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The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
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This is our discussion of the Classic science fiction novel...

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
(1995. Winner of Hugo Award for Best Novel)


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) I started this one a few days ago and I'm about a quarter of the way through it so far. There's more of a cyberpunk flavor than I thought there would be. I really like the worlds Stephenson creates although the info dumps are brutal at times.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments I'll give this one a re-read, as it is one of my favourites.


Rachel | 526 comments I seem to have seriously overcommitted this month but I own a tree book (actually two! Of this) and I definitely plan on reading it… Sometime soon


message 5: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 02, 2018 07:59AM) (new)

Randy wrote: "I really like the worlds Stephenson creates although the info dumps are brutal at times. ..."

Stephenson likes to throw stuff at the reader at a breakneck pace. He sometimes makes strange choices on what to explain (e.g. the history of the Confucian Justice System in Shanghai) and what to just toss you into the deep end (most of the rest.)

He also likes to make up words. Some for futuristic gizmo's, like ractives, pedimotive, mediaglyphs and velocipede; and some just for jollies, e.g. alamodalities, and some that he must have found in an appendix to an unabridged OED, e.g. catachthonic & cineritious.


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I'm trying to put my head back into 1995 and see how much Stephenson's ideas are prescient.

I was struck by the description of Hackworth reading the news:
"Hackworth got all the news that was appropriate to his station in life, plus a few optional services: the latest from his favorite cartoonists and columnists around the world; clippings on various peculiar crackpot subjects forwarded to him by his father, ever anxious that he had not, even after all this time, sufficiently edified his son;

One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one's Times became to one's peers'."
It's early Yahoo!, pre-Google, pre-pre-Facebook. You could put together a customized newsfeed (via RSS or Yahoo!), but I think Stephenson has imagined a news world similar to modern day where you can collect only the news you want.

In a related comment in the same chapter: "Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it." Because that's what we never figure out until after it's been done.

It is amusing that the upper class, or phyle, has decided to reject the society of the 20th & 21st centuries and slip back into Victorian days as a sort of post-cyberpunk swing of the societal pendulum.


message 7: by RJ - Slayer of Trolls (last edited Jun 02, 2018 02:57PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) G33z3r wrote: "It is amusing that the upper class, or phyle, has decided to reject the society of the 20th & 21st centuries and slip back into Victorian days as a sort of post-cyberpunk swing of the societal pendulum. "

I find that interesting also. It reminds me of the "New Swing" revival about 20 years ago (around the time this book was published, coincidentally) when swing music was played on popular radio after grunge had run its course. Everything old is new again. It gives me hope that rock and roll will come back to life someday.


Michael | 152 comments I first read this book not long after it first came out. The odd thing was I read this not long after I bought an interactive book for my niece. It was a pre-kindle device with interchangeable book cartridges. I just thought the parallel with the book was funny.


message 9: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 13, 2018 11:31AM) (new)

For some reason it it keeps feeling weird re-reading this novel. I know I read it shortly after it was published, but I don't have any memory of where the story is going. As I re-read, I do suddenly remember specific scenes, but still have no concept of the overall story direction. Strange feeling, like someone wiped memory from my brain. (I'm not saying it was aliens,... but it was aliens.)

I thought the interview between Lt. Chang & Hackworth was an amazing couple of pages. I kept putting Chang in a Peter Falk/Colombo voice (though a Charlie Chan would probably have been more accurate, though in the movies Chan was always portrayed by Western actors, anyway.) Anyway, it was a fascinating couple of pages of dialogue as the two men sparred over The Book and Hackworth's unreported mugging.


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) G33z3r wrote: "I thought the interview between Lt. Chang & Hackworth was an amazing couple of pages. I kept putting Chang in a Peter Falk/Colombo voice (though a Charlie Chan would probably have been more accurate, though in the movies Chan was always portrayed by Western actors, anyway.) Anyway, it was a fascinating couple of pages of dialogue as the two men sparred over The Book and Hackworth's unreported mugging."

I liked that scene too. Also I liked the scene where Judge Fang met Dr. X at the teahouse. The subtleties of the conversation were interesting and also amusing at the same time.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments I read this recently and while I enjoyed it, the first half - all the introductions to world and tech - is the best as it drops off when he loses the plot in the second half.
Snow Crash is a much better and tighter read.
Both books have similar themes - the swamping of Western culture / land by overpopulation in Asia, tech advances, paternal care for a girl.


