The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age; or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

What did it win?

Hugo Award 1996

What’s it all about?

A little girl living in the 21st century accidentally receives a marvelous book which prepares her to become a hero.

Was it really any good?

Parts of it. Like Snow Crash, Stephenson’s wildly successful cyberpunk novel, it begins with a bang. Just get a load of the first paragraph:

The bells of St. Mark’s were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun. Bud had a nice new pair of blades with a top speed of anywhere from a hundred to a hundred and fifty kilometers, depending on how fat you were and whether or not you wore aero. Bud liked wearing skin-tight leather, to show off his muscles. On a previous visit to the mod parlor, two years ago, he had paid to have a bunch of ‘sites implanted in his muscles – little critters, too small to see or feel, that twitched Bud’s muscle fibers electrically according to a program that was supposed to maximize bulk. Combined with the testosterone pump embedded in his forearm, it was like working out in a gym night and day, except you didn’t have to actually do anything and you never got sweaty. The only drawback was that all the little twitches made him kind of tense and jerky. He’d gotten used to it, but it still made him a little hinky on those skates, especially when he was doing a hundred clicks an hour through a crowded street. But few people hassled Bud, even when he knocked them down in the street, and after today no one would hassle him ever again.

Well, if that doesn’t get you hooked then I reckon you must be dead. This is Stephenson at this best, and at his best what he is all about is speed. This fixation on velocity has, I take it, something to do with the fact that in the future our dangerously abbreviated attention spans and cravings for raw stimulation will have reduced us all to creatures like Ben: rocketing through urban streets on power skates at 100 km/h while our bodies are jerked off by the latest nanotech. Stephenson’s characters don’t spend a lot of time thinking; they are too busy just trying to react to their environment.

The other thing Stephenson does well is social commentary, which has led to his being hailed as a kind of prophet-guru of the information age and even made him a feature on the corporate lecture circuit. I have to admit I find this strange, since a lot of what he has to say seems to me to be fairly typical by SF standards (most of it is warmed-over Gibson, with the current Victorian fetish thrown in here for good measure), and the trendspotting is nothing any reasonably intelligent and well-informed observer might be expected to come up with. In the end, nobody reads SF to find out “what’s going to happen.” And while Stephenson’s ideas about morality (hypocrisy is the only moral sin in a relativistic world) and technology ( we have to shift our focus from “feed” to “seed”) are certainly provocative, they are no different in kind from the commentary you find on the opinion pages of a lot of popular magazines.

Which leaves us, as always, with the story itself and its presentation.

As you can tell from that opening paragraph, Stephenson is one hip writer; but there’s more to it than just the super-speedy, satirical wit. The most noticeable aspect of his style is the vocabulary, which is often flamboyantly artificial and difficult. The text is littered with words I didn’t even bother looking up, like “callipygious,” “cineritious,” and “concinnitous,” while the Primer itself is subtitled “a Propaedeutic Enchiridion” (a handbook or manual conveying preliminary instruction – you can thank me later).

Unfortunately, and again like Snow Crash, Stephenson can’t sustain the crack-a-jack pace. The second half of the novel is very dull. There is no clear conflict to speak of and the structure of the story is very uncertain. It’s never clear what kind of conclusion the book is building toward, and even at the end there are many questions left unanswered. Looking back, I couldn’t understand why Stephenson had introduced so much material that was irrelevant. Is there supposed to be a sequel on the way? If so, isn’t the first book in a series supposed to leave me wanting more, rather than wishing the author had quit while he was ahead?

And why is it that SF writers always feel they have to end their novels with some kind of earth-shaking apocalypse anyway? When was the last time I read one of these things where the fate of a planet wasn’t at stake? For the record, I have no idea what is supposed to be going on at the end of The Diamond Age. Like most contemporary SF it has revolutionary overtones, but it’s hard to tell who is rebelling against what. The book spends a lot of time describing a rigid class structure (another common motif in the new SF), but the climactic uprising is more a kind of millennial transformation in technology with odd geopolitical repercussions than it is a revolution against the ruling elite. What any of it means I can only guess.

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