Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review
Over the years I’ve read a lot of Neal Stephenson. I was completely blown away by Snow Crash. But then, who wouldn’t be entranced by a cyberpunk pizza delivery ninja? I was just as enamored with the Diamond Age and even Cryptonomicon both of which launched Stephenson onto my must read author list. Then he came out with the Baroque cycle which I slogged my way through, wondering the entire time: what am I missing here? In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t much. I believe that this series was simply Stephenson performing a little academia fueled intellectual masturbation where he forgot the one crucial no-no of storytelling – don’t bore the shit out of your readers.
After that snorer of a series, I gave up on him for good. I felt justified by that decision when he released Anathem which looked like more of the same. I refused to even pick that one up and removed Stephenson from any and all novel release alerts. Then he wrote REAMDE which people I trust said was a must-read. It wasn’t bad. It was similar to Cline’s Ready Player One albeit quite a bit darker. It wasn’t good enough to restore him back on the must read list. After losing faith in Stephenson, I don’t touch his books unless they come with a great recommendation. Right before the holiday, I met up with my old college roommates and one of them gave the rec that the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O was worth the read. So here we are.
The concept of the book is excellent. It’s got all the physics nerd themes you could ever hope for. Being a physics nerd, this really worked for me. He dives deep into quantum theory using the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment as a starter reference point then evolves the ideas from there. That was one of the things I loved about the book, the science was on point.
The style of writing was pretty cool. He constantly went back and forth between journal entries, email conversations, wiki posts and the more traditional third person view. All told, it felt more like an experience than reading a book. This was a good, modern way to experience literature.
The plot starts in a somewhat Jurassic Park fashion with a strange military dude looking for an expert on ancient languages. You get the clear sense very early on that Dr. Melisande Stokes, our walking anachronism, will be put to good use and quickly. The plot doesn’t disappoint. You quickly discover that our military dude, Tristan Lyons, is part of some covert government group looking to understand what happened to magic. That’s right magic.
These two characters quickly form a much larger group of scientists, operatives, and witches that dive into the mysteries of magic and time travel. It gets weird quickly. But it’s a good weird. The magic elements continue to be somewhat believable especially with the strong ties to quantum paradoxes and multi-universe theories. Stephenson does a good job of implying these scientific elements instead of forcing them on us. This keeps all these concepts well available for non-physics nerds.
As our characters start jumping back and forth through time, Stephenson finds his groove. He definitely gets a lot of pleasure from historical fiction but this time around he does a good job of making these forays enjoyable for the reader as well. Historical integrity is obviously very important to him and you can tell he did his research. Each fall back into time felt authentic and he uses the time locked characters well to breathe life into each of these scenes.
As they pass through time, they realize that there are competing factions doing the same thing. This has the smell of a really interesting rivalry but sadly nothing ever really happens with it. That was the impression I got with most of the book. There were a lot of really good ideas without any great resolutions. Except for one brilliant Vikings in a Walmart scene near the end of the book much of the wrap up was disappointing. Even the ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic. I don’t want to ruin the ending by providing spoilers because some of those crazier scenes as well as the underlying theme still make it worth the read. It just wasn’t one of his best.