The Diamond Age
by Neal Stephenson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This was my first time reading Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, winner of the 1996 Hugo Award. It also won a Locus for Best SF Novel, and was a finalist for the Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, among others. It's a vast, sprawling, complex novel, part cyberpunk, part steampunk, weird and wonderful, but not completely successful in developing all of its varied parts. The cover of most US editions includes the subtitle, "or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer," although that is not included on the title page of my paperback, and it's not on the cover of the current UK edition. It's set in an unspecified year of the 21st Century, with nanotechnology permeating all levels of society, a balkanized political structure of new nation states, along with groups alternately termed tribes or phyles, with established Claves (I assume short for enclaves) within or adjacent to other states. I suppose steampunk is not accurate, even though the ubiquitous airships abound, but one of the most powerful phyles is the Atlantans, the social order of which is neo-Victorian. The title could be interpreted in much the same way as the "Gilded Age" of the late 19th Century, but I think it has more to do with artificially produced diamonds that are used for many industrial and construction applications.
Nanobots are used for many things, medical procedures and genetic manipulation, police and military surveillance and infiltration, along with anti-nanobots to defend against the latter. Cybernetic implants are also common, one of which makes little sense. 3D printing was in its infancy at the time of the writing, although the device used here is called a "matter compiler." Anything from food, clothing, furniture, transportation, even weapons, can be programmed for an MC, with limited resource MCs free for public use. Other, larger compilers are employed by industry. John Percival Hackworth is one of the most brilliant nanotechnology engineers in the world, although he struggles to have his talents recognized by the administrators of Machine-Phase Systems Limited, based on New Chusan, an artificial island off the coast of Shanghai. Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, Equity Lord of MPS, has commissioned Hackworth to produce an interactive primer for his grand-daughter Elizabeth. The book is essentially an AI-controlled teaching tool. Hackworth conspires to duplicate the work so that he can present his daughter Fiona her own primer. To do so he needs a large MC not connected to the Feed, so he must work with Dr. X, a Shanghai criminal lord who also does some humanitarian work for his people. His Chinese pinyin name does begin with an X, but it is almost impossible for non-native speakers to pronounce correctly. Hackworth's design is complicated and unique, in that the primer will bond with the first girl who opens it, thus making it unusable for anyone else. Dr. X wants a simplified version to use for thousands of girls his organization has rescued from harsh conditions in mainland China. After the second primer is produced, Dr. X sends thugs to steal it from Hackworth. It ends up in the hands of Harv, whose father (it is assumed) we met in the first chapter. Harv gives the book to his younger sister Nell.
The novel covers approximately twelve years, following Nell as she matures with the aid of the primer. Alternating chapters cover the activities of Hackworth and others, most of which converge at the climax. Nell and Harv's mother, Tequila, had a succession of boyfriends, many of whom were abusive to her and the children. Their father(?), Bud, was a thief, executed by the Chinese authorities for his crimes. Through stories she reads, and in some cases revises, in the primer, Nell learns many moral lessons, as well as strategies and fighting techniques. At the age of five or six, Nell attempts to kill one of her mother's boyfriends. She is not successful, but she does incapacitate him, and she and Harv are able to make their escape. They eventually end up in the Clave known as Dovetail, sort of a semi-Atlantan phyle. They eschew nanotechnology, preferring to use old fashioned techniques to produce things by hand. Harv doesn't like it there and leaves, but Nell is taken in by those who recognize her sophistication and poise, made possible by the primer. She is enrolled in a prestigious school, where she meets and becomes friends with Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw and Fiona Hackworth. Fiona's father had been successful in making another primer for her, and Elizabeth has the original. For several years they all use their primers for escapes into magical worlds in which they are the heroines, although Elizabeth, then later Fiona, abandon the primers in their later teens. Nell continues to rely on her primer, which helps her prepare for her ultimate destiny.
