Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age (or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer) by Neal Stephenson
Published: Bantam Spectra, 1995
Awards: Hugo Award, Locus SF
Nominated: John W. Campbell Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award
Sub-genres: Nanotechnology, Cyberpunk
The Book:
In a future where nanotechnology is so commonplace that it literally fills the air, even the poorest levels of society have access to basic food and clothing via “matter compilers”.  Rather than nations, ideological phyles are the most important distinctions between groups of people.  One of the richest of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, embrace the strict etiquette and manners of dress of the British Victorian era.
The Neo-Victorian nano-engineer John Percival Hackworth finds himself assigned the high-profile job of creating an educational book for a Victorian nobleman’s granddaughter.  This “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” is an interactive book that is intended to educate and entertain. More importantly, it is also intended to instill a certain subversive attitude that will help a young girl become the kind of risk-taker that is capable of shaping the future of society.
Hackworth makes an additional, illegal copy to give to his own daughter. Through an unforeseen sequence of events, the Primer finds its way to Nell, a lower-class little girl who lives with her neglectful mother, protective brother, and a string of her mother’s abusive boyfriends.  The primer becomes Nell’s invaluable companion as she struggles to make her way through this highly complicated world.
I bought this book at a used book sale, since I had heard a lot of positive opinions of Neal Stephenson’s work.  This is the first novel I’ve read by Neal Stephenson, and it was really entertaining.
My Thoughts:
There were a lot of narrative threads in this book.  For the most part, they were tied in some way to the central stories of Nell and John Percival Hackworth.  For instance, the story often jumped from Nell to a seemingly unrelated subplot that might have some future influence on her life.  These subplot threads almost seemed to be picked up and discarded at random.  There could be a series of chapters talking about a really interesting minor character, and then that character was never mentioned again, or their story was never resolved.  Among others, these interesting minor characters include Carl Hollywood, Constable Moore, Judge Fang, Dr. X, Fiona, Lord Finkle-McGraw, and the Dramatis Personae.  The lack of closure on many subplots at the end of the book was a little jarring, but I enjoyed reading it so much that it didn’t bother me as badly as it might have otherwise.
Of the two ‘main’ storylines, I was really interested in Nell, and kind of bored with Hackworth.  I found it really intriguing how Nell’s life story was told partially in reality, and partially through the interactive stories from the Primer.   Nell came from a terrible home life, and she had tremendous odds stacked against her very survival.  I appreciated that Nell was not secretly the daughter of some major player in the world.  I enjoy stories about people who succeed due to their own determination, not due to their pedigree and born privilege. Hackworth, on the other hand, was an engineer who got into a fair bit of trouble when he made the illegal copy of the Primer.  He had plenty of trials and tribulations, but I didn’t really care all that much about whether he made it through.  His story was interesting enough, but I felt that it lacked the emotional depth of Nell’s story. 
 As for the writing itself, The Diamond Age was incredibly information dense. Often physical descriptions verged into short digressions about history, politics, or science.   I liked reading these asides, as it was primarily through them that the reader learns about the world and how it works.  Sometimes there were even descriptions of things common to current-day life described in an amusingly fresh way (such as sex-based advertising or KFC).  Beyond the deliberately out-of-date Victorian etiquette, I don’t think this book really felt dated.  I don’t think any of the changes in society since 1995 have rendered The Diamond Age’s fictional future obsolete.
My Rating: 4/5
I enjoyed reading The Diamond Age.  The world was interesting, and the prose was quirky and densely packed with information.  There were a lot of unresolved subplots, and the ending was very abrupt, but I had so much fun reading the book that I was mostly disappointed that it had ended at all.


  1. I had trouble with this book, particularly the density of information. I found I was losing momentum and the plot. Admittingly, I did read it after "Snow Crash" and expected a similar adventure. At the time I knew little about Stephenson and his ability to 're-invent' the genre with almost every new novel. Your review has convinced me to re-read.

  2. I hope you enjoy it the second time around! I can definitely see how the style wouldn't work for everyone. "Snow Crash" is the next Stephenson book I plan to read, so I'm looking forward to seeing the differences between the two novels.

  3. I like this: "In a future where nanotechnology is so commonplace that it literally fills the air".

    I guess I didn't care much about Hackworth either, though I did worry that he might somehow prevent Nell from improving herself by getting caught.

    And I was also so absorbed in Nell's story that I didn't even pay much attention to those unresolved bits, but you're right, there are a lot of loose threads in this one.

    1. I think that was mostly my worry about Hackworth, too. Nell was a wonderful character, though. She also made me want to cry a lot (as you said in your review).

      I think the unresolved bits were one reason I was so sad to see it end. It seemed like there was so much more to the story, it could have easily just kept going!