The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.

The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.

The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.

The Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling

The series consists of seven books but I have only read the first five:

  • Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (US edition is titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As the series progresses, it becomes darker and darker. The dark lord Voldemort, and his ties to Harry Potter’s past, take on ever greater importance. While Harry’s schooling is always at the center of the story, it is clear that great events are afoot in the magic world. The paralells to today’s distrustful world are readily apparent.

This is delightful fantasy. Although aimed at a younger audience, it works very well for adults. What starts as the story of children going to a school for magic ends up as a life and death struggle between good and evil. The themes developed in the books go much deeper than the plot, especially the conflict between “Muggles” (normal people) and those who practice magic. The growth of Harry Potter into adulthood is very well described.

Rowling is a masterful author, with beautiful style and characterization.