Last year, I read and reviewed my first Neal Stephenson book, Snow Crash. This year, I look at another post-cyberpunk novel by Mr. Stephenson, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.
If I had to sum up this book in one short phrase: this is a cyberpunk story with a Neo-Victorian finish.
Set in the far future, in a world where nation-states have given way to digital tribes without borders, there have been two phenomenal developments: the spread of nanotechnology and matter compilers, and a widespread revival of Victorian and Confucian etiquette and values. And in this world, we see how one nanoengineer’s attempt to make the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer leads to a dramatic upheaval in the life of a young girl named Nell, whose journey leads her through different tribes and toward a climatic confrontation between the Neo-Victorian establishment and several radicals trying to undermine it and its nanotech-based authority.
As I read this story, I couldn’t help but see this as a slightly more polished edition of Snow Crash. Instead of franchise states, we have “phyles” based on a Common Economic Protocol. Instead of a katana-wielding, pizza-delivering hacker, we have a Victorian gentleman-engineer who gets involved with Chinese criminals and creates a reactive book that drives the plot forward. And instead of a courier girl on a skateboard, we have Nell, who fights her way out of poverty and an unstable home life, becomes a Neo-Victorian lady, and ends up on her own quest for the truth behind the Primer and Miranda, the woman who provided the voice for the Primer and wants to help her be free.
As dense as the exposition and technical details of the story can get, I think it’s still fascinating. It’s an interesting blend of technology forecasting and homages to Victorian and Confucian narratives, both inside the story and regarding the book itself (the little plot summary titles remind me a lot of how a Victorian novel reads). I have to say that this is an interesting view of the future, where technology has advanced like wildfire, but society draws on older philosophies for guidance, all while being a little more self-aware than their ancestors.
Reading Stephenson’s prose is a little like reading Thomas Pynchon. You learn a lot (or at least feel like you have) while you read, and there’s tons of research and precision in this story to make for an engrossing tale, let alone a good story of science fiction. Challenging? Yes, but following Nell’s journey is worth the time spent.
Rhapsodist Edit: I’m aware that today also marks the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks. As much as I want to keep my readers engaged with thought-provoking reviews, I’d like to set aside this space at the end to offer a prayer for the memory of those who lost their lives on this day, for the families who still suffer from those losses, and for the first responders who still need our support.
Bibliography: Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York: Bantam Spectra, 1995.