Recruitment, Ridicule, and Revolution in “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.”
By David T. Shipko Jr.May 26, 2018
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
The novel begins near its story’s end, with its principal protagonist, Melisande Stokes, stranded in the year 1851. Wanting to return home (but pessimistic about her prospects), she writes a testimony, or “Diachronicle,” in which she reveals that she is part of “the Department of Diachronic Operations: a black-budget arm of the United States government that has gone rather badly off the rails due to internal treachery.” Once upon a time, she was a humble linguist and poorly paid adjunct lecturer at present-day Harvard University, and the subject of her first chapter is the story of her recruitment by government agent Tristan Lyons, who wants her to translate a collection of documents in ancient and modern languages. She tells the reader how she questioned the means, motives, and ends of Tristan’s mystery organization. Where did the documents come from? “Classified,” he said. What will the documents be used for? “Classified.” Will they be used to justify any villainous activity? “Classified.”
This first encounter establishes the novel’s theme of recruitment. Melisande asks her questions to perform the role imagined for her as Conscientious Citizen, but she asks only to ask; she does not really care about the answers. If she did, she would end the conversation and walk away. She stays because, in many ways, she has already been recruited. The reader wants her to stay because the reader, too, has already been recruited. The true nature of Tristan’s project is formally classified, but informally its character is common knowledge: to live in the 21st-century United States is to live in collective, open awareness of dark things accomplished in the name of American global supremacy.
Tristan tells Melisande she would be paid twice her current annual salary for six months of work (she would be valued and stable), the work is highly secretive (her work would be meaningful), and he tells her all this as a handsome, strong, suave, competent, energetic, and enterprising white male, the stereotypical “Good-Guy-Government-Agent” (the polar opposite of her current, also stereotypical, “Curmudgeonly-Abrasive-Boss”). Their first meeting ignites a not-so-subtle sexual tension that helps propel the story, and it serves as metaphor for Melisande’s relationship with the Department of Diachronic Operations itself. She publicly acknowledges and consummates her attraction toward Tristan only in the novel’s final pages, after she has been fully recruited, in mind and in heart. In this sense, the novel is the story of one potentially radical subject’s capture and role-assignment by the ruling class. Tristan offers financial security, grand purpose, and pleasurable community. Of course she accepts. Who would refuse?
Tristan’s recruitment resonates because he offers rewards that are presented as desirable by the same forces that withhold such rewards from many or most readers. We desire financial security because we, like Melisande, are often financially insecure; we desire community because we, like Melisande, often lack community; we desire purpose because we, like Melisande, often lack purpose. The promise of these rewards is so great that they override concerns that are more abstract, such as ethics or morals. We have been denied these things by the same formations of real and imaginary relations that call us to service. This is no coincidence; it is precisely their mode of functioning. Their call operates by appropriating our desire for something better: to live a secure, meaningful life within a community of pleasurable company.
Thus, by dramatizing Melisande’s recruitment (and performing a similar recruitment of the reader), the text initiates both its ideological operation and its exposure of the utopian desire this operation appropriates. To the extent that readers experience Melisande’s recruitment with pleasure, we find ourselves valorizing the historically specific configuration of social relations that are figured in the novel, namely those of the contemporary, late-neoliberal United States of America. At the same time, however, this recruitment depends on the deployment of promises that are properly utopian. Ideological recruitment requires utopian desire, but actually realized utopia precludes it. This tension between utopian desire and its ideological appropriation defines much of what unfolds within the narrative, and its dramatization, development, and resolution is one source of this novel’s value.
After her initial recruitment, Melisande translates Tristan’s documents and discovers that magic was once a real force in the world. It was possible because of the existence of infinite parallel universes (called “Strands”) and quantum indeterminacy. According to quantum indeterminacy, the state of a given subatomic particle is determined by the act of observation. Because the inhabitants of any given Strand experienced their Strand only subjectively, for most of history there was no objective, consensual, fixed measurement of the universe: it could be changed.
Some individuals with special powers were once able to manipulate their own universe by appropriating already-realized possibilities from other parallel universes. These individuals were called witches, and for a long time their powers were commonly known and highly valued. But the Industrial Revolution introduced photography, which (by providing an objective measure of the real) disrupted the quantum indeterminacy magic required, and thus made magic impossible. After discovering this, Tristan and Melisande search for the means to restore magic: they recruit a scientist and his wife to build a machine within which quantum indeterminacy can be restored in order to make magic possible again. With the help of the witch Erszebet, who claims to have been recruited by Melisande in 1851 London, they begin to travel through time.
Everywhere they go, they recruit. In the present, they recruit engineers, computer scientists, security guards, academics, athletes, soldiers, and refugees; many of these are innovators, dissidents, and potential radicals, captured, contained, and directed in the service of an organization and government of which they remain openly critical and suspicious. In the past, they recruit warriors and witches, adults and children. Their small organization grows. To Melisande’s “Diachronicle,” the narrative adds journal entries, letters, dossiers, emails, memos, chatroom records, security camera transcripts, radio logs, notebook pages, and even a PowerPoint presentation.