Unfortunately, the conclusion is not completely satisfactory, or maybe I should say it did not conclude in the way I expected, and several elements were not fully realized, or were contradictory. I liked this book a lot, and recommend it, but will also endeavor to explain a few misgivings, hopefully with minimal spoilers. First, to a cybernetic implant that doesn't make sense. In the first chapter, Bud goes to a mod parlor to upgrade and reload his "skull gun." He chooses to have it concealed, whereas some prefer to leave a scar so that anyone they confront will be aware they have a skull gun, which is fired with sub-vocal commands. How does anything like that not leave a scar after use, much less before? I would think it would also play havoc with the person's neck, spine, and central nervous system. Perhaps Bud's brief appearance was a way for Stephenson to establish this as post-cyberpunk, with little later mention of such mechanical implants, now superceded by nanobots. Another technology, a common form of recreation, is the ractive, an interactive virtual reality program. In some cases they are just productions performed by "ractors," or they can be like today's video games, in which the user is immersed within the game as one of its characters. The ractor most important to the story is Miranda Redpath, who contracts to narrate and shape the stories in Nell's primer. In so doing she becomes attached to Nell and wants to meet her in real life, but the security in place concerning the mechanics and financing of ractive work makes that next to (but maybe not completely) impossible.
Miranda becomes aware of a group known as the Drummers, members of which Hackworth encounters as well, people that live in underwater tunnels and seem to have developed a sort of hive mind. Does that mean that Miranda still performed her ractor duties for Nell's primer after joining the Drummers? If so, that means they have found a way to connect to others without benefit of the Feed, which I had thought was established as a necessity for Miranda's work. Finkle-McGraw had commissioned the primer, and procured the original for his grand-daughter. It makes sense that he wouldn't be too concerned about the one Nell acquired, since once she bonded with it no one else could use it. Yet he continued to finance Miranda's ractor work for Nell's primer. Why? Also, Miranda was provided the words she was supposed to use in her narration. Perhaps those were from the AI making decisions based on its rapport with Nell, but I kept wondering if Hackworth or Finkle-McGraw had any control over that, and if so, what was their agenda? Due to Miranda's ractive work Nell reaped more benefits from the primer. It seems multiple people were employed for Elizabeth and Fiona's primers, perhaps the reason they were not as emotionally attached to the book, nor those ractors to the girls. Hackworth had inadvertently joined the Drummers while on a quest for the "Alchemist," whom Dr. X thinks is the one who will enable them to complete the Seed project, which he hopes will supplant the Feed. The reveal of the Alchemist is anti-climactic, since it's someone already known, although I had begun to suspect it was going to be Nell. The eventual meeting of Nell and Miranda is also anti-climactic rather than revelatory as expected. It would have been nice for Stephenson to relate Miranda's reaction.
The previous two paragraphs may be confusing, and if so I guess I didn't spoil too much. There are enormous bits of action I haven't touched on, but they point toward another thing I could criticize. A lot of it could have been eliminated for a tighter narrative, or else he should have written a longer book, or made it a series. Several very interesting characters disappear early (not just Bud), which disappointed me. Even with all these quibbles, it's still a remarkable book, with penetrating analysis of several social issues, primarily economics and the class system. The Feed is predominately controlled by Western forces, mostly the Atlantans, whereas the Seed is envisioned as a more democratic, maybe even more socialistic, system. The neo-Victorian nature of the Atlantans, and the striations of society, is reminiscent of many of Charles Dickens' stories. Nell, Harv, their parents, and most everyone else in the Leased Territories are known as thetes, people not members of an established phyle. They do get the "bread crumbs" of free MC use, but their job prospects and chance for social advancement is very limited. Another literary reference comes in the stories from Nell's primer, folktales of the journey of Princess Nell to recapture the keys to her kingdom, which can be compared to The Wizard of Oz. The conclusion to her story is not as clear-cut as it was with Dorothy, with much left to the reader's imagination. But that's okay. I'll want to re-read this, and perhaps the second time through I'll understand it better, maybe even catch things I missed this time. At the time this was published I wasn't reading a lot due to a heavy work load. I've only read two others from the Hugo and Nebula ballots for that year, so it's difficult to say, but I think The Diamond Age is worth the accolades it has received.
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