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While it’s not as groundbreaking or as instantly gripping as his breakthrough novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is nevertheless a fascinating tale that melds a tender coming-of-age story to a future in which nanotechnology has altered virtually every aspect of society.
In many ways, The Diamond Age is a much more accessible book than Snow Crash. While the speculative aspects are no less astounding and inventive, they require less technical exposition and seem to have a more solid grounding in the real world (as opposed to the virtual reality of the Metaverse). In addition, the novel has a more traditional protagonist whose struggle to learn and thrive as a member of a lower class tribe (or “Phyle”) makes her almost immediately sympathetic. Throw in some subtle examinations of culture, class structure, ethnicity and education (as well as some nifty “Nano” advancements) and you have a masterful novel that careens effortlessly between being a whimsical adventure tale and a satirical take on cultural and moral relativism.
The Diamond Age Summary
The story centers around a young girl named Nell, a lower class “Thete” being raised by her single mother and protective older brother in the slums of the “Leased Territories” (a floating landmass off the coast of Asia controlled by the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle).
By a twist of fate, Nell comes into possession of an interactive book called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – a book which turns out to have been intended for the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat. Intended to teach its owner the skills necessary to become a productive and fully realized member of “Neo-Victiorian” society, the book uses lessons and stories to help guide the reader on their journey to adulthood.
Because the book is able to respond directly to Nell’s life and environment, she becomes the heroine in the stories and the lessons are tailored specifically to her changing needs and requirements. She becomes immersed in the fantasy world of the Primer and undertakes a number of symbolic journeys and adventures that serve as life lessons towards her final goal of self-realization.
But Nell is not the only little girl who receives a copy of the primer. The book’s inventor, a nano-engineer named John Percival Hackworth, was supposed to produce just one copy of the primer for the granddaughter of a wealthy lord. In addition to the copy that falls into Nell’s hand, Hackworth also secretly produces a copy for his daughter Fiona – a crime that causes his eventual social downfall and exile from the New Atlantis phyle.
With three different copies of the Primer in the hands of girls from three different cultural backgrounds, Stephenson is able to look the interaction of culture, society and education and how they each play a role in shaping the attitudes and core beliefs of each individual. What is considered a desirable trait in one culture can be seen as a liability or hindrance to success in another. Since the book is set in a world in which cultural affiliations are more important than political ones, the desire to train children in the culture of their phyle is of utmost importance.
The Diamond Age Review
As is Stephenson’s style, there are also numerous subplots that surround the main action. Some of them have to do with the nanotechnology advances that populate this world (such as the Matter Compilers that are able to synthesize food but are controlled by the Neo-Victorians).
Another has to do with the way in which Nell interacts with a Mother-like character in the Primer (a role that is actually being remotely played by an actor named Miranda who comes to care for Nell and think of her as a daughter). And an even more bizarre sub-plot involves a group (or hivemind) that is able to connect subconsciously through drumming. While these digressions are interesting for a while, they unfortunately take the focus off of the more compelling main story.
To me, Stephenson seems like someone with such an abundance of ideas that he often tries to stuff too many of them into each novel. I would have liked a bit more of Nell and a little less of the random plot threads and diversions from the main storyline. But hey, with so much great stuff in this book it’s hard to complain about a few half baked ideas making their way in as well. Overall, The Diamond Age is well worth reading.