I absolutely detest books that feel like work. I don’t mean books that make you work to understand and finish them, but books that remind you of what it is like to wake up in the morning to go to a job you find utterly dull and unsatisfying. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O (DODO for short), by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, is one of those books. At a whopping 750 pages, it demands the reader’s time and rewards them with very little. As my previous reviews have shown, I can stick through a book – but folks, this one took a toll. It has a paper-thin plot, boring characters and a grating lack of tension. DODO fails as a satire of bureaucracy as it builds to a mediocre conclusion that feels like a lead into a more defined narrative.
DODO is the story of a government agency – D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations)- that uses magic to travel back in time and create an alternate reality similar to our own present-day world. The story follows historian and linguist Melisande Stokes who is recruited by Tristan, a handsome and mysterious government agent, to do translations of ancient documents detailing the use of magic. They discover that magic existed at one-point, but vanished sometime in 1850. When the pair discover that magic and quantum mechanics are intertwined, they set out to recruit a team of witches and quantum physicists. Quickly they discover they can travel back in time, but to change the present, they must go back several times and affect different universes so that the majority of realities accept the changes they have made. As the department grows, a shadowy but ill-defined government organization begins to take control, and internal tensions grow and D.O.D.O.’s as-yet unstated mission changes.
The story is mostly told through Melisande’s eyes in a series of journals from the past recounting D.O.D.O.’s activities. Melisande, as she is quick to point out, has been sent to the past just weeks before the event that stops the use of magic as most witches know it. While this is set up as the main conflict in the story, much of its narrative tension is quickly dissolved. The reader is consistently reminded of this problem, almost jokingly every several chapters. That way when it finally is remedied, the reader could say “gee that was certainly a close one”. Luckily, this monotonous pace is broken when the journals switch between other characters recounting events, each with a somewhat distinct voice. Over time, however, the various journals start to feel more superficial and thin. Each one has an opening style that is intended to divulge something about the character, such as a diary entry, or the beginning of a letter, but rarely is it deeper than a street puddle. On top of that, all the entries essentially recount how the writer watches other characters do things while rarely participating themselves. I often felt extremely removed from the story, as though I was watching a commentary track where the reviewer filmed themselves explaining the movie while watching the real film on mute.
Luckily, the reader is spared having to read the same event in detail whenever the past has to be revisited, but they still have to read about it. It is hard to put into words how tedious it felt reading about the same event several times. Each time the characters did their job just a little more cleanly, with a little more finesse than the last time. For the video game nerds out there, it felt a lot like watching someone else play Dark Souls. Frustrating watching another player slowly get better at fighting a particular boss until they beat it, but you got to share in zero of the accomplishment. Then you had to watch that process, again, and again and again. It was almost as if the book was made purposefully big and heavy to smash your skull literally and metaphorically. Luckily for you, I did not, but boy was I close.
The characters were equally uninspiring, feeling like cardboard cutouts of stock characters. Melisande is a shy bookish type who mostly stands in the corner, and besides her first trip back in time, rarely contributes. While most of the book is written from her point of view, she mostly recounts how everyone else was doing all the work. Tristan is the gallant and muscular, yet geeky, hero who has a cute butt that Melisande and the other women unfailingly and constantly mention in their own narratives. He is gentlemanly, learns how to fence and never fails to be charming. He knows how to get the job done and has no noticeable flaws. If he does not know something, he goes away to learn more about it and comes back with a software update. Erszebet, a sassy witch from the nineteenth century, could easily be the most interesting character but she is treated like a finicky mechanical device. She is the only plot adjacent character who has a legitimate stake and power in the book. She essentially slows down her aging process to meet Melisande in the present, after being warned by her in 1850 about the end of magic, in the hopes to bring it back. But ninety percent of the time she just stamps her feet till she gets threatened with “no more magic for you” and then sends people back in time. This could have easily led her to be an antagonist with a very good reason but gets put in the backseat halfway through the book.
Unfortunately, there are also many side characters, but they do not have personalities or attributes beyond their physical description. For instance, the coffee shop barista is described the same way every time she enters the scene to the point where I wanted to skip every paragraph in the café because I knew how they would be written. The characters failed to create any of the conflicts in the book, and much of the narrative tension happens off the page. The most present antagonism to the main characters is the agitation created by the increasing levels of bureaucracy within D.O.D.O. and is almost fully ignored to the point that it feels non-existent. None of the characters change or learn anything from their time at D.O.D.O. Their experience often felt like something that happened in their lives and continues to happen, but they get no excitement or fulfillment from it. The single character who presents any sort of threat only chooses to go turncoat at the end of the book, leaving me to wonder if there will be a sequel in which things actually happen.
The theme of the book felt like it was meant to be a satire of bureaucracy and the meaningless pursuits of those who control such a system. It was less a book about time travel and its potential problems, and more about how bureaucracy can take an exciting concept like time travel and turn it into a chore. It was clear that the authors had an idea of how they wanted to portray this, using emails from the HR department detailing proper acronyms, or hidden sound recordings, and the occasional dossier. The intention was to build out a system that would allow for a backward look at the organization, but it ended up feeling overwrought with many different styles. Each iteration feeling shallower and simpler in a way that hoped to piggyback off the reader’s feelings of those systems. It could have been a fascinating look at the minutiae of real life intersecting with magic while grinding down its characters. Instead, it is a monotonous chain of procedurally planning multiple trips to accomplish one uninspired goal. While these journeys would truthfully require heavy coordination and preparation, ultimately it fails as a satire because none of the characters care about the process or how it affects their plans, let alone whether the goal was achieved. No one wanted to improve anything, and they remain complacent enough to put up with all the red tape, while never even complaining about the struggles of their job. They accepted whatever happened and moved on to the next unimportant task. It felt like the authors built a delicate Rube-Goldberg machine, and then kicked it over halfway through its cycle, and then laughed at you for caring. It just made me fatigued.
In the end, DODO was flat out boring. Honestly, I think the events of the first one hundred and fifty pages feel analogous to the whole book, so if you decide to read it you can stop there. The whole book followed a cycle of building momentum and anticipation, only to reveal a weak and uninspiring result. It is possible that that was the authors’ goal, but even if it was, it did not accomplish anything. It did not have a bite that made me think “yes, this is how it feels!”. The characters were unaffected. Unlike me, they did not become angry, depressed, or annoyed, nor did they appear to feel cheated by having their efforts amount to such paltry results. There could have been a fun book here if the mechanics were played with. The ideas were genuinely intriguing, and if the characters had more blood and life to them, maybe the realism of magic and time travel could have been a good joke against them. Instead, I felt that the joke was on me and that makes me sad and tired. Luckily for you, I already put in all the work to let you know this book is a disappointment, so you can avoid that pain for yourself.
Rating: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – I would rather take a cheese grater to my eyes than read more of this/ 10.