The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel depicts a late twenty-first century transformed by nanotechnology– and the second reign of Queen Victoria.

Title: The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

Author: Neal Stephenson.

ISBN: 0-553-38096-6

Buy from: Amazon.com or
Amazon.ca

Premise:

In a near future dominated by a new tribalism, a waif receives a technological marvel that fundamentally changes her life. Her new path will entangle with instructive fables, a renegade neo-Victorian engineer, a mysterious collective of drummers, cross-cultural conflicts, a futuristic Boxer Rebellion, and a powerful army of little girls.

High Points:

Stephenson uses mythology, folklore, archetype in engaging ways. They appear most obviously in the Primer itself, but they’re actually handled more impressively in the novel’s plot. Hackworth’s quests, his faerie-fell time with the Drummers, and Nell’s godlike sacrifice and ascension all have obvious mythic antecedents.

Stephenson excels at the (usually satiric) depiction of culture and etiquette. The Diamond Age shines when these are its focus.

Low Points:

Stephenson handles Nell’s childhood abuse effectively. He provides enough information, focusing on memorable, telling details that encapsulate the situation. The scenes should disturb readers a great deal, but they’re not excessive. They permit us to understand the experience and the characters. Much later, however, the Righteous Fist capture Nell. When describing this later torture and rape, Stephenson falters. After an appropriately messy start, he gives us too little emotional content (In particular, I think he mishandles the rape) while describing a degree of torture that should leave Nell incapable of acting as she does a short time later. The resulting scenes are disturbing, and yet they understate the impact these actions would have—even on the older, skilled Nell.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6. Science fiction was beginning to explore nanotechnology in the early 90s. Stephenson here is part of a trend, but he takes the hypothetical technology in some interesting directions. He gets additional points for the quantity and quality of his ideas, including the Neo-Victorians. While I doubt they’ll exist in reality, he has their presence in the twenty-first century make perfect sense. I only wish he had explored this society more fully. Some of the mock-Victorian attitude and humor gets lost in the second half, and the novel is poorer for it.

The cyberpunk of the 80s clearly had an impact on this novel, as it did on Snow Crash.

Imagery: 6/6 Stepheson creates a memorable society filled with memorable imagery. He might have done more with the Drummers, but he makes up for the lapses in his descriptions of future Shanghai and Nell’s adventures with the Primer.

Story: 4/6. Stephenson weaves together disparate narrative strands into something unexpected and coherent. Inevitably, the novel feels disjointed in places, and a number of potentially interesting threads get shortchanged. Many readers also will be disappointed by the novel’s uncertain ending.

Characterization: 5/6 The Diamond Age features interesting characters. They’re not equally developed, and some disappear from the story. This makes sense in some cases, though I felt cheated that Judge Fang vanished, and I wish we could have spent more time with Miranda.

Emotional Response: 5/6. Stephenson manages a number of emotionally powerful scenes, especially when narrating Nell’s childhood.

The novel includes humorous moments, though the book is not as consistently funny as Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash. As in those novels, Stephenson’s satire and his drama sometimes act at cross-purposes.

Editing: 5/6.

Overall Score: 5/6

In total, The Diamond Age receives 35 out of 42

Notes

The Diamond Age takes place in the second half the current century. It could be read as occuring in the same universe as Snow Crash. The phyles are developed versions of the fragmented cultures and “burbclaves” of the earlier novel, and Stephenson hints that Miss Matheson may be Snow Crash‘s adolescent skate kid Y.T. as an elderly woman.

Stephenson’s futuristic novel plays with some comparatively traditional notions :

-Race has no real significance, but culture does.
-Some cultures are inherently superior to others.
-The previous idea may be true, but belief in it can have dangerous consequences.
-Nanotechnology will transform society, but no technology can replace the human factor.

9 replies on “The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”

  1. chad says:

    My Take
    I wrote an amazon.com review for The Diamond Age, back when I was motivated to do that type of stuff. Here’s what I said:

    (4/5 stars) Good book, but some flaws

    I’ve just finished reading the previous 178 reviews, and have to agree with the main themes:

    1) The ending is abrupt and leaves major storylines unresolved.

    2) The book is not light reading. It reminds me of the old Far Side cartoons which were hilarious to some but incomprehensible to others.

    3) The peek at a possible future is excellent, especially the use of nanotechnology.

    Most of the reviews speak of the "Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer" as a book that teaches a girl how to survive on the streets and to be an independent thinker. What they don’t mention, and what I think is vital, is that one of the main themes in the design of the book was "subversion". The book was meant to guide a young girl on her path to becoming a free-thinking and subversive woman. Such a person would inevitably become a force, either positive or negative, in the book’s rigid society.

