The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson – Book

The Vineyard Gazette – From a Google Image Search

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.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson – Book

From a Google Image Search

How does a well-adjusted Queen of the Netherlands meet a half Comanche mourning Texas father on the autism spectrum who spends his days hunting for the wild hog that snatched his baby and ate it, and who still manages to be one of the sanest people in any room? What is the Queen of the Netherlands doing in Texas? These two unlikely characters meet as the Neal Stephenson novel, Termination Shock begins with a crash.

Neal Stephenson has been a favorite author of mine since I read The Quicksilver Trilogy, also a tale with keys scenes in Dutch cities. Stephenson writes unique science fiction, often long and complex, teaching me things that ignite my mind and entertain me. He mixes the plausible and implausible, always making running commentary on the human condition, buried in all that complexity somewhere.

Perhaps after seeing Kim Stanley Robinson publish The Ministry of the Future and Bill Gates publish How to Avoid a Climate Disaster the time seemed right to weigh in with a plot Stephenson had already been working on.

TR Schmidt (one of several names), a wealthy Texan, is the real reason Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, the Queen of the Netherlands (familiar name Saskia) is in Texas. She has been invited to a Conference/Demonstration/Extravaganza. Apparently, in this not-so-distant future, America is the laughingstock of the world, but a wealthy Texan who owns an enormous tract of land can do just about what he likes. It turns out that TR is tired of the world’s inaction on climate change. The world is getting hotter, the ice at the poles is melting faster and the seas are rising higher. TR’s land is outside Houston. What he has in common with the Queen of the Netherlands is that they both live in low places along coastlines, as is true of all the other leaders invited to the conference (Singapore, Venice, certain island nations in the South Pacific). 

TR is a man of action. This conference is not about forming a think tank. He already has a plan based on one summer when Mount Pinatubo erupted and the whole world cooled off. TR has a way to use that model to cool the earth for a few years while more permanent solutions can be put into effect. His Pina2bo structure is finished. These people are here to witness activation of the apparatus. 

One problem with his new process is that it is a geoengineering approach, opposed by those who favor green solutions. Another problem is that this process has certain “knock-on” effects that some nations won’t like – namely China and India, two very large and powerful nations. China and India are rivals. China is trying to swallow India at the Line of Actual Control one gulp at a time. This parallel story line of a young Sikh man named Laks who comes to be known as Big Fish connects with the TR and Queen Frederika story line eventually. TR is trying to cover countries that will be left out of his original cooling scheme because of things like prevailing winds, and is using isolated locations perfect for building and employing his apparatus. Internet rumors say that if Pina2bo continues to function the Punjab, the breadbasket of India, could lose its monsoons making farming impossible. No one on the internet is showing the maps that describe TR’s plans to cover all areas on the planet with cooler temperatures, thus slowing the melting of the ice caps and the rising seas. TR knows that if he stops now there will be an equal and opposite reaction called termination shock.

This is not a climate change textbook lesson, but, as usual, Stephenson teaches us many things, including some esoteric geography and some ancient martial arts. Kim Stanley Robinson talked about geoengineering. He mentioned but did not stress using particles in clouds to reflect more of the sun’s cooling back into space. Neal Stephenson concentrates almost entirely on geoengineering. Stephenson is a great describer and explainer. You will get the picture. 

Fall by Neal Stephenson – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Verge

When Neal Stephenson takes on a subject he does not fool around, or he does but with purpose. In Fall, Neal Stephenson takes on the small topics of our times like how to fix the internet, immortality, artificial intelligence, and the Singularity. He even gets in a prolonged jab at modern American culture when he takes us with Sophia to Ameristan for a quick and terrifying visit (hint: the border is made up of WalMarts).

Who is Sophia? She’s Dodge’s great niece. Dodge, also known as Richard Forthrast, is the key character in this sprawling novel. One of Dodge’s last acts before entering a clinic for a simple procedure (which proves fatal) is to be distracted by a red leaf that he catches on the palm of his hand before it hits the pavement (Fall). He asks “if we lived on as spirits or were reconstituted as digital simulations” would things still have “quale” (for example) ‘the subjective experience of redness’.

