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The Diamond Age

From Academic Kids

The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a 1995 cyberpunk or postcyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson taking place in a world where nanotechnology is ubiquitous. Its primary themes include social class, cultural tribalism, and societal responses to technological change. The book won the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Key features include:

  • the importance of cultural association and the belief that certain cultural systems are naturally superior to others
  • the contrast of Victorian and Confucian views held by major power figures in this world, and the contrasting way they view the dangers and opportunities of molecular assemblers and artificial intelligence as applied to child-raising
  • an introduction to encryption ideas in the form of a fairy-story suitable for children — which the reader encounters with the heroine as the novel unfolds
  • a female-coming-of-age central plot which focuses far more on adventure and far less on sitting around and discovering boys than the works of Judy Blume et al.
  • a setting in which nation-states are obsolete (think of NYC's Chinatown sharing a government with Tokyo's Chinatown instead of with NYC's Little Italy)
  • the threat of a bicameral minded hive consciousness
  • a vague re-telling of the Boxer Rebellion
Contents

Plot

The primary protagonist in the story is Nell, a street urchin who illicitly receives an Dynabook-like interactive book (quaintly coined "primer") originally intended for a well-bred child in a neo-Victorian tribe. The story follows Nell (and to a lesser degree, a few other children who receive similar books) as she uses the primer to overcome both her lack of education and her deficient parenting. Although Stephenson seems to be commenting superficially on the role of technology in child development, his deeper and darker themes explore the relative values and shortcomings between cultures.

World

The world is divided into many phyles, also known as tribes. There are three Great Phyles; in alphabetical order, they are the Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorians (consisting of Anglo-Saxons, including Indians and Africans who identify with the culture), and Nippon (consisting of Japanese). The novel deliberately makes it ambiguous whether Hindustan (consisting of Hindu Indians) is a fourth Great Phyle or an association of microphyles. In addition to these larger phyles, there are countless smaller phyles.

Nanotechnology is omni-present, generally in the form of Matter Compilers and the products that come out of them. Exotic technology such as the chevaline (a mechanical horse light enough to be carried one-handed) and smart paper that can show you personalized news headlines are personal-use products, while major cities have immune systems made up of aerostatic defensive micromachines.

Matter compilers receive raw materials from the Feed, a system analogous to the electrical grid of modern society. Rather than simple electricity, it carries molecules, and matter compilers assemble those molecules into whatever goods the compiler's user wishes. The Source, where the Feed's stream of matter originates, is controlled by the Victorian phyle, though smaller, independent Feeds are possible. The hierarchic nature of control the Feed represents and an alternative technology known as the Seed mirror the cultural conflict between East and West that is depicted in the book.

Analysis

The Diamond Age is most likely set in the same universe as Snow Crash, many years later, based on the assumption that Y.T., a major character in Snow Crash, reappears as the aged Miss Matheson, who drops oblique references to her past as a hard-edged skateboarder. In a book signing at the Harvard Coop bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 8 2003, Stephenson affirmed the connection.

More bases for this assumption include:

  • Stephenson's short story "The Great Simoleon Caper" which refers to both the Metaverse seen in Snow Crash and the First Distributed Republic seen in The Diamond Age. (speaking of short stories, another one which fits in the Diamond Age milieu and even shares a character is "Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast")
  • references to Franchise-Operated Quasi-National Entities (FOQNEs) in both novels

This book is probably the most cited example by those who disparage Stephenson's endings. These critics are dissatisfied with the ending because, after many pages of intensifying tension, the conclusion both fails to resolve all of the tension through explicit action of the protagonists and leaves some of the characters' eventual futures inconclusive.

It's not hard to see why they're dissatisfied, given that only the central plot of The Diamond Age is resolved while life goes on in the background (with the subplots unresolved) instead of everything grinding to a screeching halt at once (with "and then they lived happily ever after"). Moreover, some readers may even think Hackworth is the main character instead of Nell (because his subplot is so detailed, indeed the Dutch translation is titled The Alchemist, and because a male engineer resembles some SF readers more than a female 4-year-old does) - which would make the way the ending ignores him to focus on Nell growing up especially confusing. Here's a breakdown of the three plots:

  • "Coming of Age" plot
    • begins after page 1 (Nell's not even born yet)
    • ends before the last page (Nell grows up, leaves home to seek her fortune, endures a baptism of fire, and finds her place in the adult world)
  • "Hacker vs. System" plot
    • begins before page 1 (Hackworth's already discontent with his position in life)
    • ends with hackworth failing and a device known as "the seed" created(but Hackworth's not the main character)
  • "Moral Kombat" plot
    • begins centuries before page 1 (the tribes/faiths vs. each other, cities/city-states vs. nation-states, tech-haves vs. tech-have-nots, etc. clashing in 2100's Shanghai is nothing really new)
    • stalemated at last page, thus realistic (these things never truly end but simply morph into new arrangements of conflict)
  • Rebelion vs. Conformity"
    • begins very early in the book through the form of Nell's mother and brother though is most apparent in Nell's school.
    • ends with Nell realizing that it right to simply be rather than to simply rebel or conform without proper knowledge.

However, other critics laud this book's ending for Nell's transition from mere student to major sovereign and its consistent, if subtle, conclusion that those children who were raised with the original copies of the primer (which included technology which allowed oversight by caring adults) became fully-realized and independent individuals, while an army of children raised with modified clones of the primer (which were fully automated, and so lacked any "parental" oversight) became efficient, devoted, but incomplete followers. Arguably, such an interpretation might reasonably follow from a single, dark allusion early in the book which suggests the cloned primers were intentionally disabled by the Victorian engineer who designed them, maybe so as to foster a propensity for the Chinese children who used the clones to follow the leadership of the Victorian children who used the original copies, although this may not have been Stephenson's intention.

It is just as easy to interpret this as a desirable feature from the point of view of the Confucians, however, who emphasize duty, honesty and obedience in their training of women. A Victorian officer might be useful and creative, but, in an army composed only of Confucians, would be quite disposable, and hardly pose any major threat to political leadership. The limits of the authority of officers, more than the degree of visible tactical control, is an emphasis of Confucianism.

At any rate, it's very hard to tell if the Mouse Army is merely efficient and devoted or also usefully creative. For all the reader knows, as one critic on Usenet noted, "whenever not busy rescuing Queen Nell they may well have been interesting people, stimulating conversationalists, and most excellent tea party guests." (Merritt)

The novel is also notable for a number of incidental descriptions of other cults or groups, such as the Reformed Distributed Republic, which in contrast to the elaborate cultures (or "phyles" as they are called) imposes a minimal civilization protocol that only tests the willingness of members to risk their lives, and come to each other's aid by following instructions, with little or no capacity to understand the importance of tasks they undertake in doing so, but a full understanding of the risks.

Influence

One term which was apparently coined in the novel, "Anglosphere", went on to be popularized by journalists as a useful term for understanding international relations.

References

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