Monday, June 19, 2017

The Tangled Web, Or How to Out-Byzantine Byzantium

Review: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland


Melisande and Tristan are unlikely partners in a high-tech startup. Mel is academe, Tristan military. Mel speaks and reads dozens of—maybe a hundred—ancient languages, Tristan is fluent in the one languge she is not: bureaucratese. But Mel can't stand her current academic mentor, a sleezy fellow who takes credit for her work and makes unwanted sexual overtures to his protégée. She says yes to a high salary with benefits, and launches into the effort to help develop a new technology with military applications.

Magic.

Usually, I need at least two complete reads through a Neal Stephenson novel, with some intervening time to absorb the revealed technology. Not this time. What Neal and co-author Nicole Galland have done is to examine the real-life implications of successful time travel (or "diachronic operations", the second "D.O." of the secret Department's title), while they simultaneously expose and lampoon the inevitable bureacratic takeover of a technical endeavor.

Even without the ancient tongues that bring Melisande into the Department, the language is dizzyingly, deliciously convoluted. Military acronyms and bureaucratic double-speak abound. My favorite passage involved the attempt of a rigid office-manager boffin to prevent the techies from using unsanctioned acronyms and labels. (The techies promptly labeled her policy memo with an unsanctioned acronym, of course.)

Perhaps the story's accessibility is due to the combination of Stephenson's favored Innis mode with a mixture of narration and epistolary delivery, particularly suitable to a novel in which time travel has scrambled the chronology. Some of those epistles are email, some are hand-scribed letters and journals written on parchment—some are even carved into living flesh. (Further detail might be a spoiler!) 

On the other hand, as I read 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!