Put a science fiction (SF) writer together with one who specialises in historical fiction, and of course you’ll get a time-travel book.
But if that SF writer is Neal Stephenson, you can bet that there will be a deeper exploration of the science that would allow one to travel through time.
Generally, I am not too fond of collaborative works in SF or fantasy – not since my two favourite writers at the time, Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, came out with the ho-hum Deus Irae in 1976.
Collaborations in genre fiction have had more misses than hits, barring the classic ones of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (rollicking, good fun) or Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth (edgy satire), back in the “Golden Age” era of SF.
But this new one is a palpable hit. Having never read any of Nicole Galland’s books before, it was hard for me to identify which parts came from which author.
This is made more difficult by the fact that The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. is an epistolary work, gathering together journals, logbooks, diary entries, e-mail messages, handwritten notes and letters, and other types of writing; from a wide variety of actors across centuries, all with their own voice.
But it would be safe to say that this collaboration with Galland sees Stephenson letting his hair down, figuratively speaking. He has always had an infectiously playful relationship with high-concept ideas, but sometimes gets dogged down by his love of detail.
Here, we have more colour and flair for characterisation. The pace, once we get going, doesn’t let up.
D.O.D.O is the Department of Diachronic Operations, the US government’s time travel agency, and the book chronicles how and why the agency was built, and how it all fell apart.
Just what it says on the cover, right?
It starts with mysterious G-man, physics enthusiast and soldier Tristan Lyons contacting the linguistic genius Melisande Stokes to translate historical documents that seem to refer to magic as if it were a real thing.
But such references abruptly stop after 1851. Putting the pieces together, Stokes and Lyons realise that something did happen, something killed magic; and that something was photography, which captures a moment and traps it in time.
A series of coincidences and top-level academic sleuthing, and soon the two have gathered around them a motley crew of academics, doers and builders – a typical cast of Stephenson characters, really – to test their theories.
And to build an ODEC, or Ontic Decoherence Cavity.
That’s the meat. Almost every SF writer who tackles time travel works on a favoured theory. Given that quantum physics produces a lot of “magical thinking”, Stephenson is cheeky enough to use that as his.
Think of the Schrodinger’s cat gedankenexperiment or thought experiment about quantum physics and probability. Put a cat in a sealed box, with a mechanism that will release poisonous gas but whose release is controlled by a radioactive element. The switch will only be triggered if one single atom experiences radioactive decay.
The cat is neither dead nor alive – or more accurately, both dead and alive – until you open the box. This action causes the wave function to collapse, and one possibility becomes real: the cat is either dead or alive, it can’t be both.
A scientist conducting such an experiment stands at a crossroads. He causes one outcome or the other – cat dies or cat lives – when he opens the box and commits the act of observation.
On the other hand, a person who practises magic, and we might as well call such a person a witch, can choose a desired outcome from various quantum possibilities. She chooses which reality becomes, well, real.
The ODEC is kind of the Schrodinger’s cat experiment made real with an actual device, and within it, and only within it, magic can be performed. It’s kind of the hard SF look at Dr Who’s Tardis.
The Lyons-Stokes team finds a witch, and decide their first field trip should be to travel back in time to plant an object that would make them lots of money in the present to help finance the proper establishment of the Department Of Diachronic Operations.
Things get messy, of course, and we’re neatly introduced to the concept of different timelines, or Strands, while making an outcome concrete across space and time, and stuff like that. It’s kind of the hard SF look at déjà vu and Groundhog Day.
All this in a rollicking adventure yarn, swordfights and all, with a colourful cast of characters – even if some of them are stereotypes, like bad bureaucrats and cool geeks, and a “will they, won’t they” romance.
There are comedic gems too, like Stokes having to cross out contemporary profanity in her own journal to use phrases more palatable to a Victorian timeline. There is also some self-referential humour over the surfeit of acronyms (DODO itself gives the game away, right?), but there’s a glossary at the end to help the overwhelmed reader.
Then there is the epic poem The Lay Of Walmart, written by a Viking skald. Yes, you read that right.
That was probably Galland’s work, but only Stephenson could end a book with the high of a philosophical discussion, with the promise of greater intrigue and more adventure in the lives of the protagonists, which we won’t need to read about to imagine.
Intelligent, interesting and supremely entertaining, The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. will also make sure you never look at bankers or the financial markets in quite the same way again.
The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O.
Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
Publisher: Borough Press