Like the other Neal Stephenson books (The Cryptonomicon, Zodiac) I've had the pleasure to read, The Diamond Age rose through a long building of the story, and was finished in a flash with a quickly rising climax at the end. Stephenson's books have almost no denouement; they feel somewhat unsatisfying but refreshingly concluded at the same time. Some people refer to this as `Neal Stephenson's "Where the fuck was the ending" syndrome.'

The Diamond age tells the story of an orphan named Nell, and an neo-Victorian engineer named Hackworth, in a world where nanotechnology is common and goverments have been largely replaced by clans. While Hackworth is a middle class white collar working man, Nell is one of the poorest of the poor. Their lives intersect when Hackworth risks his status and standing to bring something wonderful to his daugther. Through the course of the story both Nell's and Hackworth's lives change a great deal, as do the lives of a number of peripheral characters. To a large degree these changes come about because of how much the characters care about each other, and due to the engineer's love of an elegent design.

The title, "The Diamond Age", refers to the fact that in the story it is cheaper to make diamond than glass. The reader will notice that whenever a transparent surface is discussed, it is always made from diamond, except in Dovetail, where the glass is made by hand. The title may also be interperted as a tounge-in-cheek comparison to the time of the first Victorians, the so called Golden Age.

Stephenson's understanding of digital security has markedly improved since he wrote The Diamond Age. Compare the unbreakable, untraceable, perfect system envisioned in The Diamond Age with the paranoid crypto discussed in The Cryptonomicon. Although one could chalk the perfect system up to a science fiction writer's prerogative, one which was almost pivotal to the story (otherwise it would have been easy to find Miranda, etc.), it was certainly nice to see Stephenson expand his knowledge in that area, as it gave us The Cryptonomicon.

The Diamond Age makes a case for parenting. There's this wonderful technology that can teach girls all they need to know, but only Nell, who is basically parented by Miranda, really rises to her potential. In the end, I think that Stephenson is saying that technology can't replace a good parent. Even though the young lady's primer is undoubtably healther than watching TV all the time, leaving your child to learn from this automated wonder is no better than using the TV as a baby sitter. Unless of course your child is lucky enough to get a ractor who will raise her for you...

The Diamond Age has a lot of interesting ideas about society, parenting, and technology. It's a thoroughly enjoyable book; I highly recommend it.

NB: sort-of-spoilers follow.

The whole point of the last kingdom in the Primer, and of the Drummers, was that although machine intelligence could outperform the human brain in certain areas - for instance, calculations involving very large numbers, or repetitive activity - there are some problems that the brain was inherently better at.

As one character puts it, quite nicely:

"As far as the laws of probability, my lady, these cannot be broken, any more than any other mathematical principle. But laws of physics and mathematics are like a coordinate system that runs only in one dimension. Perhaps there is another dimension perpendicular to it, invisible to those laws of physics, describing the same things with different rules, and those rules are written in our hearts, in a deep place where we cannot go and read them except in our dreams."

This points to the belief that there is some sort of mechanism in the brain that cannot be duplicated by any computing technology that we know today. A computer may simulate creativity or imagination, but in the end its responses are invariably limited. Of course, this is not to say that that simulation cannot come close to real creativity. The Primer would be a good example of this, if Stephenson had not implied that it was somehow linked to Hackworth (exactly how linked is debatable - whether Hackworth spent some of his time with the Drummers guiding the storyline of Nell's primer, whether the entire storyline was pre-determined, or whether the storyline was entirely created by the native intelligence of the book itself.)

The society of the Drummers was an interesting attempt to couple the best of both worlds: to utilise the creative and intuitive powers of the human brain in conjunction with the calculating abilities of nanocomputers to form a massive parallel computer with the power to create. The same character who spoke the quote above proposed to use the system's intuitive abilities to break the encryption used by the world-wide media network (think FreeNet).

This book will be of special interest to anyone familiar with the fundamentals of computing, as many of those concepts are integrated into the Primer. For instance, Nell's dialogue with the supposed Duke of Turing is a good example of a Turing Test, and Turing Machines feature throughout the book, albeit lightly. Stephenson also has some interesting ideas about nanotechnology. Like Snow Crash, Stephenson uses ideas that could be expanded to fill half a book by themself in almost a throwaway manner.

