Complicated fun

In my current mission to read Neal Stephenson’s entire oeuvre, I’ve been zigzagging between his earlier and later publications. If there’s one difference between his early and late work that I can put my finger on easily, it’s the increasing prominence of female characters, and particularly female point-of-view characters. In The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O., which is a collaboration with Nicole Galland, the overwhelming majority of the narrative perspective is female. Although there is much worth saying from a male perspective in fiction, I have to say I find a predominantly female perspective to be a lot more interesting than a predominantly male one, for three reasons. Firstly, to all intents and purposes, I’m male, and one of the reasons fiction is enjoyable is that it offers insight into experiences removed from ones own, one way or another. Secondly, we’ve had so much of a male perspective that we’ve heard it all before: we know how men perceive and react to more or less any situation imaginable, but a woman’s perspective is scarcer, therefore more likely to be novel, and therefore more interesting. Thirdly, as performers of a privileged gender, men don’t have to think about how anyone else sees the world, whereas women have to anticipate every other perspective as well as their own, simply in order to navigate the expectations with which they are met—irrespective if their personality tends towards the empathic or not. A woman’s perspective, in fiction as elsewhere, has to encompass a great deal of what we would call a male perspective, while the reverse is not true, and a male point-of-view is less complex and nuanced as a result.

I don’t know what Galland’s other work is like—she also collaborated with Stephenson on his multi-writer Mongoliad project, and she’s written a number of historical novels, but I haven’t read them. This book is broadly like the other Neal Stephenson books I’ve read—which is to say it’s a lot of complicated fun. It is probably more fun and less complicated than his other work, but that’s a fairly marginal distinction. There was certainly no point at which I could point to a feature of the text and say ‘I reckon that bit is Galland’ or ‘that’s definitely Stephenson’, although it’s hard not to assume that the gender balance would have skewed a little more the other way had he written it alone. Galland has written a sequel to this book on her own, and I’ll be interested to see if that feels noticeably less Stephensonian. What I will say is that this is a single coherent text, with no thematic or stylistic fragmentation, and no sense of ‘consequences’ or ‘tennis’ about it.

Central to the story is a version of magic which is built on an interpretation of quantum mechanics—magic in this world is a practice which exploits indeterminacy, and witches (all the magical practitioners appear to be female) have a heritable talent which enables them to manipulate probabilities within the yet-to-be-determined. Once Schrödinger’s cat’s state of health has been ascertained, once the waveform has been collapsed, the possibility of magic is foreclosed. In the modern world, where conscious observers exist in a global network, magic is impossible—and has been since the advent of widespread photography in the middle nineteenth century. This is an amusing conceit, with Galland and Stephenson going to considerable lengths to ensure its fundamental implausibility is pushed back into the technical thicket of quantum mechanics, which is equally implausible to anyone who can’t get to grips with its mathematics. In other words, if you really know stuff about quantum physics it probably won’t wash, but if, like me, you get your information from New Scientist, then you likely won’t be able to tell exactly why.

So a fun, complicated conceit. This is then put to use producing a fun, complicated plot, based on time travel. Multiplying magic by time travel seems like a sure-fire way of producing the kind of fabulously baroque idea-scape for which Stephenson is known, but as I said above, The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. is skewed more towards the fun than the complexity, and once the plot is rolling along nicely it’s the characters which provide most of the entertainment. I should say that there is less of a sense of narrative inevitability here than in other Stephenson books I have read, although the denouement is certainly the consequence of an elaborate set-up which begins on page one. However, and perhaps this is a deliberate reflection of the importance of uncertainty to the central conceit, the characters don’t feel as though they are set on fixed tracks—they are a nicely particular set of weirdos with entirely plausible idiosyncrasies, often with a great deal of charisma, who give a solid impression of unpredictability and stubbornness.

Stephenson is known to be a stickler for accurate detail in his historical fiction. I can’t comment on Galland’s approach elsewhere, but a great deal of research is in evidence here—the time travel that drives the plot is directed entirely towards the past, from our perspective. The only hole I could poke in it (without trying especially hard to do so) was the use (in contemporary passages) of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to refer to the language spoken in early medieval England—the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons is known to scholars as Old English, and I was surprised that Stephenson and Galland’s research didn’t turn up that fact, given that one of their principal POV characters is a linguist specialising in ancient languages. Oh wait, didn’t I mention that one of the protagonists was a linguist? Yes, no wonder I liked this book a lot. After all, what could be more fun, or more complicated, than language?

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