Bookshelf: The Diamond Age

Or, to give it it’s full name “The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”.

The full title actually encompasses the story a little better.

I seem to be reading Neal Stephenson books in a wrong order – not that they’re in any way connected in the narrative though.  First I read the seminal ‘Cryptonomicon’ (1999) , then ‘Snow Crash’ (1992),  and now ‘The Diamond Age‘ (1995).

Stylistically then it’s a jump; Cryptonomicon was very smooth, albeit with a slightly flawed last few chapters (though by then, the story you cared about was largely wound up). Snow Crash likely has the best first chapter ever in a sci-fi novel, but then goes off on several tangents before spluttering out. It’s great whilst it works though, and sports the best named main character – ‘Hiro Protagonist’. However, chronologically, you can see Stephenson’s style develop nicely over time.

The Diamond Age’ then, has a bit of both – a strong, yet slightly irrelevant first chapter albeit in the universe, but a much stronger ending, albeit somehow vague. It’s set in a future where there’s a lot of nanotech amongst an almost retro steam-punk society of phyles – the future nations – geographically spread sub-city states, with one of the main ones being the New Atlantis clave, also known as ‘Viccies’ due to their adoption of Victorian dress and behaviour. Basically then, instead of single, contiguous physical countries, all these nations have huge embassies all over the world and almost no central hub.

The plot revolves around an ensemble of characters;  Nell, a small girl whose brother at the outset steals her the titular Illustrated Primer which is itself a illicit copy made by a New Atlantean engineer, the original of which was commissioned by a senior Equity Lord for his daughter.

The book is fully interactive, or ‘ractive’ and over the years Nell learns from it both academically and in many other ways, as it leads her on her own real world journey via the stories it tells, to join the New Atlantean phyle. Conversely, the book’s creator, engineer John Hackworth, a respected man in the Viccie phyle is cast out when his illegal copy is discovered, only to go undercover to understand the reasoning behind events involving Doctor X. the man who performed the copy, his own plans, and the events involving the drummers.

The whole thing works quite well, and draws in the hopes of technologies such as nanotech, and how a sponsored age of plenty could evolve, how whole islands can be programmed and created, down to the failing of artificial intelligence, and the reliance in the ractors of humans by preference for interaction. There’s a subtle undercurrent of the role of family in the novel, but also how children can be raised by technology, or how different people from differing layers of society can have access to similar tech, and evolve differently. Case in point is that Nell is mainly interacting with a single female ractor who becomes a mother figure, with her father in the background. The mouse army are poorer, but saved from certain death, through the Primer identify as a force in the book’s virtual world, and later in the real world, drawing strength from each other. Essentially everyone reacts differently to the Primer and it illustrates the choices make in life.

The book then is well worth the time; there are some diversions – the drummers seem a little illogical at times, but seem to be set up as the anti-Victorian phyle to illustrate Hackworth’s fall as he would have initially seen it, and in his search for the the alchemist, which almost becomes a pure plot device to drive the story. That aside, the historical references, the sheer detail Stephenson goes into really makes the world perhaps more so than SnowCrash. Worth a read.