Bonus points for spotting the Snow Crash reference about two thirds of the way through the book...

Spoiler Warning: This writeup contains spoilers. You have been warned.

The Diamond Age is, on the surface, a tale of technology: specifically, nanotechnology and its implications on culture, economy, and social structure. However, the book's underlying thematic elements have more to do with the importance of good parenting and education than they do with the effects of nanotechnology.

The Diamond Age is a far darker, more disturbing tale than its predecessor, the electric, frenetic Snow Crash. At times the pace is slower, yet this is balanced by scenes of such traumatic intensity that they are scarcely readable. This book made me cry.

The Characters

The brief profiles below are of the book's major characters; those that do the most to either set up thematic elements in the book, or help to further the plot. It is by no means all- encompassing, and serves only to provide some background information for the analysis that follows.

Bud

When I first started reading this book I was a bit dismayed. The apparent protagonist was a moody hot-shot named Bud, whose mission in life seemed to be to acquire as many body-mounted weapons as possible. Bud is irresponsible, not given to intellectualism, and the type of guy who refers to his girlfriend as his "bitch". Yet Bud has an underlying sense of fatherly duty, hidden by bravado and brutishness as it may be. His paternal instincts are primitive at best, but they are there. He takes the time to bring presents over for his kids. And though he seems bad, he is by far not the most unlikable character in this book. He definitely has the bad-boy thing going for him. Bud ends up getting into some trouble, and let's just say things go downhill from there.

Tequila

Tequila is not just Bud's bitch, she's a perpetual chaos-seeker. She obviously came from some sort of sketchy background herself; she seems to gravitate toward abusive and irresponsible men, as if they fulfill some sort of primal need for her. She lives in the Leased Territories with her two children Harv and Nell, both fathered by Bud. Tequila's character is never fully fleshed out; she exists as needed to portray the environment that Nell, the book's main protagonist, is born into.

Harv

Harv is the man of the house, since his mother never tends to keep a boyfriend for very long. He is precociously responsible; he is certainly the primary caretaker for his little sister Nell. Though fond of rough games and an able fighter (comes with living in the neighborhood), Harv is a veritable knight when it comes to protecting Nell. He not only protects her from her mother's violent boyfriends, but also makes sure she has food and a comfortable mattress to sleep on. He is in a sense a better "mother" than Tequila. It is somewhat frightening to see how much these kids have to take care of themselves; there are no bedtime stories or milk and cookies or fireside snuggles for them. Harv and Nell have to grow up fast, or else not survive.

Hackworth

John Percival Hackworth is a member of the upper middle class. He has a decent-paying job as an Artifex (a vocation somewhat like that of today's hackers), a lovely wife, and a young daughter that he wants the best for. Hackworth's life seems preternaturally idyllic at first; his wife and daughter move about like muses as he goes about his days coding for hire; his marriage shows no signs of discord, and he has a healthy, if slightly distant, relationship with his daughter Fiona. Hackworth seems somewhat dissatisfied with his station in life; it seems as if he desperately wants to join the upper-upper class high society. If anything, Hackworth wants his daughter to enjoy the same social and educational advantages of the highest echelon of society.

Hackworth becomes a very important character in The Diamond Age, if only because his journey throughout the novel parallels a very telling descent into the subconscious. Hackworth's life changes forever after he takes an illegal action on behalf of his daugher; this action is perhaps the most momentous event in the novel: it sets everything else in motion.

Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw

This impressively long name belongs to a man who has worked his way up to the virtual ruling class. Of mixed ethnicity and interests, Finkle-McGraw commissions Hackworth to work on his latest project: The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Finkle-McGraw intends the book to be a gift for his only granddaughter, Elizabeth; he distrusts public schools and wants to help assure that little Elizabeth will be exposed to the sort of education that will better prepare her for the real world.

