Neal Stephenson on magic, technology, and the lure of long books

One of Justin Trudeau’s and Barack Obama’s favourite writers teams up with Nicole Galland for ’The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.’


If any writer should be labouring under the weight of expectation, it’s Neal Stephenson. His last novel, Seveneves, a science fiction epic that begins with the destruction of the moon, was on then-U.S. president Barack Obama’s reading list last summer. Bill Gates has recommended it, and in April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited him as one of his favourite authors. Stephenson tries not to let his literary access to the corridors of power go to his head: “I go to elaborate lengths to try to shut out all awareness of such things, because it would make it very hard to write,” he says.

As if to pull back from the seriousness of Seveneves—or of prior weighty tomes such as Cryptonomicon and the mammoth trilogy The Baroque Cycle—his new book, written with historical novelist Nicole Galland, is a time-travel romp. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. yokes Stephenson’s interest in quantum mechanics with out-and-out fantasy. Its twentysomething protagonists are Melisande Stokes, a linguist teaching on contract at Harvard, and Tristan Lyons, who works for DODO, a government operation so secretive he can’t even tell her what the acronym stands for. (Similarly, Stephenson works part-time as “chief futurist” for the virtual reality-meets-augmented reality company Magic Leap, the first rule of which, apparently, is that you don’t talk about Magic Leap.) Tristan recruits Mel to translate historical documents that turn out to detail the practice of actual magic. Somehow it died out, around the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, and DODO wants to find a way to bring it back.

To do so, they have to find an actual living witch and then build a pseudo-scientific time-travel facility where she can work, in an unmarked building in Cambridge, Mass. Eventually, Tristan and Mel start going on missions back to the past, trying to influence the present. When Pentagon bureaucracy gets involved (or “Trapezoid” bureaucracy, in this slightly altered present), guys in suits start bickering with witches, and a power struggle ensues that could have a huge impact on the world.

Stephenson, who lives in Seattle, first met the Massachusetts-based Galland when he was working on the multi-author online (and then print) project The Mongoliad, a historical narrative set during the Mongol invasion of Europe. Galland recalls: “He was told that it needed a little more estrogen, and it was historical, so I was an easy get.” On the phone from their homes, they spoke with Maclean’s about magic, technology, the lure of long books, and how current events may be outpacing science fiction.

Q: This book crosses the border between fantasy and science fiction in a curious way…

N.S.: I had this idea: someone goes to a top-secret government lab, where they have time-travel capability, and goes down into the deep, dark, hidden sub-basement, where they’re expecting to find a high-tech time machine with a particle accelerator, giant magnets and everything else, and instead, the time machine turns out to be a witch sitting in a room. I just thought that was funny—that’s the basic way this book got started.

Q: I understand that The Mongoliad grew out of Neal’s interest in writing accurately about how fighting worked in the Middle Ages. In this book, we have characters who research historical fighting in order to actually practise it, in the past. Did DODO spring from that earlier narrative? 

N.S.: There’s not a direct connection, but they do have in common this interest in historical European martial arts, which is a hobby of mine. [In this book], so-called DOers—diachronic operatives—might go back in time to carry out various missions. We had to have a feel for how violence worked in the era that they were going into. That’s partially just a matter of learning a particular martial art, but it has a lot to do with the performance of violence as a social game, and so we’ve actually got a minor character in the book who’s a post-structuralist professor and the head of the Department of Violence as Ethnology, or DoVE—a serious ass-kicker but also totally at home deconstructing the sociology of duelling and violence in different social settings throughout history.

N.G.: I think I’ve become a better historical novelist as a result of the work done on this. One of my novels (2008’s Crossed) is set in the Fourth Crusade, and I knew technical information about the way in which people fought, but watching how Neal examined the sociology of violence made me realize that I had made assumptions that probably were not accurate—I was thinking of it from a 21st-century perspective.

Q: Neal, in the virtual reality video that you did for Bill Gates’s blog about Seveneves, the two of you, while speaking in his car, pass by a couple of guys sword fighting in a field. Did they happen to be there, or did you know they were going to be there and drive past them? 

