Kevin's Reviews > The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
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Apr 10, 09

Read in April, 2009

The Diamond Age is an interesting, mostly thought provoking book, with a fairly creative vision of the future. At the same time it has some serious flaws, especially in the second half of the book, which somewhat derails a lot of ideas that Neal Stephenson sets up. It is by no means a short book, being close to 500 pages, and it has taken me several months of off and on reading to complete it.

There are definitely some good parts to it, including interesting multi-dimensional characters, a look at how societies might form in a technology-immersed future, and most interestingly, the growth and development of the main character, Nell. I didn't quite buy into all of it, especially his views on how societies would be organized, but I give him credit for such an ambitious and detailed vision. Had the book focused on the characters more (especially Nell), it could have been an excellent book.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest problem is that the book buckles under the weight of its own ideas. One of the major premises of the book is the idea of a future with nanotechnology, where almost anything is possible. Nanotechnology is pervasive, creating a futuristic world with lots of imaginative ideas. At the time it was written (1995) I am sure the future Stephenson envisioned was incredibly novel. However he relies on the "wow" of nanotechnology too strongly, especially towards the later half of the book, where he constantly barrages the reader with the idea that nanotechnology can create impossibly light, strong, and complex structures. There also seems to be a lot of contradictions; nanotechnology, powerful and prevalent enough to create buildings hundreds of stories high, is at the same time unable to provide citizens with enough defense to stop a few people with bamboo sticks and crude explosives. Despite the incredibly advanced technology available, much of the action in the book is devoted to people engaged in hand-to-hand combat, either unarmed or with swords. While I understand his attempts to contrast the future's technology with societies grounded firmly in the past (specifically the Neo-Victorians), this made little sense.

Stephenson has similar problems of over-doing a cool idea throughout the book. In the beginning it was Bud and his body tech, such as his skull gun. In the middle, the primer's stories (an interactive storybook meant to teach the reader) weigh the book down. In the end, it's a futuristic Boxer Rebellion, Turing machines, human computers called Drummers, and some oddly thrown together new technology ideas. (Actually, all of this is about 80% of the last 200 pages.) The book is littered with tons of interesting ideas ranging from subversion being healthy for society to the necessity of human interaction in a world dominated by technology. But these take a major back seat to decidedly less interesting ideas.

Overall I liked the book, although the incredibly abrupt ending was off-putting. While I don't expect every loose end to be tied up, I don't think it's appropriate to have almost every plot advancement and reveal happen only in the last 100 pages or so. This flaw aside, the characters themselves are endearing, and take you for an imaginative ride through the future that leaves you constantly wanting to know what's around the next corner.
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