Miranda

Miranda is an ambitious young woman who we meet just as she is about to begin her career as a ractor. A ractor is something like an actor, and something more like an interactor. Ractors star in a form of interactive entertainment called ractives, which are sort of a cross between video games and movies with a dash of chat room flavor thrown in for color. Miranda is surgically outfitted with a "grid"; a network of nanomachines that will allow every movement of her body to be translated to the ractive medium.

Nell

This book is, by and large, about Nell. She certainly gets the most page time and is the viewpoint character throughout much of the novel. At the beginning of the book, Nell is basically a blank slate. She is a typical little girl, with a vivid imagination and a propensity for jumping on the bed. The kind of woman she is to become depends largely on the type of environment she's going to grow up in, and the guidance (or lack thereof) that she is to receive while growing up. Without the intervention of Harv, Nell might very well have grown up to be a lot like her mother, if she had even been able to grow up at all.

The Primer

As it goes, Harv brings home a present for Nell one day. It is a book, but much more than a book. All Harv knows is that it is something meant for little girls; so when he finds the object, naturally he gives it to his little sister. The subtitle of The Diamond Age is A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer; this high-languaged description exposes the roots of Nell's strange present; it was meant for the sole use by a Neo-Victorian girl. It was not meant to be copied for a middle class-girl and it certainly wasn't intended to end up in the hands of a poor urchin named Nellodee. Nevertheless, information moves along strange pathways, and does not always end up where one might expect. Information has no knowledge of laws, or of plagarism, or of tiny nanosites that carry it like one might carry a passing whim. The Primer begins its existence as code written by Hackworth, and evolves into something unimaginably complex, both phenomenologically and legally.

From the descriptions in the book, the Primer sounds amazingly cool. It is about the same size and shape as your average hardcover novel, yet heavier due to its batteries. The pages are as thin as paper, yet the pictures and words on them can move and change. The book also has sound capability; perfect for reading bedtime stories to young children who do not yet know how to read. The moving pictures in this book are actually a type of ractive; this is where Miranda comes in. Miranda takes a job for the story of Princess Nell; in this way, she interacts with Nell. Miranda, through the Primer, teaches Nell to read and write, as well as how to defend herself. Though the Primer is loosely scripted, Miranda is able to introduce her own personality into her character, as well as improvise when it seems that Nell is in danger.

Nell is not the only little girl to receive a copy of the Primer. Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw, the child for which the Primer was originally designed exclusively for, of course gets her own Primer. Fiona Hackworth, daughter of the man who loved his child enough to risk his job and reputation, also gets a Primer. Though the books themselves are identical, the quality of interaction between each girl and her book differs. Nell is the only girl provided with a mother figure (Miranda) via the Primer. Since she basically grows up with the same individual working behind the scenes to educate and protect her, her relationship with the Primer is highly personal. Fiona's Primer is racted by her father John, who though he tries his best to be a good father this way, is greatly affected by the chaos resulting from his decision to copy the Primer.. Elizabeth has the benefit of actual human ractors working to enrich her Primer experience, but since the ractor changes on a day to day basis, none of them really gets to know Elizabeth very well.

Nell grows up to be the strongest, most self-assured woman of the three, despite her birth into a very poor family in a less-than-ideal environment. Stephenson demonstrates, via the situations of Nell, Elizabeth, and Fiona, that there is really no substitute for personal long-term interaction with a child when it comes to effective parenting and education.

Social Organization

One of Stephenson's greatest strengths is his ability to describe a human society that might not yet exist, but that is wholly believable and colorfully depicted. In Stephenson's "day-after-tomorrow" Earth, many humans are organized not into countries but into groups called phyles. Those not belonging to any particular phyle are referred to as "thetes"; a somewhat disparaging term generally describing one of low income and little to no education. The thetes live in places like The Leased Territories: the slums of the future; gaudy yet run-down and populated by families with too many kids and not enough money. People exist in the Leased Territories; no matter how poor, they do not die of starvation (free matter compilers have solved the world's hunger problems, though what comes out of the low-end "feeds" is not always the most appetizing).

