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Urskuul’s Reading Circle: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Welcome all, to another edition of Urskuul’s Reading Circle newsletter. I would say, “another exciting edition”, but I fear I might be lying if I did. And I’d hate to mislead you. Especially if I misled you and I didn’t even get any monetary reward for it. Then, not only would I have lost your trust, but I wouldn’t be any richer to at least make me feel a bit better.

Summer Vacation by Mary Jane WhitingAnyway, I digress. Yes, this month, I have some bad news for you. We’ve obviously been rolling along at breakneck pace through the summer season and during this time there’s a rather strange tradition people have of going on holiday. I don’t know why. I spend all year having to put up with people at work and that gets tiresome even though I like them. (Like is possibly too strong a word. I know them.) And I can tolerate it when they feel the need to make conversation with me about their boring lives. Why, in all the Netherhells, would I want to go to an unfamiliar location and surround myself by complete strangers? Not only do some of them talk to me without a proper introduction, but many of them don’t even speak the same language as me! How is anyone supposed to find that relaxing? I’d much rather be at my comfortable little home, surrounded by my lovely books rather than smelly, horrible people.

Nevertheless, I was summoned. My sister, her husband and their little hellionspawn organised a family holiday with my Mother and myself. I don’t know why they thought I wanted to come. I can’t stand children. Not entirely sure I can stand my sister, her husband or Mother either. However, because they adore me (just like all of you) my presence was required. Apparently, there was talk of having Mother write me out of the will if I didn’t come along.

A Small Vacation by Isaac HawnThis meant I wasn’t around to run the last meeting. I did suggest everyone pay for their own transport costs and come on holiday with us so we could hold the meeting on location, but Xerxes Law, our Lorekeeper, explained the bylaws didn’t allow for that. Instead, the next most senior official in the Reading Circle would run the meeting in my place and write up the discussions which occurred in my absence.

As you may remember, because I don’t trust any of you to be a good Deputy, I’ve never appointed one. Which means the senior official is Treasurer. Yes, Melissa got to take the meeting. Her words are below. I didn’t bother reading them since no doubt they merely contain vitriolic attacks on my character in an attempt to undermine me and seize power. I’d suggest you skip to the word from our sponsor and don’t read them either.

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Hello all. I’m very excited to be covering the latest meeting of Urskuul’s Reading Circle in our Chair’s absence. A little nervous as well; I hope my write-up will be as enjoyable as our Chair manages each month, but it will be a little different. I’d like to try and do it my way, if that’s okay with you?

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (cover)This month we looked at The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. a book written by the wonderful Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. I hadn’t heard of Nicole before I picked this up, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about her other books, but I think everyone will know of Neal Stephenson. (I love Cryptonomicon if you haven’t read anything of his books and want to try it before having a look at this one.)

So, what is The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. about? It’s a book written in epistolary fashion, meaning it is written in a series of letters. This one has letter writing, emails, journal entries, transcripts, etc. The main core is the letter written by Professor Melisande Stokes (or, as she calls it, a Diachronicle). However, we are often flipping to different people and different viewpoints. Melisande begins by telling us she is writing from July 1851, around 160 years before the time she is from. She was trapped there, magic is about to die and she has no way of getting home. This is her way of hopefully reaching her friends in the 2010s. An interesting hook? Well, I certainly wanted to find out what happened.

As you read on, you find that Melisande was recruited in the modern day by a fellow known as Tristan Lyons. She was to work for a shadowy government organisation called DODO.

“Department of…something?”

“…of something classified.”

Schrodinger’s cat by Jie QiMelisande does eventually find out that DODO stands for Department of Diachronic Operations and they are researching Magic. Before 1851, Magic had been in common usage around the world, before a particular event occurred that caused its death. This is believed to be something related to the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment. It’s to do with a cat being in a box and, at any given time, having a 50% chance of either being alive or dead. You don’t know whether the cat is dead or alive until the box is opened and the cat is observed. By that observation, the uncertainty over the state of the cat is removed and the wavelength collapses to a classical status of either dead or alive.

I’d like to note, that as a cat lover, please don’t lock a cat in a box. It’s mean. Certainly, give him or her a box to play/hide/sleep in (cats love boxes), but don’t lock it shut.

