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

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
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bookshelves: literature, satirical-humorous, near-future, cyberpunk

The Diamond Age: Nanotech, Neo-Victorians, Princess Nell’s Primer, and the Fists of Righteous Harmony – all we need now is the kitchen sink
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
I am a huge Neal Stephenson fan based on his novels Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, two of my favorite books. He is frequently a brilliant writer, unafraid to introduce new ideas and infodumps in the most unexpected and entertaining ways. His sense of humor is more subtle and clever than most, and his world-building abilities are top-notch. However, he has a serious problem with endings, particularly in The Diamond Age.

This also happened in Snow Crash, where an amazing opening led to a fairly fascinating middle portion and then a dissolved into a flurry of confusing action and events that brought things to a less-than-perfect close. It makes it very hard on fans, who really WANT to like everything he writes.

In the Diamond Age, Stephenson creates an amazingly nuanced, detailed future that seems to have surpassed cyberpunk thanks to the transformative powers of nanotechnology. Since most goods and food can be produced for almost no cost by matter compilers, the global economy has been completely demolished and rebuilt, with our older nations replaced by phyles (or tribes) of people connected by shared values, interests, ethnicity, religious beliefs, etc. The major phyles include the Han Chinese Celestial Kingdom, the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis, the Nipponese, and Indian Hindustan. These phyles form their own separate enclaves in the chaotic remains of our former nations, and operate under the Common Economic Protocol (CEP, a set of rules to manage social interactions).

Though it may seem at first to be a post-scarcity society, this is actually far from true. With basic goods and sustenance free for the asking, many of the traditional jobs have been rendered obsolete, so that much of the world is idle or underemployed. Many cities have significant crime that only membership in a strong tribe can protect people from. That means that the tribeless (‘thetes’) are vulnerable to all types of hardships.

The story focuses on a large cast of characters:

Nell - The central protagonist who is born tribeless to a poor and neglectful mother. By accident she happens upon a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an electronic book designed to educate young girls in become productive members of society that at the same time question the status quo.

John Percival Hackworth – A neo-Victorian nanotech engineer who is commissioned to design the Primer for a Neo-Victorian equity lord who wishes to give it to his granddaughter. Secretly he creates an illicit copy that he intends to give to his own daughter Fiona, but when he is robbed by Nell’s brother, it falls into the hands of Nell. When his crime is exposed, he is forced into becoming a double-agent against the Neo-Victorians by Dr. X of the Celestial Kingdom.

Judge Fang – A Confucian judge who allows Nell to keep her stolen copy of the Primer. Eventually he begins to question his allegiance to the Coastal Republic and elects to defect to the Celestial Kingdom. He is also involved with a covert plan to distribute Primers to a huge number of young Chinese female orphans.

Dr. X – A black-market technology specialist and hacker who aids Hackworth in creating the illicit copy for his daughter. When Hackworth gets exposed, he blackmails Hackworth into helping the Celestial Kingdom develop a new and revolutionary type of nanotech called the Seed.

The stage is set brilliantly for the first half of the book, interspersed with numerous episodes of Nell’s virtual experiences with the Primer, including increasingly complicated challenges involving Turing machines and learning binary and programming. There are so many tantalizing clues placed throughout the early chapters of the book, but instead of exploring and developing these diverse story and character arcs in a measured pace throughout the book, the novel suddenly shifts into high gear in the final hundred pages or so in desperate rush to tie-up all the storylines.

There is a jumbled and confusing battle in The Celestial Kingdom and The Coastal Republic, with the Fists of Righteous Harmony (essentially a retelling of the Boxer Rebellion) seeking to cut off the nanofeed coming from the Neo-Victorians and Nipponese and replace it with the new Seed technology. Hackworth’s ten year exile after being turned double-agent by Dr. X is revealed to have some obscure connection to a group-mind called the Drummers and a shadowy group called CryptNet.

Sadly I found myself thoroughly confused for the last third of the book, and had to read through the Wikipedia entry to get some clarity on what happened. That is always a bad sign. While Stephenson has had trouble with reaching satisfying conclusions in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I felt that he pulled it off brilliantly in Crytonomicom, which is almost 1,000 pages long. Does that mean he needs that many pages to sort things out? Anathem is another complicated and dense door-stopper with some big proponents and detractors, and I have yet to tackle it, though I now have the audiobook version. Reamde is yet another massive story, and seems to have created less of a splash than his other books despite its size. For that matter, his Baroque Cycle sounds even more impenetrable and confusing.

So why is Neal Stephenson my favorite author? Simply because he comes up with ideas, characters and info-dumps like nobody else inside or outside SF (in fact, Cryptonomicon really isn’t SF at all), and creates stories so memorable and clever that I’m willing to forgive some of the problems. I just found out he’ll be coming out with a new novel called Seveneves in May 2015, about generational starships designed to save humanity from catastrophe on Earth. It sounds a bit more well-tread territory than his usual genre-defying novels, but I hope he can hit a home run this time around!
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Reading Progress

April 2, 2013 – Shelved
May 25, 2013 – Shelved as: literature
May 29, 2013 – Shelved as: satirical-humorous
July 11, 2013 – Shelved as: near-future
August 31, 2013 – Shelved as: cyberpunk
March 28, 2015 – Started Reading
April 5, 2015 –
April 12, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Denis (last edited Apr 12, 2015 06:20AM) (new) - added it

Denis Well written in depth review. I've only read "Snow Crash" and "Reamde" so far by Stephenson. So far, it's not quite my 'cup of tea' (that expression isn't my 'bag' either...) - I have a similar problems with William Gibson's work. I want to love it but seem to only like it. I think it's a question of style, for the execution - world building, character development, dialogue and so forth is flawless. Perhaps the books are just too heavy for my light brain.

Stuart Denis, I agree that Neal Stephenson is an acquired taste, but once you are hooked, then watch out! His books certainly require some commitment from the reader, but I would say it's definitely worth it. However, it would recommend Crytonomicon over The Diamond Age, even though it's twice as long.

And there is a huge difference between Gibson and Stephenson - Gibson has zero sense of humor (at least in the Neuromancer trilogy), which for me is a deal breaker.

message 3: by Denis (new) - added it

Denis Thank you for that. I agree that Stephenson's unique sense of humour is a welcomed element to his work. The first scene of a skater's death defying pizza delivery in "Snow Crash" is a classic example.

A devout Gibson fan suggested that his 2003 "Pattern Recognition" as being his true master piece.

I believe that it is not these authors that are the problem. It is I that must mature or graduate to appreciate these. Frank Herbert is the other 'enigma' that I am working on.

message 4: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Peto Stuart wrote: "had to read through the Wikipedia entry to get some clarity on what happened. That is always a bad sign...."

You've had to do that before!?

Brendon Schrodinger Great review Stuart. And I can't wait for Seveneves as well!

Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽ I'm finishing this book up right now and losing steam after what I thought was an excellent first half. Your review is helping me to understand why. I think I'll follow your lead and check out the Wikipedia entry here ...

Stuart Yes, the book really loses steam in the second half, which is a big problem for a nanotech steampunk story. I think Stephenson really needs a stronger editor, but like most popular authors today he's above that. Imagine what could have been...

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