In this version of the future, Stephenson has splintered humanity along factors more personal and specific than mere geography. There is a phyle consisting entirely of communists; there is another, the Ashanti, whose members are fiercely loyal, highly educated blacks. The most frequently discussed phyle in the book, however, is that of the Neo-Victorians. The Victorians (referred to in the thete vernacular as "Vickys") are largely wealthy and educated. They take pride in constructing the necessities and luxuries of life from natural materials; they shun the fast, cheap expediency of matter compilers and other nanotechnological wonders.

The advent of nanotechnology has enabled different phyles to develop specialized artificial immune systems. This makes it quite easy to discourage invaders; while members of a particular phyle are protected against various submicroscopic assaults, a person without the appropriate artificial antibodies will be quickly disabled.

Technology and Terminology

Neal Stephenson is a brilliant inventor of words. He is able to come up with incredibly catchy, memorable, and descriptive names for the imaginary technological innovations in his novels. The Diamond Age is a powerhouse of inventive language; the aforementioned "ractive" is Stephenson's invention; the terms and definitions below are a few other examples.

Skull gun: This is a colloquial term for a head-mounted nanoprojectile launcher. Tiny but deadly bullets are stuffed into a person's head and the launching system is activated by a vocal command. The nanoprojectiles harmlessly exit the equipped individual's head, yet have devastating effects when they hit the target victim at full force.

Cookie cutter: These are tiny, tablet-shaped devices that enter the bloodstream of a person or animal. Within seven minutes, they are distributed sufficiently throughout the body via the circulatory system to assure that the person will not survive the cookie cutter assault. After the seven minute distribution time, the cookie cutters release enough tiny sharp objects to turn the victim's insides into "undifferentiated gore".

Nanobar: Nanobar is an easily produced fabric-type material composed of smaller units referred to by the equally creative term, "fabricules". Most of the clothing worn by thetes is made of nanobar due to its low cost.

Dog pod grid: Dog pod grids surround living areas restricted to members of a particular phyle, generally one of the wealthier phyles. They consist of a number of small teardrop-shaped objects spaced about 10 centimetres apart at the bottom, with spacing increasing as you go upward. In order to get through the grid, you must push apart the pods, which are freely suspended in midair. The pods detect whether you are authorized to be in the area they are protecting, and if not, security systems are activated. The reason the grid is referred to as a "dog pod" grid is because the lowest layer of pods is too closely spaced to permit a dog's passing, but will not stop a smaller animal such as a cat.

There are many other devices and technologies Stephenson has come up with specialized words for in The Diamond Age; I am not going to list them all here. To read the book and see the terms used in context is truly a linguistic treat.

Overall Impressions

The Diamond Age is a novel filled with colorful characters, painstakingly described settings, and imaginative wonders of technology. I have not even scratched the surface of the complexity of this book; there are numerous sub-plots that I have not even mentioned. I would definitely reccommend this book, even to those who are not necessarily fans of speculative fiction. The characters are quite well-developed, and though some have said that Neal Stephenson's female characters sometimes lack depth, I find that not to be the case with The Diamond Age. With the exception of Tequila, who is very weak-willed and somewhat ditzy, the women in The Diamond Age, (notably Miranda) are quite formidable and multifaceted in personality.

Some of the scenes in The Diamond Age are rather graphic, so sensitive readers might want to be aware of this before they begin reading. The parts of the book involving child abuse are especially painful, but I understand that they are necessary to the plot -- to show the obstacles that Nell has to overcome.

The Diamond Age quite successfully depicts a future Earth in which even technology that virtually allows magic to take place does not obscure the fundamental nature of humanity. People will continue to commit acts of evil and acts of heroism -- and kids that are well raised and well educated will always end up more effective adults.

Due to the greater popularity of Neal Stephenson's previous novel Snow Crash, I'd imagine that most people considering reading The Diamond Age, like myself, enjoyed reading the former and then proceeded to wonder how his later work compared.

The Diamond Age is set many decades after Snow Crash, but you'd scarcely realise it's the same fictional world due to the stark contrast of the style and setting between the two novels.