Anyway, there’s a fair amount of scientific talk trying to explain that in 1851, a photograph (or a daguerreotype) was taken of the Solar Eclipse. Because so many people all saw the Solar Eclipse at the same time and a photo was taken that “captured” this observation, it meant the world collapsed into a classical status. The uncertainty of magic (allowing the cat to be both dead and alive at the same time) was removed, and thus magic would no longer work.

Total Eclipse on May 12, 1706Still with me? Phew, okay then. It’s a bit of a stretch trying to scientifically explain something that doesn’t correspond to scientific laws, but it is done well rather than a dry and dusty lecture style.

The idea of magic greatly interests a shadowy government organisation. Who knows what edge you might have if magic could be harnessed? The fact that it died in 1851 doesn’t mean there might not be a way to bring it back and so this is what Mel and Tristan begin researching. And they have some success. Which is lucky, because otherwise it would have been a fairly short read. A machine is constructed which seems to cut off all observation from the outside world (an actual Schrodinger’s box), thus allowing magic to be performed, since no one can observe it to prevent it. Now all they need is a witch…

Things start speeding up at this point: a witch is found (more accurately, a witch finds them), some spells are attempted and the one that they like the most is time travel. At which point, the shadowy government organisation start making changes. New people in charge. More structure and intent behind what they’re trying to achieve rather than researching for the sake of knowledge. They want actual militaristic benefits from the project. Mel and Tristan become mere staff working on the project. And the time travel project kicks off in earnest. All we know so far, is that at some point something went wrong and Mel ended up trapped in 1851, unable to return. Looking forward to finding out what did? Then you should pick up a copy and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

While Mel’s diachronicle provides the core of what happened, there’s lots of supporting material here. Journals from other characters, letters from witches in the past, transcripts of meetings and email exchanges. There’s lots of little humorous touches. Mel’s tendency to cross out swear words and replace them with something more professional. Little email exchanges around the pettiness of bureaucracy monitoring the ridiculousness of many acronyms (particularly rude sounding ones. (POOJAC: Policy on Official Jargon and Acronym Coinage. DOOSH: Diachronic Operative Occupational Safety and Health) which crop up in entertaining little interludes in-between the main storyline.

I thought I’d ask a few of the members who attended the meeting how they felt about it and have included their responses below:

Amy: Enjoyed it. Mel and Tristan were both quality characters and you were firmly on their side pretty much from the beginning. So definitely wanted to find out what happened between them and how Mel ended up in the past.

Alex: I didn’t like Melisande. Felt she was a bit annoying…OW!

Amy: Shut up Alex! Mel was awesome. You just don’t know a good character if it bit you.

Alex: You’re the only one who ever bites me and you have a horrible character!

Note from Melissa: There was more, but I didn’t think it right to include any further.

Garim, the Minotaur: Needs more pigeons, but fair decent.

Note from Melissa: I don’t know why Garim wanted more pigeons. He’s a bit scary so I didn’t fancy asking him to elaborate.

Everett: Although Mel’s diachronicle was interesting and quite a good pace, I felt that off times the move to a new section of letters could break up that steady flow. It felt annoying to have to read from another style, particularly if that style didn’t appeal to you. It probably didn’t need quite so many interruptions and could have felt a bit tighter by having less…OW!

Amy: Shut up Everett! You don’t know what you’re talking about!

Note from Melissa: Everett is a fairly shy individual who doesn’t often talk at the meetings. I fear after Amy’s attack (she threw a chair at him, which luckily only caught him a glancing blow on the head rather than a direct hit) it might be some time before he speaks again.

Xerxes: I felt the authors seem to have something against the rules; making out that many of them were stupid and unnecessary, suggesting bureaucracy is a joke. Rules are put in place for a reason, and simply because you don’t immediately see the need for them, doesn’t mean the need isn’t there. Otherwise, Mel’s story was great fun to read.

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Well, that’s all for now. Hope our comments have shown you what we thought of the book and given you an idea of whether it might appeal to you. Until next time!

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Urskuul’s Reading Circle: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, 10.0 out of 10 based on 3 ratings
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