N.S.: Umm, no and no. It turns out that when Bill Gates does a videoblog, you’ve got a whole staff of people who are very creative, energetic filmmakers in their own right, so his videoblogs are not just you sitting with Bill and a potted plant, having a conversation. They always have high production values. It’s not just the sword fighters—if you watch the video carefully, there are probably half a dozen Easter eggs like that that are hidden in the background, and all of them were carefully set up and put in place by his blog staff. In some cases, I didn’t even see them until I actually watched the video.

Q: The agents who get recruited by DODO are something like modern-day superheroes–linguists who can also fight, or charm people, or solve historical problems…

N.S.: For me, the analogy is to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, which started out as a pretty niche kind of game subculture back in the ’70s, but it’s become incredibly pervasive now—almost every video game has got elements that you can trace back to D&D. In that kind of game, you’ve got different classes of characters, and they’ve got a statistical profile that says, “How strong are they? How charismatic? How intelligent?” Because it is so pervasive, I thought as these people at DODO were recruiting and training, they would naturally fall into the habit of classifying people using D&D-style terminology, and that it would carry over into the bureaucratic structures.

Q: Nicole, does that game-playing resonate with you at all? Is that something you had experience with? 

N.G.: No, I did a little bit in high school, and I loved the premise of it, but I wasn’t crazy about the folks that I was doing it with. In the neo-pagan community, someone who does something all by themselves, is called a hedge-witch, as opposed to being part of a coven. So I was sort of the hedge-witch equivalent of a D&D player. It was just me and my imagination.

Q: You were involved in the neo-pagan community, I take it? 

N.G.: Very briefly. For rather the same reasons that I was involved very briefly with the role-playing community very briefly.

Q: Also, when they keep going back to the past and redoing something, they have to go back to the same point. That’s akin to a save point in a video game, isn’t it? 

N.S.: Yeah, that’s another tie-in from modern gaming culture, and that system solves a lot of the logic problems that are commonly encountered by people trying to write time travel stories. If there’s only one past, and you go back and change it, then you immediately get into all sorts of contradictions and logic problems. In a system where there’s a bunch of pasts, and they all get to “vote” on their shared future, that actually makes it a lot easier to tell a story without getting all snarled up in logical contradictions.

Q: There are many historical witches in this novel, and instead of being persecuted, they become powerful, opposing the male-dominated Pentagon bureaucracy. Nicole, is there something appealing in writing that kind of a narrative, especially for a historical novelist? 

N.G.: It’s wonderful to be able to write a variety of women who are all in their own way very, very strong, and really don’t take crap from everyone. In terms of the role-playing games, all of the women are so clearly “chaotic neutral” [i.e., devoted to living freely, without being subject to laws], and that’s a really rich and fun universe to create and voices to get to write in. Because throughout most of written history, women don’t get a chance to [act like] that very often, and when they do, they tend to be Cleopatra or Boadicea, or very strong public figures, and the fact that people working in private get to be kick-ass is fantastic.

Q: No matter what their cultures, the witches all have the equivalents of brooms, which help them travel between strands of time. Are there historical sources for them? 

N.S.: The quipu is a real thing that was used by the Incans, and its purpose was somewhat mysterious, which is great for us. Novelists love mysterious, unexplained historical artifacts.

N.G.: The words for all the other [devices] are just me coming up with language that sounded similar. They’re words that mean “calculator,” or things that you use to calculate or record. But Neal had a brilliant observation, which is that if you look at a witch’s broom, any given twig or a piece of straw can crackle up and branch off into different branches, which is a similar device.

N.S.: If you’ve got multiple pasts, multiple versions of history, and you’re trying to figure out different ways of manipulating those to achieve a certain effect, it’s a pretty hard problem that requires some planning and calculation, so this is kind of like the abacus that they use to help them make those calculations.

Q: And then the witch’s broom gets reproduced as an app. There’s a real struggle between the bureaucrats and the witches in your book, with the techies stuck in between. In Seveneves, things work slowly under space bureaucracies. Were you having a go at bureaucracy in this book too?

N.S.: It’s an easy target, and so it’s not a question of, “Can you make fun of bureaucracy?” because that’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but “Can you go about it in a way that isn’t overly broad or works out too easy?” Everyone who has ever worked in a bureaucratic system has probably felt the urge to make fun of its absurdities, and this is no exception—but bureaucracies do exist for a reason, and so if you’re overly dismissive of them, then it comes off as being a little too facile.