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) Dr. X - with his gigantic ocean liner staffed by an all-female crew - is starting to remind me of a James Bond villain.


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I loved this throwaway line:
"Looking at the old cine clips in the Encyclopædia, Nell could see a younger Constable Moore, the same man with more hair and fewer doubts."



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I dunno. I don't remember the sections about Hackworth being sent off with the "Drummers" or his evening with "Dramatis Personae", but it seems random and boring.


message 15: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 07, 2018 03:19PM) (new)

I'm puzzled by this scene, late in the book. Hackworth meets Dr. X again:
"Hackworth sat down across the table from Dr. X. A young woman padded out of the kitchen on silk slippers and gave Hackworth his own tumbler full of green tea. Watching her mince away, Hackworth was only mildly shocked to see that her feet were no more than four inches long. There must be better ways to do it now, maybe by regulating the growth of the tarsal bones during adolescence. It probably didn't even hurt.

Realizing this, Hackworth also realized, for the first time, that he had done the right thing ten years ago."
I don't understand this 4" foot thing, why its unsurprising, why Hackworth thinks a "better way" to do "it" genetically, what Hackworth thinks he was right about ten years ago. I've obviously lost some prior setup? What am I missing?


message 16: by Clare (last edited Jun 08, 2018 03:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Okay, the wealthiest ladies in China for quite a lot of history, were so proud of having servants and never needing to do anything,
that they bound their young daughters' feet. The toes were forced under and stunted by constant tight wrappings.
Tiny feet were very hard to walk on, so the lady as a grown-up had to be carried outdoors on a litter, and could only shuffle indoors in silk slippers, usually with extra protective wrappings too, so you would not necessarily see the actual size of the foot; she would be unable to do anything other than playing instruments, painting or weaving. Or pouring tea.
A helpless cultured wife could only come from a wealthy family, as peasant women and children had to work. So this wife was a status symbol for a rich man.

This is a feature in Tai-Pan by James Clavell, Tai-Pan but of course it went out during the Cultural Revolution when the aristocracy, just as in the French Revolution, were called parasites on the working class. Everyone had to work or starve, or work and starve quite likely under Mao, who made some bad decisions such as ordering everyone to kill sparrows. (The birds ate grain. However they also ate insect larvae, so now there was a plague of locusts.)

Stephenson is saying that this Chinese person was living her own version of the Victorian Age, in the Chinese culture. The 'ten years ago' must be his character's stealing the primer to give it to a girl - making her self-reliant.
You will notice that no culture ever put young men into the equivalent of bound feet or hobble skirts. (Sorry, my feminist slip is showing.)


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Drummers, yeah. That's when he'd lost the plot.


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Phil J | 329 comments Did the Utahraptor make anyone else think of Dinosaur Comics?

description


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Phil J | 329 comments G33z3r wrote: "I'm trying to put my head back into 1995 and see how much Stephenson's ideas are prescient.

I was struck by the description of Hackworth reading the news:"Hackworth got all the news that was appr..."


I'm really struggling to put my head back in '95 mode. I keep thinking, "Of course they have personal electronic devices that chime when they get email," then I think, "Oh, yeah, '95." Other things I should be more impressed by: 3D printers, individualized newsfeeds, electronic trade conflicting with the tax system, and microcameras reducing privacy and fighting crime.


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Phil wrote: "Did the Utahraptor make anyone else think of Dinosaur Comics?"

I''m leaning more towards Rex from Toy Story.


message 21: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 08, 2018 07:16AM) (new)

Clare wrote: "Stephenson is saying that this Chinese person was living her own version of the Victorian Age, in the Chinese culture. The 'ten years ago' must be his character's stealing the primer to give it to a girl - making her self-reliant..."

Ah. I was previously unaware of the practice of Foot binding. Thanks. (I think. The images on Wikipedia are... disturbing. I can see how Hackworth would have preferred using some genetic tricks of bone growth to produce the effect; assuming you insisted on the effect. It's telling that Hackworth's thought is how to do it with genetic engineering and thus less pain, rather than questioning whether it ought to be done at all. It reminded me of Stephenson's earlier remark: "Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it.")

I thought I must have missed something earlier in the novel about Dr. X's intentions re: maiming the feet of servants or something. Turns out Stephenson thought I should already know this.