Dodge, although his demise is premature, has made legal arrangements to have his brain frozen (a legal dilemma since the cryonics company has folded, but also not a dilemma because Forthrast is a very wealthy man with relatives who love him). So his brain is separated from his body until those at the forefront of using computers to scan brains and preserve them in digital form can progress. Once this is accomplished Dodge awakens in an empty digital simulation, a digital afterlife. But Dodge earned his fortune as the inventor of a popular world-building game called T’Rain. He begins to build a world to give the afterlife form. Back on earth living people can watch Dodge’s simulation unfold (he remembers his name as Egdod)

Dodge’s cohorts and rivals are Corvallis Kawasaki (cohort) and Elmo Shepherd (rival) and, of course his niece Zula, mother of Sophia (loyal family). A fake nuclear incident which leaves many people believing that the town of Moab, Utah was attacked points out some of shortcomings of the internet. “The Internet – what Dodge used to call the Miasma – had just gone completely wrong. Down to the molecular level it was still a hippie grad school project. Like a geodesic dome that a bunch of flower children had assembled from scrap lumber on ground infested with termites and carpenter ants. So rotten that rot was the only thing that was holding it together.”

Our intrepid computer wizards and coders invent a new way to protect an individual’s identity by using their actual “lifeprint”, called a PURDAH (Personal Unseverable Designation for Anonymous Holography). The internet needs to keep expanding to keep Dodge and all the new souls being scanned into the afterlife alive. Then Dodge, creator of the land mass of the afterlife from his Palace to the Knot, decides to see if he can bring forth new souls in the Landform Visualization Utility (LVU). When he is ultimately successful his old rival El (Elmo) Shepherd feels the entire design has been taken in the wrong direction. He decides to end his own life (he has a fatal disease anyway) and get scanned into Dodge’s creation. He ousts Dodge and takes over.

Eventually, of course, all the friends and enemies of Dodge die (or are murdered) (bots are no better than their owners). The population of Earth is declining. Who will be left to make sure the afterlife is supplied with enough energy to continue to exist? How do we get to the Singularity?

It’s a long strange trip (from the Grateful Dead song ‘Truckin’). Neal Stephenson is always amazing and Fall might just be the quintessential gamer fantasy novel/or you might think it is just past weird. As for me, although it lagged in a few parts, it worked. That does seem like one way we could get to the Singularity and leave the Earth to its own devices to recover from humans. On the other hand, I have not signed up for any tech leading to a digital afterlife, and as far as I know, no such tech exists. I don’t think the afterlife looked all that appealing unless you were a member of the ‘Pantheon’. We may find out if books copy life, or if life copies books. Keep your ears open.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson – Book

Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).

So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.

The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema –  is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.

Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.

We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.

Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.

Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.

Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.

Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)

Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality required an airlock (metaphorically of course).

The Baroque Cycle, A Trilogy by Neal Stephenson – Book

I chose the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson because I wanted a long book to read and because this author has written other books that I enjoyed. Perhaps if I knew this trilogy of books ran to 2700+ pages I might have had second thoughts but my Kindle doesn’t deal with page numbers. I like to think that I would have read these novels anyway. It certainly was not a sprint: it was a journey – a journey in time, a mental journey, and involving lots of journeying by the books’ characters. Stephenson takes us to the 17th and early 18th century. This time period represents a transitional age in that the way men lived upon the earth was changing, in much the same ways that we are in a transitional age now.

Quicksilver introduces us to the Alchemists, who wished to find a way to turn base metal into gold. Quicksilver is mercury, which fascinated Alchemists with its unusual behaviors as a metal that is liquid at room temperature and a metal that beads and rolls around as if it were solid. It was felt that quicksilver, so often found near gold deposits, was somehow transformed into gold by some kind of mysterious natural process. The Alchemists were almost done with their investigations, having failed so often in their endeavors. But the experimentations they had conducted gave them a great scientific curiosity about everything in the world around them, both nonliving and living. Out of the Alchemists came a group known as Natural Philosophers and we had the very beginning of Physics.

