At 742 paperback pages, a novel has to be very, very good – and, fortunately, Neil Stephenson has had much practice with fleshing out doorstop-weight science fiction. His co-writer, Nicole Galland, isn’t quite as well known, but her prowess with the historical novel is apparent here in this tale of time travel and government incompetence. Together, the two have created an epistolary novel that will please those who love speculative and historical fiction alike.
The story is told through a medley of documents – a memoir, a journal, a series of letters, transcripts of Senate hearings, emails, and other ephemera that bring together the plot. The ‘cute meet’ between linguistic expert and would-be professor Melisande Stokes and Army Major Tristan Lyons begins the tale, which rapidly morphs into a cross between a spy novel and a satirical spoof on government bureaucracies (there’s an incredibly amusing scene where someone coins an acronym only to realize after the fact its unintended overtones – no, that never happens in real life, right?) A retired physicist, his wife, a Victorian-era Hungarian witch, an assortment of US government officials, and an Elizabethan-era Irish spy soon join the fray, and, as the phrase go, hilarity ensues. Then the plot twists – and twists again; the novel moves from political and psychological thriller to farce to a meditation on society and its ills to – well, at this length, it’s not surprising that the authors pull out as many stops as possible. What does surprise and delight, however, is the fact that the characters continue to evolve, and the plot continues to hook the reader, all the way to the very last page.
Character and plot are important in any novel, but so is the setting. Stephenson and Galland bring to life a number of different places, including present-day Cambridge, Massachusetts, the same locale four hundred years in the past, Elizabethan England, and medieval Constantinople. The minor characters from each era add to the historical flair – there’s an Asian Goth waitress/oboist, a Viking berserker, and a Jewish medieval family, each of which become linchpins in the twists and turns that the main characters face. Languages, whether ancient or acronymic, also add to the sense of realism in both the past and the present – whether the characters converse in Anglo-Norman or discuss the DEDEs planned for various DTAPs, the reader remains enmeshed in the spell cast by the book.
Because of its length and tag as ‘science fiction’, only those who have previously read Neil Stephenson are likely to open the cover, and that’s a serious shame. This is both a fun read and a serious read – meat, potatoes, and dessert in one package. Readers will enjoy the story, connect with the characters, and think about the issues raised long after the last page is turned.
Disclaimer: I am not associated with either author. I paid for my copy with my own funds.
Stephenson, Neil, and Galland, Nicole. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. William Morrow, 2017. ISBN: 978-0=06-240915-7.