I think the decision Hackworth made 10 years earlier had to do with modifying the Primer for Dr. X's orphans, when he was on trial before Judge Fang:
“Then part of your responsibility will be to make alterations in the Primer so that it is suitable for our requirements—we can make do without those parts of the book that depend heavily on outside ractors, and supply our own ractors in some cases,” Judge Fang said.

“This should be feasible. I can build in automatic voice-generation capabilities—not as good, but serviceable.”

At this point, John Percival Hackworth, almost without thinking about it and without appreciating the ramifications of what he was doing, devised a trick and slipped it in under the radar of the Judge and Dr. X and all of the other people in the theatre, who were better at noticing tricks than most other people in the world. “While I'm at it, if it pleases the court, I can also,” Hackworth said, most obsequiously, “make changes in the content so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership. But it will take some time.”

“Very well,” said Judge Fang
I think the "trick" Hackworth slipped in as part of the modification resulted in turning Dr. X's orphans into the "mouse army."


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments Got to one of my favourite scenes last night. Bud's trial is so fantastic because it sets the tone for the whole rest of the book. Bud is a typical cyberpunk protagonist, a small-time criminal beholden to nobody that dresses in black leather. But this isn't a cyberpunk story. It's a nanopunk story, and in this world that kind of person has no chance of survival. There's no room for outsiders here, you need to band together in a phyle if you don't want the world to crush you like an ant.

The abruptness of the shift from a funny courtroom scene to literally and figuratively killing off cyberpunk, followed immediately by the introduction of our real protagonist, has stuck with me for years.


RJ - Slayer of Trolls (hawk5391yahoocom) Brendan wrote: "The abruptness of the shift from a funny courtroom scene to literally and figuratively killing off cyberpunk, followed immediately by the introduction of our real protagonist.."

Yes. You nailed it. I was surprised by the Bud character and the way the book started but once his trial and "sentencing" happened I literally laughed out loud. Stephenson sent a pretty strong message that he wasn't going down the same path as he did in Snow Crash.


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Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments G33z3r wrote: "I think the "trick" Hackworth slipped in as part of the modification resulted in turning Dr. X's orphans into the "mouse army."

This is equally valid, but because we don't really see it happening the initial theft was more prominent in my mind. Could be a combination of both deeds with the primer, but in the case of the mouse army, more girls were aided... Chinese ones.


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Brendan wrote: "The abruptness of the shift from a funny courtroom scene to literally and figuratively killing off cyberpunk, followed immediately by the introduction of our real protagonist, has stuck with me for years...."

Introducing a protagonist at the start of the novel and quickly killing him off is a bit unusual, more so since he has absolutely no consequences for the remainder of the story, except his bastard child Nell, the actual protagonist, who Bud never meets and has no influence over. (There are stories where a prolog introduces some history, event, or object that later becomes important to the story; but Bud is almost entirely erased.

On the other hand, several characters seem to get lost: Dr. X doesn't appear in the latter quarter of the novel. Harv disappears midway, never to be seen again (except as a short moment in the Primer story where fictional-Harv is said to have died of consumption in King Coyote's Dark Castle.)

Stephenson doesn't seem to care about starting or ending character threads.

Back to Bud: Does anyone have a solid mental image of a "skull canon". It's stated even the scar can be made invisible, so where exactly do the projectiles come from? (Kind of inconvenient needing surgery to reload.) We meet a couple of skull cannon dudes in the rather confusing concluding battle, paired up with Carl Hollywood & Co.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments G33z3r wrote: "Introducing a protagonist at the start of the novel and quickly killing him off is a bit unusual, more so since he has absolutely no consequences for the remainder of the story."

A fairly notable fantasy series started the same way, and for the same purpose: it lets the reader know that this isn't the story you're expecting.


message 27: by Phil (last edited Jun 08, 2018 07:50PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Phil J | 329 comments Brendan wrote: "A fairly notable fantasy series started the same way, and for the same purpose: it lets the reader know that this isn't the story you're expecting."

Are you thinking of (view spoiler)? Because I am.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments I wasn't, but that one works too.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Brendan wrote: "I wasn't, but that one works too."

