von Nuemann-Wigner Interpretation became the law? That’s a twist.

    And all those natives who were afraid to be photographed were right! The photographs do capture their spirit, in a fashion.

    I know a lot of people who love Stephenson, but I struggled with the books I’ve tried. That said, it’s been several years since I tried any of his stuff. Maybe it would go down easier now. I know the premise of Seveneves attracts me.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I don’t get the impression it’s consciousness so much as that photography fixes reality. It’s a measurement of a large portion of reality. The eclipse photo, in a sense, measured the Sun. The more famous a photo is, the more that measurement exists in lots of places.

      That’s my take. The authors never get deep into any details. There’s a lot of hand-waving.

      Funny point about those natives! Yeah, a photo would be a measurement utterly unlike anything their reality would ever have experienced. For them, at least until they got measured like that and shared with the world, magic may still have existed (per Stephenson and Galland, anyway).

      As they say, there’s no accounting for taste. We’re all gonna like some good stuff and not like some good stuff. (And vice versa! Don’t we all also like some bad stuff, our guilty pleasures? Taste often doesn’t have much rhyme or reason.)

      If you’re thinking of trying Stephenson again, this might be a good choice. It’s co-authored, and the three main characters are female, so I suspect it’s as much Galland as Stephenson. There isn’t a lot of science or math in this one. There’s almost a Hannu Rajaniemi approach that, if anything, under-explains the science. (The glimpses we get do show Stephenson’s thoroughness, though. It all feels pretty reasonable.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Hand-waving: a time honored tradition in sci-fi!

        Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll keep it in mind.

        I actually find Rajaniemi a bit aggressive in his under-explaining. It left me feeling like I’d missed a lot. I suspect at times he uses it to slip in questionable concepts. (Evading the hand-waving tradition I guess.) Although it’s been a few years now, so I can’t remember what those were. I wonder why he hasn’t put out any new books? Despite my issues, I’d still be tempted to read anything new he put out.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I actually find Rajaniemi a bit aggressive in his under-explaining.”

        Ha, yeah, I feel ya. He leans heavily into fantasy and mild horror, and his use of tech kind of amounts to magic. I think he’s really taken Clarke’s Third Law to heart. He is very determined he isn’t going to stop and explain anything. 😉

        I liked his Quantum Thief trilogy a little more than his short stories. There’s more going on and he does explain a few things here and there. I read the first book, put it down, then read it again when I read the trilogy. I got more out of it the second time, and I suspect the other books would bear a repeat read some day. (By then it’ll have to be all three, of course.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    As an example of the sly wry wit, there’s a tiny running bit about turning people into a newt.

    Why a newt? It’s a joke from the “Hang the Witch!” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. One of the crowd exclaims the witch in question turned him into a newt.

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