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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Overall Score: 5/6
In total, The Diamond Age receives 35 out of 42
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.