Agreed.


message 30: by Clare (last edited Jun 09, 2018 01:33AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments G33z3r wrote: "Back to Bud: Does anyone have a solid mental image of a "skull canon". It's stated even the scar can be made invisible, so where exactly do the projectiles come from? (Kind of inconvenient needing surgery to reload.) "

This is the equivalent of the glass blade in Snow Crash. How does someone carry all those slivers of glass in his jacket without breaking them or stabbing/ scratching himself?
Best place to stash ammo would be in the eyebrow ridge; who'd notice if it bulged a bit with reload tubes.
Making the scar invisible might just be done by tattooing over it. Bud wasn't entering beauty contests.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments "several characters seem to get lost:"
As I said, he'd lost the plot. Maybe his publishers were telling him to hurry up. From the Drummers on the book is no longer technically accomplished.
The climax of Nell's adventure is told by a relatively minor character and almost posted in. Very much like Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord.


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Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments "He also likes to make up words. Some for futuristic gizmo's, like ractives, pedimotive, mediaglyphs and velocipede;"
Did you see the name he gave the tv? Mediatron? Who goes from a short word to a long clunky one? That's not what the populace do. (Web, Net, for example instead of their longer forms.) My own books just call it the vid.

Velocipede is an old word.


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Phil J | 329 comments I finished this morning, and I have a question:

Did the good guys win? Does this ending represent the greater good for humanity?


Rachel | 526 comments Skipping lots of comments as I’m only about 100 pages in- the many infodumps in these first 100 have really slowed me down.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Take your time Rachel! Worth enjoying the tech and characters.

Phil - each person involved is their own hero. Including everyone in Asia. If you have read Snow Crash, remember the Raft? Same theme. The books are warnings not to get too absorbed in advanced or refined culture to forget what is happening outside the culture around the world.

The Asian populace keeps growing in part because of grain sent there from North America. It's a market. Clearly in order to produce the advanced society we now have *with high tech cheaply available* there needs to be a vast world population with exchange of ideas, workers, materials and manufactured goods. But nobody told the population to stop growing.
Humans and their livestock now account for almost 98% of all the animals and birds in the world. And the human population is still growing according to the amount of food it can produce. That is the scariest part.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments The above reminded me that over a decade ago a techie person said to me,
"Now that the majority of the world's population uses computers, I think hands are going to get smaller, we may lose the little finger."
I said, "The majority of the world's population harvests rice."


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Phil J | 329 comments Clare wrote: "Phil - each person involved is their own hero."

My point exactly! I'm not sure that the Fists and Dr. X were in the wrong here. Maybe humanity would be better off with the Seed. I'm not sure I was rooting for the side of freedom and progress in this book.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments Love the descriptions of the nanotech. Its nice that he at least tries at some nanochemistry handwaves for his tech so that it isnt just star trek's matter replicators (though in essence that's what it boils down to).


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Andrea | 2803 comments G33z3r wrote: "For some reason it it keeps feeling weird re-reading this novel. I know I read it shortly after it was published, but I don't have any memory of where the story is going. As I re-read, I do suddent..."

I have totally had that feeling while re-reading a book, at least now I know it's not my brain but it was aliens... but not this one, it's my first Stephenson which is why I chose to read it even though it is lacking dragons...well, dragons do get mentioned sometimes, it is China after all!

I'm about a third of the way through now. Had to work pretty hard at the terminology, and one info dump (when Hackworth was making the original Primer) just left me more confused than when I started, but I'm starting to get most of it now so settling into the world. Overall I'm enjoying it.

I read a few of the posts above but stopped when people starting discussing later events in the book, will need to catch up a bit more before risking more spoilers :) I'm right around Randy's "James Bond villain on a boat of women" part.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Anyone spot the potted history of computing?

Now, I think our heroine would have been taught coding and some history of computing in class. No way anyone would not in her age.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Andrea, I think overall if an infodump doesn't gel for you, read on because either you don't really need it or you can make enough sense of the narrative.


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Andrea | 2803 comments G33z3r wrote: "Back to Bud: Does anyone have a solid mental image of a "skull canon". It's stated even the scar can be made invisible, so where exactly do the projectiles come from? (Kind of inconvenient needing surgery to reload.) We meet a couple of skull cannon dudes in the rather confusing concluding battle, paired up with Carl Hollywood & Co. ."

I could be convinced that this gun could be installed without leaving a scar but how does it fire without blasting a hole in your own forehead skin?? I kept thinking of Wolverine and his claws and how they had to piece his skin, but he had mutant healing powers to fix the wounds afterwards.

