The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primerby Published 02 May 2000
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The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a postcyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson. It is to some extent a science fiction coming-of-age story, focused on a young girl named Nell, and set in a future world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence.
The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer Reviews
3.5 stars. Review originally posted at www.fantasyliterature.com.
Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is set in a near future that is unrecognizable in some ways and disturbingly familiar in other ways. Nations have dissolved and people now tend to congregate in tribes or “phyles” based upon their culture, race, beliefs or skills. Nanotechnology has upended society, and even the poorest people have access to matter compilers that create clothing, food and other items from a feed of molecules. Still, the lack of education and opportunities for the underclass has created a wide division between them and a wealthy phyle like the Neo-Victorians, who have adopted the manners and society of the British Victorian age.
John Hackworth is a brilliant nanotechnologist who lives with and works for the neo-Victorians. He is approached by one of the leaders of the clan, Lord Finkle-McGraw, to secretly create an interactive smart book for Finkle-McGraw’s young granddaughter. Lord Finkle-McGraw fears that the neo-Victorian society is too hidebound and commissions Hackworth to use his skills to create a children’s book that will develop a more educated and inquiring mind. Hackworth develops this book, the “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” but can’t resist the temptation to (illegally) create a copy of it for his own young daughter.
Unfortunately for Hackworth, Dr. X, the Chinese black market engineer whose compiler Hackworth used to create the copy of the Primer, wants a copy of the book for his own purposes as well. Hackworth is mugged on his way home with the Primer by a gang under Dr. X’s direction, but the young thug who grabs the book gives it to his 4-year-old sister Nell rather than to Dr. X. The education Nell gets from the interactive Primer ends up changing her life drastically. While Nell’s life is benefited immeasurably by the Primer, Hackworth runs into serious trouble, caught between the pressures exerted by both Lord Finkle-McGraw and Dr. X, both of whom are aware of his crime and both of whom are using Hackworth for their own interests and goals.
The first half of The Diamond Age was fascinating, alternating between Hackworth’s adventures and Nell’s, interspersed with stories told to Nell by the Primer that pull from Nell’s own life (her stuffed animals and toys play a major teaching role in the stories) and encourage her to think in new ways. Stephenson has created an intricate and marvelous future world, with both amazing achievements and alarming pitfalls. Stephenson’s writing doesn’t coddle the reader, but he writes so well that even when his future world is confusing, it’s still entrancing.
At about the halfway mark, the plot weakens as it digresses to some new, less appealing plot lines (the Drummers, who create a subconscious hive mind through sexual orgies) and abandons some interesting characters and plots, such as the humorous but ruthless Judge Fang and his assistants, and the mysterious, powerful CryptNet organization.
The ending of The Diamond Age was even weaker, as yet another group, the Chinese Fists of Righteous Harmony, takes center stage and reenacts the Boxer Rebellion, putting Nell and other characters in grave danger. Then the novel abruptly ends, answering a few questions but leaving most of the threads hanging and the fate of the characters unclear. It’s an inconclusive and disappointing ending.
Overall, despite its weaknesses, The Diamond Age is still a worthwhile read for those who appreciate brain-challenging science fiction.
5 stars for the first half. 2 to 2 1/2 stars for the second half. 3.5 stars overall.
Content advisory: rape and near-rape. Some rough language in parts, including F-bombs. Brief but explicit description of an orgy.
I gulped down the 500 pages in four days, and it was not an easy read. I admit ruefully that Stephenson's vocabulary is better than mine. I feel like this book demands analysis, and I don't know enough to provide it. All I could do is count heads and make remarks about the colour and gender and fate of each major character. Which, OK, is worth doing, but it's 3:42am and I've been reading since about 8pm, so forgive me if I don't open it up again just now.
I want a primer.
I also want more about Dr X and Lord Finkle-McGraw. And I want to know more about what happened to Judge Fang and his assistants, although I'll admit that this (unlike Dr X and Lord Finkle-McGraw?) is outside the scope of the story. Unless I'm being stupid and this is something I'm meant to figure out for myself.
