Book #17 for 2011: The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson wrote one of the best, and certainly most surprising, science fiction novels of the 1990s. It was called Snow Crash and it started off with one of the most dazzling opening sequences of any book I’ve ever read in any genre. In the first two or three dozen pages Stephenson manages not only to introduce the main character (whose name is — get ready to groan — Hiro Protagonist) and dole out extensive exposition about the novel’s complicated premise (a post-nationalist future where countries have, in effect, been replaced by franchises), but also holds the reader almost continuously spellbound with one of the most audacious action sequences I’ve ever read, all of of it concerning…a pizza delivery.
But perhaps the greatest surprise of Snow Crash was Stephenson’s writing style, which at its best combines the balls-out head-over-heels velocity of Tom Wolfe with the Japanese-influenced geek hipness of David Mitchell. His prose is funny, satirical and deadly serious, pretty much all at the same time. In fact, Stephenson is one of those rare novelists who is equally at home with plot, character, style and — most importantly for a science fiction writer — ideas. And in the opening sequence of Snow Crash he manages, in an amazing balancing act, to excel at all of these things simultaneously.
The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was his 1995 Hugo-Award-winning follow-up to Snow Crash and it’s one of the most impressive novels of ideas I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, he doesn’t repeat the marvelous expository balancing act of Snow Crash and he too often lets the ideas overwhelm the other aspects of the story. Instead of the high velocity introduction to the novel’s future millieu that Stephenson gave the reader in Snow Crash, we get approximately 200 pages (out of the 537 pages assigned the book by my Nook) of dense exposition, world building and character introduction, without any clear idea of the direction in which the novel is going. Once that direction becomes clear, however, the novel takes off and becomes as readable as anything I’ve had my hands on this year.
The Diamond Age (which is what I’ll call it from now on) is about a future in the process of transitioning to a nanotechnological economy. In layman’s terms, this means that almost any kind of object, from clothing to food to vehicles to buildings, can now be manufactured in a few hours from relatively cheap raw materials using a “matter compiler,” or MC, a kind of programmable mini-factory that everyone has access to. Poverty hasn’t gone away, but the poor are no longer hungry or shabbily dressed. Because the business of making things is now handled almost entirely by computer, the activity of human beings has shifted largely to the business of entertainment, mostly toward “ractives,” interactive diversions that are closer to a cross between a play and a video game than to current TV shows and movies (which in Stephenson’s future are known as “passives”). Much as society had balkanized itself into franchises in Snow Crash, the society of this nanotech-driven world has broken down into “phyles,” social groupings bound together by common ethnicity or philosophies. The most influential of these phyles are the Neo-Victorians, or Vickies, who have essentially reinvented the Victorian Age.
The plot of The Diamond Age, when it finally emerges, concerns a very extraordinary ractive called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which takes the form of a children’s book. The Primer is interactive not only in the sense that it interacts with the reader but in that it changes with the state of the world around it, and not always in predictable ways. The book is supposed to be one of a kind, commissioned by a high-ranking Vicky lord for his granddaughter, not only to teach her her ABCs but to instill in her (unknown to her stodgy parents) a kind of subversive mentality that refuses to accept the status quo of the society she lives in.
The book doesn’t remain a one-of-a-kind item for long. The programmer who designs it has a second copy surreptitiously (and quite illegally) made for his daughter. But that copy is stolen by a group of young thugs, one of whom gives it to his little sister. And the book’s existence comes to the attention of a benevolent Asian crime lord named Dr. X, who has copies made to give to thousands of orphan girls who have been abandoned in the wilderness by parents who simply have no interest in raising daughters.
If that (very incomplete) description of the plot strikes you as a bit overwhelming, it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as it is in the book, and that’s the novel’s central flaw. Stephenson has no interest in making this story easy for the reader to get into, the way he did in Snow Crash. You shouldn’t even attempt to read it if you don’t know what nanotechnology is, don’t know what a Turing machine is or have no idea what makes a shape “fractal.” I do know something about these things and I still very nearly gave up on the book in those first 200 pages, where I wasn’t sure what characters I should be focusing on or what plot threads would turn out to be rewarding. But I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t. The latter half of the book (much of which is a story within a story, based on the contents of the Primer) is often exciting and stirring and Stephenson ends the book on a hopeful note of revolution concerning those thousands of girls raised on the subversive primer. If The Diamond Age lacks the sheer pyrotechnic velocity of Snow Crash, it also shows Stephenson’s subsequent maturity as a writer, and I’m looking forward to reading the books — there are five of them so far — that he’s written in the 16 years since he wrote this one.