The countless competing cultures, franchise-organised quasi-national entities and corporations which populated Snow Crash have, by the time of The Diamond Age, mostly boiled down to high tech facsimiles of Victorian England and ancient China, nicely paving the way to the author's later historical work, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.

Appropriately enough, The Diamond Age is primarily about a lower class girl, Nell, who stumbles across an interactive book which teaches her how to grow up to become a true queen. In fitting with such a Victorian plot, the prose is rich and even the chapter titles are detailed. This is just as much an imitation of Victorian sensibilities and style as Snow Crash is a representation of cold, franchised ruthlessness. It's no surprise that the latter found a larger contemporary audience.

Another sensibility employed by the author which seems to have been plucked from the Victorian and ancient Chinese cultures is the emphasis on the importance of subtle nuances of etiquette, something you don't often read about in speculative fiction written for hackers. Whether this is to the novel's benefit or detriment is, of course, dependent on the individual reader's taste.

This isn't a book you should read for immediate thrilling entertainment so much as subtle contemplation. You may feel like its pace is slow and not much gets around to happening, and yet months after finishing it you might find yourself fondly recalling the odd snatch of dialogue here or the wry observation there, only to give in and read it all over again. This book is filled with the kind of phrases you'd want to quote to your friends, only they would scarcely make sense out of context.

This is the first of Stephenson's books which I didn't particularly enjoy reading the first time around, in as much as the narrative, as charming and detailed as it is, is such at the expense of being gripping or having much immediate action. You may ask, if I didn't enjoy reading it, why I continued to read his other works and even re-read this one. I read this, and will continue to read Stephenson's other post-Snow-Crash novels, because they fill my mind with interesting ideas and set me wandering down various different paths of thought, further exploring the ideas he presents. These books are the vegetables of the novel world. You won't necessarily immediately enjoy them, but you'll nevertheless benefit from consuming them, something you may perhaps only appreciate a while after the fact.

One of the ideas Stephenson meditates on is about how being raised by an interactive book would affect a child's psyche, and who she would then grow up to be. As one might expect from a novelist who would go on to write with fountain pens on cotton paper and typeset in TeX using Emacs, The Diamond Age is practically a love letter to the medium of the book, that stresses the importance of virtues such as literacy in an imagined future that no longer requires it of its citizens.

You must enjoy reading novels for the sake of it if you're to have any hope of reading anything written by Neal Stephenson since Snow Crash. Stephenson's the kind of person who, if he were to show a character drinking a cup of coffee, would spend several pages detailing the history of coffee houses and showing farmers toiling in their fields before doing so. Unlike Snow Crash, whose hyperbolic, stylised prose betrays its comic book roots, his later work is written as florid prose for old fashioned hardcover book fanatics.

Usually novels are entertainment, read for the primary purpose of exciting the reader, invoking various emotions so she can vicariously live the life of the protagonist. While I'm not entirely convinced that The Diamond Age is gripping as a work of fiction, it's certainly fulfilling the additional roles of a good piece of science fiction, namely to make you think about how it would play out if someone made a particular invention.

In this case, the invention happens to be an interactive book that can almost singlehandedly raise children. An even more important invention, a matter compiler that can create objects out of practically thin air, is already well established by the time of the story's setting, while another, that decentralises the former to completely get rid of authority, is on the verge of being realised. In spite of the enormous impact such inventions would obviously have on societies, the accompanying political struggles seem somewhat forced into the background, allowing Stephenson to concentrate most of his efforts on one main idea of an interactive child-rearing book.

A few themes seem to have become Stephenson staples: there's another example of propagating information via sexual intercourse, this time resplendent with accessories that glow in the dark as part of a strange ritual, but thankfully it's not dwelled upon too much, although it frankly seems somewhat out of place amongst the relatively highbrow main topics; Stephenson continues to use ravens and coyotes as villains, something one of his characters later explains in Cryptonomicon; and there's a reasonable amount of learning about Turing machines. However, all these themes are squarely secondary in comparison to the interactive book.

If these ideas intrigue you, or indeed if ideas in general appeal to you just as much as action, you may just get something out of this weighty tome. In that sense, it's science fiction for responsible adults.

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