    Having read 3 of Mr. Stephenson’s books (Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and Diamond Age), I must agree that each one has a somewhat abrupt ending — although Diamond Age seems to be the worst. In general, Mr. Stephenson tends to leave storylines open and let the reader’s imagination take over. While this is a valid literary style, it quickly gets annoying.

    While Diamond Age may not have been a straight cyberpunk novel, the environment is certainly similar to what you see in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. In essence, future society has broken down into "tribes" with a significant barrier dividing the upper and lower classes. The story contains quite a bit of the Oriental class (caste?) system that you see in cyberpunk, and it also adds a Victorian class system that isn’t much different.

    I noticed that a significant number of reviewers were upset because Diamond Age wasn’t as "good" as Snow Crash. I agree. This book is NOT another Snow Crash, nor is it a Cryptonomicon, and I enjoyed both of those books more than I enjoyed this one. That is not, however, a reason to give the book a bad review.

    In general, I enjoyed this book but did not keep it after I finished reading it.

    My full list of reviews can be found here, although most of them aren’t as detailed as this one.

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    • Timeshredder says:

      Re: My Take

      1) The ending is abrupt and leaves major storylines unresolved.

      3) The peek at a possible future is excellent, especially the use of nanotechnology.

      I would say you’ve identified a major flaw and a major draw.

  2. chad says:

    Y.T. / Matheson

    Stephenson hints that Miss Matheson may be Snow Crash’s adolescent skate kid Y.T. as an elderly woman.

    Can you be more specific about the hints? I didn’t catch this when I read the book.

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    • Gaewyn says:

      Re: Y.T. / Matheson

      Stephenson hints that Miss Matheson may be Snow Crash’s adolescent skate kid Y.T. as an elderly woman.

      Can you be more specific about the hints? I didn’t catch this when I read the book.

      "Chiselled Spam," Miss Matheson said, sort of mumbling it to herself.
      "Pardon me, Miss Matheson?" Nell said.
      "I was just watching the smart wheels and remember an advertisement from my youth," Miss Matheson said. "I used to be a thrasher, you know. I used to ride skateboards through the streets. Now I’m still on wheels, but a different kind. Got a few too many bumps and bruises during my earlier career, I’m afraid."

      • Timeshredder says:

        Re: Y.T. / Matheson

        "Chiselled Spam," Miss Matheson said, sort of mumbling it to herself.
        "Pardon me, Miss Matheson?" Nell said.
        "I was just watching the smart wheels and remember an advertisement from my youth," Miss Matheson said. "I used to be a thrasher, you know. I used to ride skateboards through the streets. Now I’m still on wheels, but a different kind. Got a few too many bumps and bruises during my earlier career, I’m afraid."

        Thanks! I was going to have to wait ’til I got home to find the quotation. A quick search, however, revealed that wiki’s article has a passage on the links between the two novels.

  3. dcheesi says:

    Funny?

    The novel includes humorous moments, though the book is not as consistently funny as Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash. As in those novels, Stephenson’s satire and his drama sometimes act at cross-purposes.

    Funny? You found Cryptomonicon funny!? Personally I found Crypto to be as dry as a tomb compared with Snow Crash (or his even earlier Zodiac). Then again, I never could get all the way through Crypto or any of his later novels…

    • Timeshredder says:

      Re: Funny?

      You found Cryptomonicon funny!?

      I found The Barocque Cycle a little dry, as I said in my reviews, but I frequently laughed reading Cryptonomicon.

    • chad says:

      Re: Funny?
      The whole Cryptonomicon section on writing a business plan had me laughing. Then later on when he was asked why they were going to all this effort: "Umm… to increase shareholder value?" Just writing it down has me laughing again.

      Cryptonomicon kept me riveted, but I couldn’t do The Baroque Cycle. "Dry" is an understatement. I read a couple hundred pages or so of the first book and just gave up. For those of you who’ve read it, does the plot actually go anywhere?

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      • frunk says:

        Re: Funny?

        Cryptonomicon kept me riveted, but I couldn’t do The Baroque Cycle. "Dry" is an understatement. I read a couple hundred pages or so of the first book and just gave up. For those of you who’ve read it, does the plot actually go anywhere?

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        I struggled through the first book, but I thought the second and third were excellent. On the whole I think the Baroque Cycle could have been edited down to approximately two books, with a large part of Quicksilver removed entirely.

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