The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
In The Diamond Age, anything, no matter how trivial, could be made from diamonds drawn from molecular feeds. This will be the era in which humanity masters nanotechnology. On the one hand, this is a time of plenty and technological progress, but it is also a time of great illiteracy as well. With the rise of universal access to the molecular feed, the governments and nations that we know today will lose their purpose and become supplanted by culture-based societies that have territory around the world.
John Percival Hackworth, for example, is a Neo-Victorian engineer based in Shanghai. He has been commissioned to build a primer that will teach the Neo-Victorians’ children to think independently. More than a book, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is interactive and adapts its storyline for the young lady it bonds with. When Hackworth attempts to smuggle a copy of the primer to his daughter, he loses it to a band of teenage thugs.
The primer makes its way to Nell, a young girl being raised in an abusive household. Her mother is largely absent and her mother’s boyfriends offer Nell little guidance about how to live. However, the primer quickly constructs a fairytale world with Princess Nell at its center. Under the tutelage of the martial artist and mouse Dojo, Princess Nell learns about self-defense. These initial interactions between the child Nell and her primer are often as charming as they are intriguing. As Nell grows up, she learns new things, including how to program Turing machines.
Simply put, the premise, characters, and world building of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age are fantastic. It is a joy to read about Nell’s journeys in her primer, which are always built around archetypal fairytales, as well as her attempts to escape poverty and to find her fortune in the larger world. Her first job is writing plots at a sort of interactive sex clinic. It may not sound like much of a job, but in this society, there are very few things that are worth paying for. Stephenson maintains a light balance of sci-fi exploration, adventure, and humor throughout the text, and he throws in a few intrigues between the Neo-Victorians and the Han Chinese for good measure.
The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is most often criticized for its abrupt ending, and even die-hard Stephenson fans have struggled to explain why the text ends so suddenly. Perhaps the problem is that while Stephenson does not finish telling the story of The Diamond Age, he does reach a sense of resolution with A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. In other words, the coming of age story is concluded, but we can’t help wondering what happens next. Perhaps it’s ironic that Stephenson’s control over setting and character at once makes The Diamond Age a fantastic read while also crippling its conclusion.
Regardless, this flaw did not prevent Stephenson from winning both a Hugo and a Locus Award for The Diamond Age, and it should not prevent anyone from reading about A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The two storylines add up to an excellent novel from one of speculative fiction’s finest authors.
I am a big Neal Stephenson fan based on his novels Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. He is frequently a brilliant writer, unafraid to explore new ideas in the most unexpected and entertaining ways. His sense of humor is more subtle and clever than most, and his world-building abilities are top-notch. However, he has a serious problem with endings, particularly in The Diamond Age.
This also happened in Snow Crash, where an amazing opening led to a fairly fascinating middle portion and then a dissolved into a flurry of confusing action and events that brought things to a less-than-perfect close. It makes it very hard on fans, who really WANT to like everything he writes.
I listened to this on audiobook narrated by Jennifer Wiltsie. This book is pretty tough for any narrator, because the very large cast of characters means you have to produce a little-girl voice for Princess Nell, a British aristocrat voice for John Percival Hackworth, Chinese accents for Judge Fang and Dr. X, all the while describing a very dense and detailed world transformed by nanotech. So I give her credit for tackling all that with verve, but as with many Western narrators, I find they often resort to stereotyped Asian accents for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters. While this may be hard to get around, it does tend to grate on the nerves.
In The Diamond Age, Stephenson creates an amazingly nuanced, detailed future that seems to have surpassed cyberpunk thanks to the transformative powers of nanotechnology. Since most goods and food can be produced for almost no cost by matter compilers, the global economy has been completely demolished and rebuilt, with our older nations replaced by phyles (or tribes) of people connected by shared values, interests, ethnicity, religious beliefs, etc. The major phyles include the Han Chinese Celestial Kingdom, the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis, the Nipponese, and Indian Hindustan. These phyles form their own separate enclaves in the chaotic remains of our former nations, and operate under the Common Economic Protocol (CEP, a set of rules to manage social interactions).
Though it may seem at first to be a post-scarcity society, this is actually far from true. With basic goods and sustenance free for the asking, many of the traditional jobs have been rendered obsolete, so that much of the world is idle or underemployed. Many cities have significant crime that only membership in a strong tribe can protect people from. That means that the tribeless (‘thetes’) are vulnerable to all types of hardships.
The story focuses on a large cast of characters:
Nell – The central protagonist who is born tribeless to a poor and neglectful mother. By accident she happens upon a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an electronic book designed to educate young girls in become productive members of society that at the same time question the status quo.
John Percival Hackworth – A neo-Victorian nanotech engineer who is commissioned to design the Primer for a Neo-Victorian equity lord who wishes to give it to his granddaughter. Secretly he creates an illicit copy that he intends to give to his own daughter Fiona, but when he is robbed by Nell’s brother, it falls into the hands of Nell. When his crime is exposed, he is forced into becoming a double-agent against the Neo-Victorians by Dr. X of the Celestial Kingdom.
Judge Fang – A Confucian judge who allows Nell to keep her stolen copy of the Primer. Eventually he begins to question his allegiance to the Coastal Republic and elects to defect to the Celestial Kingdom. He is also involved with a covert plan to distribute Primers to a huge number of young Chinese female orphans.
Dr. X – A black-market technology specialist and hacker who aids Hackworth in creating the illicit copy for his daughter. When Hackworth gets exposed, he blackmails Hackworth into helping the Celestial Kingdom develop a new and revolutionary type of nanotech called the Seed.
The stage is set brilliantly for the first half of the book, interspersed with numerous episodes of Nell’s virtual experiences with the Primer, including increasingly complicated challenges involving Turing machines and learning binary and programming. There are so many tantalizing clues placed throughout the early chapters of the book, but instead of exploring and developing these diverse story and character arcs in a measured pace throughout the book, the novel suddenly shifts into high gear in the final hundred pages or so in desperate rush to tie-up all the storylines.
There is a jumbled and confusing battle in The Celestial Kingdom and The Coastal Republic, with the Fists of Righteous Harmony (essentially a retelling of the Boxer Rebellion) seeking to cut off the nanofeed coming from the Neo-Victorians and Nipponese and replace it with the new Seed technology. Hackworth’s ten year exile after being turned double-agent by Dr. X is revealed to have some obscure connection to a group-mind called the Drummers and a shadowy group called CryptNet.
Sadly I found myself thoroughly confused for the last third of the book, and the ending was very rushed, leaving several plot lines cut-off and bleeding. While Stephenson had trouble reaching satisfying conclusions in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, he pulled it off brilliantly in Crytonomicom, which is almost 1,000 pages long. Does that mean he needs that many pages to sort things out? Anathem is another complicated and dense door-stopper with both proponents and detractors, but I gave up 1/3 of the way through. Reamde is yet another massive story, but seems to have created less of a splash than his other books despite its size. For that matter, his Baroque Cycle sounds even more impenetrable and self-indulgent.
So why is Neal Stephenson one of my favorite authors? Simply because he comes up with ideas, characters and info-dumps like nobody else inside or outside SF (in fact, Cryptonomicon really isn’t SF at all), and creates stories so memorable and clever that I’m willing to forgive some of the problems. He’ll be coming out with a new novel called Seveneves in May 2015, about generational starships that saved humanity from catastrophe on Earth and have now returned millennia later. It sounds like more traditional SF territory than his usual genre-busting novels, but I’m sure he will give it his own unique spin as usual.
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.