Do you believe in magic? (Did your brain sing this sentence?) In Neal Stephenson’s entertaining novel, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., magic and physics partner up, with physics being used to bring back magic which has gone missing from the modern world. Triston Lyons literally bumps into Melisande Stokes outside the Harvard office of Dr. Blevins, the Head of Ancient Linguistics. Triston Lyons has figured out that magic died when photography was born, specifically when Berkowski, a daguerreotypist, took the first picture ever of a solar eclipse somewhere around the 1850’s. Melisande is fed up with Dr. Blevins, her Department Chair and boss, for good reasons. Triston has asked her bad boss Blevins to work on his D.O.D.O. project and has been turned down, so Triston takes Melisande for coffee and convinces her to join up. He can’t even tell Mel what DODO stands for; everything is “classified.” She makes a series of witty guesses such as, Department of Donuts, Department of Dusty Objects, Department of Deadly Observations, Department of Doing the Occult, and Department of Diabolical Observations, The interactions between these two suggest that they might “hook up” but Triston is a perfect boss for the “me too” era and is actually so obsessed with his science that he is oblivious to sexual undertones, to the amusement of most of the women and a few of the men he encounters as the project progresses.
Melisande is introduced to Dr. Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca East-Oda. Frank is a retired physicist who has designed a time machine. The only thing missing is that it is necessary to use a combination of magic and physics to send someone back in time. It’s a big hiccup because there is no magic left in the modern world. Time travel is something that must be approached cautiously as there are rules to follow. If you don’t insert someone gently into the past; if you don’t carefully limit interactions, then you can cause a diachronic shear that obliterates everything in the path of the shear, causes mayhem and death, and changes history. While they build the first ODEC or time machine, under the auspices of a government department called The Department of Diachronic Operations they advertise for witches. One persistent person keeps calling them to insist that she is a witch, but they are skeptical until they finally meet her. Erzebet is a witch stranded in modern America without being able to use her magic to get her back to her home in Hungary in 1851 so she can spit on the graves of her ancestors. Magic works in an ODEC.
You can begin to see that this is the kind of story that Neal Stephenson excels at; a complex plot, a huge cast of characters, a scope that embraces time and space, and lots of cutting-edge science that may or may not ever be useful. The inclusion of magic is new, but it gives Stephenson and his partner who writes the follow-up book, an interesting way to talk about the multiverse and quantum mechanics. It seems that witches have for centuries used primitive style “abacuses” to keep track of different strands in the multiverse, although that is not the name they use. They can move sideways across these strands to affect events in the real world. Witches understand the danger of diachronic shear but have different names for the catastrophe. Erzebet knows it as lomadh, or perhaps that’s Gráinne, a witch who lives in London in 1850, around the time that the first photo is taken of the eclipse.
As with any scientific project that becomes a matter for national intelligence the military soon gets involved and complications multiply. The loosey-goosey early structures of DODO get whipped into shape with layers and layers of bureaucracy. And sad to say, they hire Mel’s old boss, the arrogant, clueless Dr. Blevins to be the head of the project. Triston, our oblivious dreamer, keeps his eye on the target and as he is in the army is unfazed by the hierarchy. Others are not so blithely unaware of the danger of an administration that doesn’t understand the project. In fact, the military would not be involved in this endeavor at all if other nations were not working on similar projects, making this a possible issue of national security.
The first mission of DODO (or the first DEDE), once the ODEC is up and running and Erzebet understands and reluctantly agrees to her limited magical role as a “sender,” is to steal a valuable first edition of a religious book published in Massachusetts when it was still the Bay Colony, to hide it in what will be the garden of Frank Oda’s wife Rebecca East-Oda, and then dig it up in modern day Massachusetts and auction it off for funds for their project. This is far more complicated than you would expect and leads to travels back to Shakespeare’s London and that’s how the bankers get involved, the Fuggers, who seem to have the ancestral memories of insects or birds. These bankers are not magical but find a way to crop up in almost every diachronic operation. By the way the real meaning of DODO is – the Department of Diachronic Operations.
I always find Neal Stephenson books to be delicious nerd-romps in truly imaginative spaces and, since they usually involve plenty of speculative science, are intriguing to real scientists and dabblers alike. The book is intended to be fun, and it is, but it also tries to make complex knowledge understandable. Of course, ironically, if Triston succeeds in wiping out photography, he will also wipe out computers and almost all of modern technology. Just another little hiccup.