The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

12 June 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverWith a writer as trailblazing as Neal Stephenson, it’s hard to know where to begin to describe The Diamond Age.

The story takes place sometime late in the 21st Century. Imagine if the near-term future of Snow Crash was carried forward by several decades through a nanotechnology revolution. As in Snow Crash, the world of The Diamond Age no longer contains governments per se. Nanotech has created a hierarchical society where those with a Source of nanotech elements, or control over the Feeds that transmit those elements, hold the power. At the same time, nanotech is so pervasive that every home contains a Matter Compiler to create common objects and simple food, and “mites,” microscopic airborne drones with myriad purposes, both benign and malignant, fill the air and are inhaled with every breath. “Toner wars,” so named because of the swirling clouds of dead mites that fill the air like the black dust of a photocopier, frequently rage between competing manufacturers. Even a simple sheet of paper is a “mediatron,” a computer-embedded system capable of receiving voice commands and displaying text, images, and moving pictures with the resolution of a high-definition television.

The story takes place in Shanghai and its environs, which like the rest of the world is divided up into “claves,” regions of common ethnic or economic heritage. High in the hills is the clave of Atlantis, where dwell the Neo-Victorians. (Queen Victoria II is their ruler, though England as a sovereign nation with physical borders no longer exists.) Much like the original Victorians, who reacted against the low morals of the age that preceded them, the Neo-Victorians have a strict code of conduct and morality. (This is perhaps a commentary on our society today and where we appear to be headed.) Once of these is John Hackworth, a professional artifex (nanotech engineer) of high skill and regard, who despite his talents is not a member of the nobility. Hackworth’s boss is an Equity Lord by the name of Finkle-McGraw. The Lord long ago gained his status by being a rebel and taking risks; he despairs to find that his children are not risk-takers and fears that his young granddaughter will never reach her potential in the schools of the establishment. Unable to interfere in her upbringing directly, Lord Finkle-McGraw commissions Hackworth to design A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive mediatronic book. The concept is that a Primer will bond itself to its owner, tailoring its stories to the young female reader, and providing tutorial lessons that she will find most interesting and useful to her unique situation. By giving this book to his granddaughter as a gift on her fourth birthday, Lord Finkle-McGraw will have an avenue with which to expose her to ideas and concepts the Neo-Victorians (including her parents) would find subversive and potentially dangerous, but which will almost certainly come in handy to her as she grows up.

Hackworth, who has a young daughter of his own, sees an opportunity to boost her out of the middle-class caste to which he has resigned himself. He steals a copy of the compiler code that would program a Matter Compiler to create the Primer (committing the theft through an ingenious use of nanotechnology, of course). He crosses into an unsavoury part of Shanghai to compile a Primer at an underground Source, but before he can return home with his daughter’s Primer, he is attacked by street thugs and robbed.

The contraband Primer winds up in the hands of Nell, yet another four-year-old girl who lives in a hell of destitution, ignorance, and physical abuse in a Shanghai tenement. The Primer bonds to Nell and quickly begins to teach her to read, and soon after, self-defence. Through the rest of The Diamond Age, we follow Nell as she grows to be an educated, intelligent, resourceful young woman, and we simultaneously read, with her, the adventures of Princess Nell, the protagonist in her Primer. Meanwhile, all around her, local and world events steadily crumble into anarchy and rebellion. The world needs a saviour, and it might just take the form of Princess Nell, as by the end of the book Nell and her fictitious alter-ego have become one and the same.

Neal Stephenson has created here, for the first time, a total-immersion reality. Cryptonomicon and Zodiac take place in the present day, and Snow Crash is so close in the future that its reality is barely one step removed from what we know today, and so is strangely familiar. The Diamond Age, on the other hand, finds us in a world totally transformed by nanotechnology. We are thrown head first into a world of claves, thetes, and ractives, Sources and Feeds, and only gradually does Stephenson reveal what those are. The ploy of using a character’s off-handed comment to explain a term, rather than frankly spelling it out in a descriptive paragraph, is effective in maintaining the sense of immersion, as if we’re part of this world and don’t need an explanation. Meanwhile, Stephenson’s penchant for using big words continues, often describing the most mundane action or event in the most entertainingly flowery language. But beyond all that, his words convey startling concepts for the future of technology, and simultaneously frightening and inspiring prophesies for human society.

The Diamond Age earned the 1996 Hugo award for best novel. For good reason. This was Neal Stephenson’s strongest effort to date, and well worth a read.

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