The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson (review)


I’m never disappointed when I read Stephenson.  It often takes me far longer than normal but his novels tend to be LONG.  Though some long novels can drag, his are always (or at least to this point have been) quite enjoyable.  I picked up The Diamond Age because I saw it in reference to cyborgs in general or on a syllabus for a course related to cyborgs.  I cannot remember which.

The novel set in the not too distant future deal with a lot of nanotechnology (much of which operates in the bloodstream — this is even a huge facet of the climax) but I am not sure how I would work it in a discussion of cyborgs.  The novel itself almost seems post cyberpunk though I am probably not using that term entirely correctly.  Set mostly in Asia (a hallmark of cyberpunk) there is an area that represents the gritty dirty sexy parts of typical cyberpunk.  However, there are also groups such as the Neo-Victorians and the Celestrial Kingdom (traditional Confucians).  These groups known for rigid social order and rules and seem to be a backlash to the anarchy of cyberpunk “street.”

The novel traces the story of a young girl (Nell) from the “bad part of town” who lucks into a technologically-advanced “book” which is designed to not only teach traditional subjects but also to allow for free-thinking.  The book, designed for one aristocratic child, also ends up getting distrbuted to the intended little girl as well as the designer’s daughter and thousands of young Chinese girls.  It is less concerned with the other recipients focussing most of the story on Nell — and traces her journey as it were.

The book is beautifully written and rich (as a lot of his stuff is).  While plots for many novels are transparent with clear-cut villains, problems, routes to success, etc, this novel is more organic in that the reader is drug along numerous subplots without necessarily being hit over the head with or even in some cases privy to the larger thrust of the book.  Thus, it has many detailed focused points, explorations, questions without, for me anyway, coalescing into a central theme as it were.  Except maybe the themes of parenting and coming of age.  How does one do it?  Can a human parent be replaced with technology? How much and how specifically does environmental context affect the end product?  And, specifically the parenting/raising of women.  This exploration is embedded within most facets of the novel.

I guess what has hung me up is the blurb on the back cover which ends with “Her life — and the entire future of humanity — is about to be decoded and reprogrammed…”  Clearly this line is meant to be read by Don LaFontaine (you know, the movie voice over guy).  This is certainly not the readinng I took away from the book.  Nell’s life is certainly re-programmed but this “entire future of humanity” stuff is just hoo-ey.  That’s right, I wrote hoo-ey.  Are we that troubled that the life and journey of an emotionally and physically abused kid from a broken home is not enough to attract us, the FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD must also hang in the balance?

Especially given the story which is anything BUT Victorian in its approach to women.  In a complete turnabout from the conduct and educational book from the 19th century, this book that Nell and the other young women have is empowering — educating them to take control of their destiny rather than be shaped by those more powerful (i.e. patriarchy).  I am not sure if this image appears in the hardcover edition of the book or not, but this illustration by Micah Nolte really captures the novel for me.  It’s a great image.

The novel is quite good, but read it for what it is, not what the Hollywood film of it would be.


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