N.G.: In real life, I’ve had to work in a bureaucratic setting, but I’ve never tried to write about it. The very first time that that really appears strongly in the book, Neal wrote it and I didn’t even know what to expect, and I almost fell off my chair laughing, even though it’s actually a very efficient and necessary part of the plot.

Q: You’re publishing a book that’s critical of bureaucracy at a time when your president likes to talk about “draining the swamp” and smashing through bureaucracy in order to get things done…

N.G.: But he needs bureaucracy to obfuscate things, and then suddenly it’s his friend.

N.S.: Well, of course, we wrote it before all that happened, but we hear a lot from people about the idea of the Deep State, and how it’s this mysterious, dark thing that we apparently are supposed to be afraid of. I saw a Tweet the other day where someone was saying, “Whenever you see the word Deep State in one of these Tweets or Facebook posts, you should just mentally replace it with, “the rule of law.”

Q: It seems more and more that science fiction novels, especially time-travel or alternate-universe tales such as Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and Elan Mastai’s book All Our Wrong Todays, are being marketed to mainstream audiences. 

N.S.: The complaint frequently heard now from science fiction writers is that we’re out of a job. My next book after D.O.D.O. has got a chunk in it that has to do with someone hijacking social media to pull a prank, and I wrote this thing a couple of years ago and was patting myself on the back for being oh-so-prescient, and now I may just have to scrap it. It’s completely overtaken and superseded by reality, and it was the same with 9/11—nobody really saw that coming, so it seems to happen more often now, and science fiction writers asking themselves, “What role am I really serving nowadays?”

N.G.: I think a lot of comedians are thinking the same thing.

Q: Is there something particularly meaningful about our carving out time to read a work of fiction now, especially such a long one, when we could just be on our social media timelines, reading about what happened over the last half-hour? 

N.G.: Oh, there are so many good things about reading a book. The practice of sustained attention is something that’s happening less and less, especially in our leisure time, so a long narrative, and one that’s this intricate, which requires that you’re always plugged in, because there are various things going on at once—I think that that’s a great exercise. I would assign this book as a brain exercise, as well as a jolly good read, but also I think there’s something so fantastically tactile about the physical act of holding the book and turning the pages, and feeling the texture of the binding, and the little movements that happen when you have to balance a book on your lap. There’s a stillness that comes from just reading off a screen that I don’t think is healthy.

Q: If we were to go back to the Crystal Palace as it existed in 1851 right now, what do you think people from 2017 would feel about that time and place? It’s so important to the novel, and I wonder if it was a particularly important time and place for our history as well. 

N.G.: I would love to think that people would go back there and be amazed. The Crystal Palace was the great exhibition of 1851, a place where all of the cutting-edge technology and mechanical developments of the world were brought together under one roof in this extraordinarily huge greenhouse, so to speak, and for people to be able to realize what it meant for those things to be advanced at that time, to have a sense of wonder about things that we now take for granted, and to realize that that was just the beginning of something that has continued to accelerate in pace, the rate of growth—it’s an origin myth. In a way, the Crystal Palace is the origin moment of everything that’s come after it, just like this book is an origin myth for anything else that might come after it.

Q: This novel is narrated entirely through documents or electronic communication, from people’s personal letters to text messages sent over secured channels. Is this the future of the epistolary novel? 

N.S.: Going in, I was not entirely certain that stringing a bunch of emails and text messages together was actually going to work, and I was a little wary, but I ended up feeling like it was a pretty effective storytelling tool.

N.G.: I think if you were telling a very serious story with a dark, serious, psychologically textured tone to it, then a bunch of emails might not work, but I think that for us, the medium and the message worked together really well. And I’m sure that going forward, there will be more and more of that in what we call the epistolary novel, but I should hope that people will still remember that there are letters to be written, and journals to look at.

Q: Neal, our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has called you one of his favourite writers. He was on Quora, mentioning that he reads everything by you. 

N.S.: Oh, God.

Q: How does that appreciation make you feel? 

N.S.: I wonder if it opens the door to a Canadian passport—that would totally come in handy. I’m just joking—sort of [laughs]. Well, you never know who’s going to read your stuff, and so it’s always gratifying to hear from a satisfied reader, whether they are a prime minister or just any plain old ordinary book reader anywhere in the world.