There are things in here that you won't get unless you know stuff about science, about computer science (the entire Handbook subplot from Castle Turing to the end is a potted history of computing,) about linguistics, for that matter. This is not a book for someone who can't figure out that 'ractive' is etymologically derived from 'interactive'. And it's driving me a little crazy that I can't work out the root of 'thete'. I only got 'phyle' = phylum right this second.
And I want a chevaline. Like, even more than I want a pony, though not as much as I want a primer.
I get the feeling that Stephenson's writing process goes something like this:
Hey, I found a really cool idea here. I wonder what I can do about it....
He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possibly uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social ramifications, and then goes, Oh, damn, I'm writing a story, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and brought up brilliant gems, and it happened here, too.
The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen, or what might happen, if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government became obsolete? With the Feed and the Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet came undone, and people banded together into phyles. Like-minded individuals bonded with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty which, in turn, rested on the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.
Within one of the phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world. The problem wasn't the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young - indeed it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, they were indoctrinated into them from birth, which made them, well, boring.
And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work - The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer to guide his granddaughter to a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been short. But two other copes of the Primer were made - one for the daughter of the book's designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.
The Primer is a smart book, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history and martial arts, among other things. And what it teaches little Nell is how to be great.
All of this is quite awesome - there's a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans and all that. And then, suddenly, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.
I know a lot of people love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He's an incomparably imaginative man, who is able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn't even imagine. He's an heir to the world of that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating worlds and characters and problems without simple solutions.
He just keeps bollixing up the endings. Seriously, it's like a whole different story kicks in around page 250. I'm willing to read more of his works, though, in the hope that he's getting his act together....
Welcome to Stephensonland! Wait, sir? Sir? Yes you. I'm afraid you'll have to check your need for believable characters with me. Here's a numerical token you can use to reclaim it at the end of the day. Oh, and hold on. Is that an expectation of coherent plotting in your back pocket? I'm afraid those are also disallowed in Stephensonland. It'll be perfectly safe here behind the counter. Now, here's your complementary CS patch. That's right, it's very similar, except instead of nicotine, this will imbue you with knowledge equivalent to a bachelor's degree in computer science. Certain parts of your experience will be much funnier if you wear it, while others will be unspeakably boring if you don't. Ok, you're all set. You're going to have a great time.
Sometimes I feel like part of the joy of reading Neal Stephenson is the point at which you realize all the characters are a bit robotic and the absurdly numerous plot lines will never be resolved and the book occasionally reads like a particularly entertaining text book and that none of these things are stopping you from loving every word. This book ties together a pretty conventional cyberpunk-ish near-future street world with a Victorian world of manners and concomitant awkwardness with Confuscianism with fairy tales with crazy underwater tube-dwelling hypnotized sex fiends in ways that seem almost plausible! Also, mechanical horses and Stetson hats! Yes!
It amuses me that in addition to being a CS nerd Stephenson likes a bit of a mysticism. Human brains can magically find patterns in data that computers cannot? Really, Neal? I seem to recall Anathem was a bit like this as well, and that book was even dorkier
Up to about halfway through, I was in love with this book, but then Hackworth goes to the Drummers and we skip 10 years, and my thoughts are like this: if you as a writer didn't care about those 10 years enough to write about them, why do I care enough to read them? Worse, science fiction is already more concerned with the ideas than the characters, but when the writer is consciously trying to mimic the further-removed-from-reality discourses of Victorian-era writing, we wind up so distanced from character that honestly? I powered through the last 100 pages more out of feeling of obligation than honest interest in the novel. Then there's the ending. The last 50 pages or so make zero sense given the rest of the novel, and the ending itself seems more like just a stop rather than an ending.
So, if you're considering this novel because you loved "Snow Crash" (which was mindblowingly good), skip it, instead. The last 250 pages don't deliver on the fantastic promise that the first 250 showed.