The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Neal Stephenson is the best.

As a long-time fan, I can assure you that this conclusion is an objective fact, not a matter of personal opinion. Your mileage may vary, but I doubt it.

Up to this point I have reviewed or commented on six of Stephenson’s many novels: The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Reamde, Seveneves, and AnathemWhen I saw a mention of his latest, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (co-authored by Nicole Galland, whoever she is), I figured it would be a respite from his usual gigantic novels of 1000 or 1100 pages. And when I saw that the protagonist was a linguistics post-doc at Harvard with a specialty in ancient languages, I was hooked.

I was right, and I was wrong. In the first place, this epistolary novel is indeed short, only 769 pages. Yikes! Well, that is short for Stephenson — about 400 pages shorter than Cryptonomicon, for instance, which clocks in at 1168 pages. More importantly, it held my attention the entire time. I thought it would be fairly light reading, at least compared to Stephenson’s usual work, and that was true for the first hundred pages or so. But then the material became denser and deeper, and it turned out not to be light reading at all, except for a few scenes that are clearly (and successfully) entertaining, such as the remarkably convincing tenth-century Viking poem about the sacking of Walmart (actually written by Stephenson, not by a Viking). As for the nature of the protagonist, my description in the previous paragraph was true as far as it went, but it wasn’t as significant as I had hoped. It was cool to see a legitimate reason for a classical linguist to be a protagonist of a novel, and the Harvard/Cambridge setting was spot on, as they say across the pond. It turned out that my experience working in software startups ended up being more relevant to the story than my experience studying linguistics, as most of the issues in the book revolved around conflicts between techies and military-backed management in a high-tech company. To quote one of the Amazon reviews:

I found myself uncomfortably reminded of my experiences in the late 80s and early 90s, working for a tech firm started by engineers. At the time I signed on, the founders were still in the top management positions, and we had a one-of-a-kind product in a brand-new tech niche. I was there when a venture capital firm bought out the company, still there when they “retired” the founder CEO and replaced him with a business-type. I left when the engineer-COO and engineer-R&D chief were also replaced by MBAs. (The firm was out of business a year later.)

No doubt that personal history added to my enjoyment of the eventual “fall” implied in the novel’s title. But you need not have had a similar traumatic experience; D.O.D.O. is a great story, and you won’t want to miss it!

That sure matches my experience! This may not really be “a great story,” but it’s a charming work of science fiction and historical fiction that’s definitely worth reading. You will have to read carefully to catch some of the subtleties, such as why the headquarters of the U.S. military is called the Trapezoid rather than the Pentagon, and why there’s a Walmart in Lexington, MA. And on that subject, before closing I do want to say something about the Viking poem I mentioned in the second paragraph. You’ll have to read the book to find out why a Viking from the tenth century would be writing about the sacking of Walmart, but the 39-verse alliterative fragment does indeed sound like an actual saga from Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon.


Categories: Books, Linguistics