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 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
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 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.