I'm more than halfway now, but still avoiding some posts in this thread :)


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Andrea wrote: "I could be convinced that this gun could be installed without leaving a scar but how does it fire without blasting a hole in your own forehead skin?? I kept thinking of Wolverine and his claws and how they had to piece his skin, but he had mutant healing powers to fix the wounds afterwards...."

:) I had the same Wolverine thought, though of coursed it makes no sense for Bud.

I guess it's a good thing the gun isn't plot-relevant.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments That skull gun has us all puzzled, I tend to think a scar or tattoo over a bit of plastiskin.


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Phil J | 329 comments The truth is that Stephenson didn't bother to fill what seems to us to be a pretty obvious hole in the science. How does a skull gun fire without blasting a hole in the skin?

Here's my attempt at explanation: The ammunition is designed with nano technology that filters around the cells in the skin and expands after leaving the head of the user.


Rachel | 526 comments Up to page 300 and really wishing I had read it earlier - like a decade ago before a lot of this became ‘commonplace’ in sci-fi. I cared a lot more about the characters in say Seveneves


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Andrea | 2803 comments Clare wrote: "Take your time Rachel! Worth enjoying the tech and characters."

I think in the end I enjoyed the book only for that and not the plot, since I'm not really sure where we were going and if we got there or not. I think Phil was wondering the same thing

Clare wrote: "Humans and their livestock now account for almost 98% of all the animals and birds in the world."

And insects still beat everything else combined by a huge margin. If you take just all the ants (leave out all other insects) in the world they will weigh more than all humans. I honestly didn't get a population control vibe from this story, not with the whole rescuing of a quarter million "mice".

Perhaps I was just so wrapped up in the tech and trying to figure out how the Drummer thing worked and that crazy play on the ship (whose purpose I still don't quite grasp yet somehow led to Hackworth finding the Alchemist) that I kind of lost what the Fists even represented and what their goals were. It felt so much in the background, and yet was obviously a significant event (which somehow the Hackworth knew would be coming so that he ensured that Nell would have her army?)



And the Hollywood guy seems to be more deeply involved than I would expect him to be (towards the end in the tea shop he seemed to have his fingers in everything), and yet in the end it seems like he didn't actually have any effect on things, he was just able to see what everyone else was up to?

This might be the kind of book that warrants a re-read, the second time around you'd be less distracted by the world building and could maybe keep better track of the actual events going on all at the same time :)


message 48: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 18, 2018 08:12PM) (new)

Andrea wrote: "I think in the end I enjoyed the book only for that and not the plot, since I'm not really sure where we were going and if we got there or not...."

Interesting observation. Unlike most stories, the conflict here is never defined. One might suppose Nell is the protagonist, but just what is the opposing force? She sets off to "make her way in the world", but to no destination in particular. Hence, Hackworth's time with the Drummers, that bemusing "crazy play on the ship" (aka "Dramatis Personae"), Miranda wandering off on some sort of vision question & Hollywood picking up her search for Nell, it's all rather meandering without any sense of what's at stake, if anything. As you say, we can't tell if or when we got "there".

We're invested in Nell, but her story seems to flow through the other elements largely unaffected (until the very end, when the Fists suddenly appear from seaming nowhere just in time to give the story some tangible conflict to resolve.)


message 49: by Clare (last edited Jun 19, 2018 02:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Conflict at the end is odd in more ways - the 'mice' have been indoctrinated by their primers, we presume, to assist and preserve Nell. Yet neither Hackworth nor anyone else could have known that the one girl would ever meet the quarter of a million girls, individually or collectively.

The couple of punks with the skull guns at the end seem to me to be a nod to Nell's absent father, and a way of reminding us about the author's invention of the weapon. So he doesn't feel he wasted his time creating it, because after all the original punk might as easily have killed someone with a flick-knife.

I agree that Nell's story doesn't change anything in her world. So we have to look back at the title - the Diamond Age is what the author was representing, what it might involve, what it might bring. The stories we follow through characters are each facets of that diamond, that is all.


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Clare wrote: "Yet neither Hackworth nor anyone else could have known that the one girl would ever meet the quarter of a million girls, individually or collectively. ..."

Although we also know that the Mouse Army is actively looking for "Princess Nell". Half a million searchers have a reasonable chance to actually find their quarry.


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