This proliferation of secondary genres and voices emphasizes how the formal features of each genre and the subject position of each narrator function to determine possibilities of meaning. The bureaucratic genres and institutional narrators reduce all people and events to systemic functions, attempting to impose order, even as order becomes more and more impossible. The more humanistic narrators, like Melisande, explore the personal stakes of the narrative’s action, not attempting to impose order, but seeking to make coherent sense of events. In this chaotic, ad-hoc fusing of narrators and genres, a formal exploration of the tension between utopian desires and their ideological appropriation unfolds. What the novel dramatizes narratively, it deconstructs on the level of form.
Eventually, D.O.D.O. becomes a full-fledged capital-D Department, staffed by hundreds of personnel specializing in research, training, manufacturing, support, and operations, reaching across the planet and through history. Contemporaries are recruited by the same promises made to Melisande; historical characters are recruited by offers related to the needs of their specific times and places. The common denominator is an appeal to individual desire rather than collective need. The narrative makes clear that D.O.D.O. cannot recruit through appeal to its own ultimate ends, for it shrouds these ends in secrecy. D.O.D.O. agents are told their individual tasks. They know only the desired immediate effects of their historical missions, but none are trusted with the full strategic picture. They are asked to trust, but they are not trusted. When an explanation is demanded, a vague one is given: the “magic gap.” Other global powers might be developing their own magical capabilities; there is no evidence of such activity, but that might itself be evidence. To be safe, D.O.D.O. claims, the United States must pursue the capability, even if only for the sake of having it.
This demand for blind trust is another example of the novel’s ideological allegory: like D.O.D.O.’s agents, we are often willing to believe we are on the side of angels, not simply because we have been told we are, not simply because we want to justify our bad behavior, but because we genuinely wish to be angels, and we are willing to join others in the realization of angelic projects. This utopian impulse is fundamentally appropriated and repurposed by D.O.D.O. — no agent is trusted with full knowledge because revealing the agents’ real missions would threaten their motivation. If they knew the truth of what they were doing, if they saw in clear, harsh daylight their participation in a project that perpetuates the conditions of existence that alienates them from their needs and returns those needs as unfulfillable desires, they would be forced to recognize they have been coerced into a service for which no pay could ever be adequate. Thus, the agents (and the reader) must be kept in darkness and given only the limited understanding necessary to solicit participation, to enable the organization’s reproduction through the continuing appropriation of utopian desires offered through ongoing recruitment.
Of course, this secrecy is only formal; informally, the agents know they are working for an agency with a questionable purpose. Formally enforced ignorance, however, grants agents the means to distance themselves through plausible deniability: if they do not know what they are supporting, they can always claim they never really supported it. If alienation is the condition of our age, denial is the stand-in for its cure. Denial practiced on a large scale and treated as simple fact of life inside the novel indexes an unsettling acceptance of mass denial outside. In both cases, it functions to ensure the uninterrupted reproduction of existing relations, rather than their evaluation and replacement. D.O.D.O. uses this denial to ensure the continuation of the circuit by which it appropriates utopian desires without ever allowing them to become fulfilled.
D.O.D.O. appropriates utopian desire to both recruit and direct agents, and what the text dramatizes in relation to its characters it also performs upon its readers: for our obedience, for our agreement to not question these ends too closely, we are rewarded with time-traveling adventure and vicarious inclusion in a profound (if obfuscated) purpose. The pleasure we gain from this story derives both its possibility and content from ideology.
We live in a world seemingly immune to our attempts to alter it, a world seemingly overdetermined by the neoliberal marketplace and nation-states, but within this book we become part of the power itself, traversing time to realize certain possibilities by repressing others. We experience the return of our alienated agency and are provided the distance necessary to obscure our understanding that this agency is returned only so that we may act in service of reproducing our alienation. We serve the status quo, and we enjoy it. But neither we nor D.O.D.O.’s agents obey without comment. Their commentary might appear as satire, but its function within the text reveals an unsettling operation.
After recruitment, few of the novel’s characters continue to question the ultimate purpose of D.O.D.O., but their displeasure with their situation registers in the caustic, critical tone they adopt toward the agency. Melisande’s “Diachronicle,” for example, is often colored by sarcasm. Rebecca East-Oda, a witch and wife of D.O.D.O.’s most important scientist, contributes to the text through journal entries that register her ambivalence toward her participation by (almost) always beginning with the daily temperature, humidity, and state of her garden. She refuses to let the life of her flowers and vegetables be upstaged by D.O.D.O. or its operations. The novel’s tone is often whimsical and some of its events are farcical — from snide snips of dialogue, to entire chapters devoted to organizational bungling, to aesthetic absurdities, such as a raid by historic Vikings on a present-day Walmart recorded in an epic poem. Through this flippancy, the novel mocks the government project it portrays. It is tempting to read this mocking as outright condemnation or satire, but this first impulse is misleading. Within this novel, satire is ultimately revealed as resistance authorized by the subject of mockery itself, a truth underlined when the mocking’s defanged subversion is circumscribed by the horizon of the novel’s final denouement, within which the characters who have treated D.O.D.O. so satirically sincerely adopt its purpose as their own.
