The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is a science-fiction novel some classify as Steampunk because of its Victorian influences. I kind of liked the firs...moreThe Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is a science-fiction novel some classify as Steampunk because of its Victorian influences. I kind of liked the first half, but was mainly indifferent to the second half.
Takes place in a Future World where people band together in “claves” based their favorite culture. Material possessions come out of a “matter compiler” like the replicator on Star Trek. Mechanical horses roam the land. The world-building is extensive and lovingly handcrafted. It is chock-full of ideas: technological ideas, philosophical ideas, sociological ideas. These ideas are manifested in hundreds of little details, creating a world that is futuristic, foreign, and still familiar.
The world is intriguing, but its ideas and details tend to overwhelm the plot, which runs in several parallel strands. One features John Percival Hackworth, an engineer who steals a book, gets robbed, gets caught, then goes on an espionage missions. Then there is Nell, a little slum girl who is given the stolen book, an interactive tome that teaches her skills and keeps her safe. Then there is Miranda, an interactive actress who interacts with Nell. And Dr. X, a Chinese mastermind who... is trying to reorganize his society?
The most interesting strand is Nell and her book, which is more like a text adventure game than a novel. The early part of her life, when she lives in the slums with her brother and horrible mother, is absorbing and probably the best part of the book.
The author does not seem to believe in exposition. Lots of authors don’t. They think it feels unnatural and artificial they are often quite correct about this. Instead, many modern authors prefer to drop the reader head first into the deep end. The reader is then supposed to figure out what is going on from context clues. Clarity is not a priority.
At first this is not so important, but as the novel continues and as Nell grows up, the plot takes a turn for the surreal. Things get weirder and weirder. I became less and less interested in piecing together what was happening. A little explanation may have saved some exhaustion. I ultimately lost interest.
There were many things I did enjoy about the Diamond Age and many things it did very well. But I found the plot confusing, sometimes boring, and I probably would not read it again. (less)
I very much enjoyed Wolf of the Plains, which is a fictionalized account of the childhood and early adulthood of the man who would grow up to be Gengh...moreI very much enjoyed Wolf of the Plains, which is a fictionalized account of the childhood and early adulthood of the man who would grow up to be Genghis Khan. I don’t really know much about Asian history, beyond some very broad strokes, so it was quite interesting in that respect.
I also enjoyed the way the author made the very foreign culture of his setting both understandable and familiar yet still clearly alien. He did not simplify it, the way many old-fashioned children’s novels did (“they’re just like you and your family, in funny clothes, eating different food!”). Nor did he overwhelm his readers with the foreignness of it all, making it hard to understand why everyone is acting that way, and even harder to care about them. The details were given out in a very matter-of-fact way. We were given just enough that we could understand that yes, this is a very different way of living, but also that it’s ordinary and everyday to those that lived it.
The plot is also very straight-forward. The political situation is clearly explained, so that the focus is on the characters and how they are affected. The story traces Temujin who, after being exiled from his tribe, leads his mother and siblings first for survival, and then in the building a new tribe. It was exciting and page-turning, but there may have been one too many battles toward the end.
The author includes a note at the end that explains his sources for the story, and quite honestly explains which parts he fictionalized. Turns out, he fictionalized quite a bit and I have mixed feelings about that. I appreciate that he admitted to changing names, compressing time, eliminating brothers. I understand that this streamlined the story. I wish it had not have been necessary. (less)
The Insidious Fu Manchu is an Edwardian pulp story where stalwart Britisher Nayland Smith, ropes his old friend Dr. Petrie into an international game...moreThe Insidious Fu Manchu is an Edwardian pulp story where stalwart Britisher Nayland Smith, ropes his old friend Dr. Petrie into an international game of intrigue. The heroes (clearly modeled after Holmes and Watson) try to thwart the nefarious plots by the sinister Chinese genius Fu Manchu, who is engineering the murders of other stalwart Britishers so he can… take over the world or something.
The prose is quite melodramatic and the wording overwrought. Everything is an indefinable horror or a great evil or a grim tragedy. Characters literally swoon away every chapter or two. The plot races from one cliff-hanger to another.
Pulpy adventures? Florid language? A genius supervillain with lairs and trap-doors and freakish goons and exotic poisons? It should be fun, but it isn’t.
Encountering racism in older works is a very odd experience. Sometimes such prejudices are relatively benign (relatively) and/or an merely unconscious product of its author’s time. Then it is often possible to separate it from the story. One doesn’t ignore it exactly, but rather, puts it to one side and regards it quizzically, like a relic in a museum. Here, however, Fu Manchu’s racism is darker and active and integral part of this story’s DNA, and this makes it much too uncomfortable for the modern reader. (less)