Posts Tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’


The Rise and Fall of Dodo front cover

(The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. William Morrow, 2017, 752 pp., $35.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Well, from Stephenson, this is something completely unexpected and different: a light, comic, genre-bending (sci-fi & fantasy) novel that mixes quantum physics with computer science, magic, witchcraft, time travel, and parallel universes. If this sounds more than a bit like the set-up of Charles Stross’s “Laundry” novels, it is. 

Another similarity is that the protagonists in both the Laundry Files novels and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  work for super-secret government agencies dealing with the occult. There are, however, major differences between the Stross and Stephenson/Gallard novels. One is that the “Laundry” stories feature first-person narration from a single point of view, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has first-person narration from eight p.ov. characters (four male, four female), and the story is told via journal entries, memos, historical documents, transcripted conversations, and e-mail exchanges. This sounds like it could be a mess, but it’s not: the story is quite easy to follow, which given the narrative complexity is no mean feat.

All of the characters are well drawn, with distinctive behaviors, physical appearance, dress, speech patterns, writing styles, and personality quirks. Those characters range from the very sympathetic (Melisande, the primary character, and Tristan, the primary male character), to the utterly loathsome (Blevins, an abusive, puffed up hypocrite).

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. begins with a time-lock device: we learn from Melisande’s first journal entry that something has gone horribly wrong, and she’ll be stranded in 1851 unless she’s rescued within a few weeks.

From there, the story unwinds detailing the development of D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations) from its humble beginnings with Tristan, who works for the Department of Defense, recruiting Melisande, an ancient language expert, to work on a nascent time travel project. Following that, D.O.D.O mushrooms, with Tristan and Melisande quickly recruiting Frank, a physicist working in the area of (what else?) quantum physics, who creates a time travel machine in which witches can practice magic and send people back in time.

Shortly, the DOD begins using the time machine to alter the past, and shortly after that the DOD official overseeing the project, General Frink, appoints a slimy, incompetent crony as its administrator in place of the competent Tristan. From there, several disasters ensue, ending with the time-lock situation (Melisande stranded in 1851) described at the beginning of the book.

There’s no point in detailing the plot further, except to say that it makes sense as much as any time travel plot can make sense (ultimately, they don’t — they’re inescapably paradoxical). So, time travel is one of the book’s two “gimmes”; the other is the existence of magic and witchcraft.

One very attractive feature of the book is that it has many genuinely funny moments, including a wonderful three-page passage on the reactions of surveillance personnel forced to watch the virtually nonstop sexual antics of two of the characters. This is the high, or at least the funniest, point in the interplay between the male and female characters, which is both amusing and believable throughout the book.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it’s that hierarchical institutions are inherently dangerous, in part because incompetents in command positions can and do make terrible decisions, overriding the concerns of the competent people beneath them.

Other than that, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has no redeeming social value other than being for the most part — it’s a bit on the long side — highly entertaining.

That’s more than enough to justify picking it up.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


hieroglyphHieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, Ed Finn & Kathryn Cramer, eds. (Wm. Morrow, 2014, 532 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This collection of 16 short stories and one novella is largely a product of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, of which Finn is the founding director.  The book’s back cover describes it as “a manifesto and a blueprint . . . a clarion call to people everywhere to reclaim our future from grieving over what once was to celebrating all that can be achieved.”

The book succeeds — in part. Some of the stories describe innovations that seem entirely possible and achievable in the short term. The standouts here are two stories that concern the liberatory possibilities of the Internet, “Degrees of Freedom, ” by Karl Schroeder, and “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA,” by Lee Konstantinou. The Schroeder story particularly stands out, because of its entirely believable, rather unsympathetic protagonist, and the changes wrought in his outlook through interaction with the technologies Schroeder describes.

A number of the other stories are less inspiring. The first story in the collection, “Atmosphera Incognita,” by Neal Stephenson, falls  in this category, due to its being almost entirely exposition. It reads more like a very long outline for a novel than a short story.

Others that are lacking include Madeline Ashby’s “By the Time we Get to Arizona,” due to her obvious unfamiliarity with southern Arizona (where I’ve lived for decades) and northern Sonora, and “Periapsis,” by James L. Cambias, in that its social/political background is very hard to buy.

Gregory Benford’s “The Man Who Sold the Stars” stumbles right out of the blocks, with the description in its third paragraph of a biker picking up a Honda Hawk motorcycle and throwing it “all the way across the street” on top of a Kawasaki motorcycle. At that point, I went, “Yeah, right,” and stopped reading, as would anyone else even remotely familiar with motorcycles. A Honda Hawk weighs 393 pounds dry, 412 pounds (187 kilos) fueled and lubricated. (Yes, I did just look that up.)

There are, though, several good pieces in the collection beyond the Schroeder and Konstantinou stories, including Cory Doctorow’s amusing novella, “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement,” and Rudy Rucker’s flat out hilarious “Quantum Telepathy.”

But the real standout in the collection is Charlie Jane Anders’ very funny “The Day It All Ended,” the next-to-last story in the book; it concerns methods of fighting global warming through carbon capture, and contains a hilarious putdown of what certainly appears to be Apple:

‘Your products are pure evil. You build these sleek little pieces of shit that are designed with all this excess capacity and redundant systems. . . . [I]t’s the ultimate glorification of form over function —  you’ve been able to convince everybody with disposable income to buy your crap, because people love anything that’s ostentatiously pointless. . . . You use glamour and marketing to convince people to fill their lives with empty crap instead of paying attention to the world and realizing how fragile and beautiful it really is. You’re the devil.’ . . .

‘You missed one, I think,’ Jethro said, ‘The one about overproliferation. That’s where we convince people to buy three different products that are almost exactly the same . . .’

Up to that point, I’d been mulling over whether or not to recommend Hieroglyph. Of the 16 stories and one novella, I enjoyed only the six pieces mentioned above, disliked about an equal number, and was indifferent to the rest.

“The Day It All Ended” tipped the scales.

Recommended — especially if you can find a used copy or can borrow one from the library.

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(Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover


Sharp and Pointed has been around for just over three years, and we’ve put up just over 1,000 posts —  this  is number 1,001 — in 37 categories. Coincidentally, we reached 30,000 hits yesterday.

Science fiction is probably our most popular category, and we’ve put up nearly 100 sci-fi posts. Here, in no particular order, are those we consider the best.

This is the first of our first-1,000 “best of” posts. We’ll shortly be putting up other “best ofs” in several other categories, including Addictions, Anarchism, Atheism, Economics, Humor, Interviews, Music, Politics, Religion, Science, and Skepticism.


We started this blog in July 2013. Since then, we’ve been posting almost daily.

When considering the popularity of the posts, one thing stands out:  in all but a few cases, popularity declines over time.

As well, the readership of this blog has expanded gradually over time, so most readers have never seen what we consider many of our best posts.

Over the next week or two we’ll put up lists of our best posts from 2015 in the categories of atheism, religion, anarchism, humor, politics, music,  book and movie reviews, writing, language use, and economics.

Because there were considerably more posts in 2014 and 2015 than in 2013, we put up several lists for 2014 and will be putting up a similar number of lists for 2015. We’ve already put up the following:

Here’s the first of the 2015 lists:

Science

Skepticism

Science Fiction

(The George Turner series is included here, because it concluded in 2015.)