Toward the end of the novel, top D.O.D.O. and military officials scheme to expand D.O.D.O.’s Magic Operations to include present-day psychological warfare and brainwashing. They build machines that will allow witches and their government handlers to assimilate target individuals all over the planet. Ironically, the first victim is D.O.D.O.’s own director. He is bewitched by Grainne, a witch brought to the present to help expand D.O.D.O.’s operations. But D.O.D.O.’s meddling in her own time caused the death of her lover, and now she has a vendetta and a plan of her own. She hijacks D.O.D.O. and plans to use it to prevent the historical repression of magic by preventing the rise of modernity. She strands Melisande in the past and plans to strand Tristan deep in the Paleolithic age, but her plan is foiled when Erszebet, D.O.D.O.’s first witch, betrays Grainne and warns Tristan. Erszebet, Tristan, and a few others go rogue and establish a renegade version of D.O.D.O. whose first mission is to rescue Melisande from the past, a harrowing deed they accomplish thanks largely to the 11th-hour intervention of a mysterious time-traveling financier who has haunted the novel, a symbolic figuration of global capital itself. While he is treated with ambivalence and suspicion throughout most of the novel, his assistance at this critical moment positions him within the novel’s finale as an ally of the protagonists; the heroes thus ultimately align with the ends of global capital and the states that regulate its social contradictions. With the rescue operation a success, Tristan and Melisande are reunited, and they finally acknowledge and consummate their love. Grainne has not yet been stopped, and it is to this on-going task that they commit themselves.
In a novel populated by willing recruits, Grainne appears as one of the few truly revolutionary subjects: she is a witch committed to the cause of Irish independence in her own era, and in the present she is dedicated to preventing the destruction of magic. Despite what much of the language used to describe her toward the end of the novel would suggest, Grainne does not want to destroy the world; she wants to reshape it. Her project is one of the novel’s most profound gestures toward radical change, but her goal is the reinstatement of older forms of oppression. We cannot accept her project, but neither can we accept the project to which Tristan and Melisande have committed themselves, the simple maintenance of the world as it is. Throughout the novel, there is vague talk of the “magic gap,” but the only concrete magic gap ever directly observed is the one produced within D.O.D.O. itself, a violent fissure between its Grainne-corrupted form and its Tristan-led “renegade” offshoot. These renegades turn against their former government agency, and yet, in the end, they are renegades who serve the status quo. This final absurdity is the horizon which contextualizes the novel’s earlier mocking of D.O.D.O.’s project, a mocking that appears as hollow condemnation of a project participated in, fought for, and ultimately upheld.
Like Melisande, readers are confronted with a choice between two possible futures: one embodies a retreat from modernity into neo-feudalism, while the other represents a defense of neoliberal modernity as-is. Are there no alternatives? Melisande is resigned to her recruitment in defense of the existing order: “As if I had a choice,” she quips. She does have a choice, as do we: just as her cynical resignation registers a dissatisfaction with her available options, our own inevitable dissatisfaction with the novel’s ending (a deadlocked binary opposition between bad choices without a third way) registers a pressing need for better alternatives.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. cannot ultimately conceive of the world’s radical improvement, even when humans command the twin powers of technology (implements of production) and magic (unbridled human creativity). The affective dimension of this failure is arguably the novel’s greatest success. By disappointing us, the novel points us to the recognition that we do not even know precisely what we would want instead. We just feel the current choices to be undesirable, and the chosen “good” path, the defense of the status quo, as underwhelming.
Thus, the novel’s dramatization of recruitment and direction, its ridicule of these projects, and its foreclosure of revolutionary possibility delivers us into a dissatisfaction from which we can reinterpret the novel’s ideological functioning as a frustrated gesture toward a utopian alternative project which can only fail, but whose failure incites the utopian longing which is the necessary seed of real change. The novel’s final words are Melisande’s: “And that, dear reader, is who we are, and what we now are doing.” At the end of this epic of resurgent possibility and ideological foreclosure, these words and their tired tone of resignation and dissatisfaction compel us to scribble our response: But we want different. While itself insufficient to realize utopia, such inscription is the necessary catalyst of all revolution.
David T. Shipko Jr. is a graduate student of English at the California State University, Los Angeles, a teacher of writing, and a writer of speculative and other fictions.
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