These were the days of Isaac Newton in England and Hooke in England and Huygens, a Dutchman, and Gottfried Leibnitz, a German. These men explored the insides of living things, they looked at everything under lenses that improved in quality as the trilogy progressed. They created “the algebra” and they began to see that all things were made of smaller things (atoms to Newton, monads to Leibnitz). Newton and Leibnitz both claimed to have come up with “the algebra” which made these two great men opponents and caused educated folks to divide into two camps depending on which great man they backed.

Stephenson gives us a fictional character to serve as a go-between for these great gentlemen who did not always agree with each other. Daniel Waterhouse is the character who speaks to all of the principals. He also avoids much of the Catholic – Protestant divide of the times by coming from a family that is neither. His father is persecuted for his beliefs, but Daniel is not. Daniel serves as our man in London and in Massachusetts where he is trying to set up the Massachusetts’ Institute of Technological Arts. (He is not the founder of MIT.)

The other two books in this trilogy – which jumps around in time and place – although not quite as neatly and tidily organized as I am making them sound, are called The Confusion and The System of the World. They take us out of London with a vagabond. On the “Continent”, we follow two very unusual fictional characters. We follow Eliza, the stunning and extremely intelligent ex-Turkish slave, captured by a French aristocrat with her mom and sold into slavery in Turkey. And we have Jack Shaftoe, a poor Englishman, also extremely intelligent, who becomes the King of the Vagabonds. Eliza and Jack fall in love when he rescues her from the Turks but their paths diverge. Eliza becomes wealthy by learning to invest in the Dutch “stock market” of the day. Dutch economics are superior to other nations earlier due to the trade of the Dutch East India Company. Eliza becomes a member of the court of Louis XIV and becomes a familiar figure at Versailles. Jack gets captured and becomes a slave rower on a ship bound for Africa. But he is too brilliant to stay down for long. Jack makes a plan, makes some friends and ends up taking us to visit all the world that was known at that time.

Jack’s plan involves stealing gold as part of a plan of retribution against the Frenchman who enslaved Eliza. He does not realize that this is known as the Solomonic Gold because it is bound to mercury. The nature of this particular gold had everyone chasing Jack and his men all over Christendom and beyond and puts his life in mortal jeopardy more times than you will want to count. The Alchemists and the Natural Philosophers are thrown into a total tizzy over this gold and several of our favorite characters barely escape with their lives and only manage it through the rather extreme machinations of Daniel Waterhouse and those he ropes into assisting him. Thus ends the age of Alchemy.

What follows are the beginnings of the Industrial Age. Here as magical science wraps up and practical science begins, just here when someone invents the “Engine that Uses Fire to Pump Water” and a contest offers a prize to anyone who can come up with a way to determine “the longitude” when on a sea voyage, things are as chaotic as they are here at the end of the Industrial Age in our real world.

The Baroque Cycle is a tale that will either entertain you over many a rainy and sunny day or will cause you to completely lose your patience and perhaps throw it at a wall. (Don’t throw your Kindle). Although I sometimes felt a bit crazed when I read for half a day and only progressed through 2% of the book, I never really wanted to stop reading it and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it’s not an experience I can recommend to anyone. You know if you are a reader who will love this or yawn over this. As for me I will eventually download another Stephenson tome and while away some more idle hours by allowing my mind to be taken somewhere/time else. (It is also a love story of sorts.)

“At some point, says Neal Stephenson by way of Daniel Waterhouse, the whole System will fail, because of the flaws that have been wrought into it…Perhaps new sorts of Wizards will be required then. But – and perhaps this is only because of his age, and that there’s a longboat waiting to take him away – he has to admit that having some kind of System, even a flawed and doomed one, is better than to live forever in the poisonous storm-tide of quicksilver that gave birth to all of this.