Yesterday, I got into one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels, Snow Crash! And, as I believe I mentioned, that was the novel that put Neal Stephenson on everyone’s radar as the new voice of post-cyberpunk. Well, if that novel established that reputation for him, it was his very next novel, The Diamond Age, that cemented it for him. Years back, a friend recommended I check it out. It was the first of Stephenson’s novels I would ever pick up, and since that time, I’ve been pretty much hooked on what he has to say.
In fact, a little over a year later, I picked this book back up and re-read it. It’s narrative, themes and content are rich to the point that you can read it multiple times and still feel entertained, intrigued and even a little blown away. What’s more, the premise of the book, which is of nanotechnology and the effect it will have on politics, economics and human interaction, could not have been more timely. Whereas Snow Crash came to us in 1992 and predicted the rise of internet communities, information control and the breakup of the US, The Diamond Age came out in 1995 and tackled what is sure to be the “technological singularity” of the coming century, the big game changer that will forever alter the course of human development.
The story opens in the Leased Territories, a slum-like community that exists outside of New Chusan – an artificial island built off the coast of Shanghai. This setting is clearly meant to allude to the European trading colonies of the 19th century, which is something the story comes back to repeatedly. Here, we see Bud, a “thete” (tribeless person) making his way through the world of freelance thuggery, body enhancements and tribal loyalties. This is another ever-present theme of the novel – the sense of ethnic and synthetic tribalism that has arisen now that the nation-states of the world have ceased to exist.
We also meet Nell, the main character of the novel and the daughter of Bud’s girlfriend, Tequila. Through a confluence of events, she finds herself in possession of a revolutionary piece of technology, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is a fully-interactive book meant to educate young girl’s by taking elements of their own lives, combining them with culturally-relevant mythology, and serving as a source of primary education. How she inherits this piece and technology and its role in the story provides the inciting event to the story and helps to introduce the other main characters.
There’s John Percival Hackworth, an engineer who designed the Primer and was trying to smuggle an advanced, illegal copy to his daughter when he was mugged by Nell’s brother, Harv. He is a member of the Victorian phyle, a group of Anglo-Americans looking to recreate a golden age of stability, morality and technological advancement. His activities on the side bring him into contact with Doctor X, a Chinese nanotechnologist and Confucian leader looking to reunite China and free it from foreign entanglements. He manufactures the book for Hackworth, but when he gets into trouble, uses this to blackmail him into designing similar primer’s for the thousands of orphaned Chinese girls he takes care of.
Then there’ Judge Fang, the criminal prosecutor who lives in the Coastal Republic of China and who sentences Bud to death after he’s caught mugging some people. He is also suspicious of Dr. X and is looking to arrest him for what he suspects is human trafficking. However, when he learns that Dr. X has actually created a haven for orphaned girls and is using copies of the Primer to raise them, he comes to enlist with him. Finally, there’s Miranda, a “ractor” (actor in interactive movies) who performs for various clients out of a theater in the Leased Territories. However, her work soon involves performing in the stories of Nell’s Primer, and in time she comes to know her and develops a strong emotional attachment to her.
In between all this, we get a full account of what life is like in a world dominated by nanotechnology. In addition to the phyles and “claves” (enclaves) which have replaced the old system of nation states, people also rely on MC’s (Matter Compilers) to manufacture all of their needs. This has freed people from the traditional problems of manufacturing, supply and demand; but there is still the problem of access, as all MC’s require Feeds (lines that connect them to supplies of raw material) and the more desirable items still cost money.
Things come together when Nell, on the Primer’s urging, leaves her home and joins the clave of New Chusan, effectively becoming a Victorian. Meanwhile, Hackworth, once his own people realize he’s being blackmailed, begins playing the role of double agent so he can find out what Dr. X is up to. His efforts soon lead to his disappearance outside of Vancouver, where he is taken in by a strange society known as “The Drummers”. These people operate in underwater compounds located off the coasts of major centers, perform rhythmic, hypnotic dances and engage in ritualized sex. This act, we learn later, is actually for the sake of information exchange, which is done through the transmission of nanomachines contained within their bodily fluids.
These particular Drummers are working for Dr. X, their purpose being to tap Hackworth’s vast knowledge of engineering so he will be able to complete Dr. X’s secret project for him. For years, Hackworth is amongst them, contributing his knowledge (unwittingly) before he finally wakes up and returns to his people. In that time, he finds that his own daughter, who is roughly Nell’s age, has grown up and his people have all but disavowed him. However, his newly acquired knowledge proves quite useful and he is grudgingly readmitted to Victorian society.
Shortly thereafter, Nell is shown to be all grown up and decides to leave the clave of New Chusan and head back to the Coastal Republic, becoming a ractor just like Miranda. However, before this happens, we continue to see her interaction with the Primer. Gradually, it enhances her numeracy, literacy and problem solving skills. Turing machines make an ongoing appearance, and its clear that Nell is being educated on the evolution of technology by being made to understand increasingly complex machines. Eventually, the story culminates with “Princess Nell” becoming the leader of the “Mouse Army”, a army that when freed, becomes an army of young women. As it turns out, this army are the young girls Dr. X was raising who are in contact with her through their own Primers.
All this takes place against a background of increased tensions as the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” (a reference to 19th century China’s “Boxer Rebellion”) are growing in power and threatening to revolt. Shortly before this happens, Hackworth meets with Dr. X one last time to discuss his plans and what’s to come. Dr. X reveals his intentions which take the form of “The Seed”, a nanotechnological device that grows things out of the Earth like a real seed, and does not rely on Feeds the way the Victorian nanotechnological devices do. The purpose of all this was to arm China with technology that is consistent with its “Chi” (Qi), thus freeing them from having to import foreign technologies that are not compatible with their culture.
Things all come together when the Fists mount their final assault on the Coastal Republic. Hackworth is caught behind their lines and Nell and several clients and coworkers are trapped in their building. They fight their way out, but Nell and her companions are saved with the appearance of the Mouse Army. Seems the girls are now grown, like Nell, and have mobilized to find their leader (Nell) and defeat the Fists. Their army defeats the Fist rebellion just as Hackworth and the other characters escape the violence by heading to another “Drummer” compound located off the coast.
However, there entrance into the compound coincides with another act of ritualized sex. During these rituals, the female participant has sex with several male partners in turn, receiving a store of information which they have in their fluids. When it is done, said female usually undergoes combustion from the sheer amount of heat and energy involved in the process. Hackworth and the others are temporarily pulled in by the hypnotic music, but manage to break away just in time. The story ends with them emerging on the shores of the Leased Territory of New Chusan, hearing the bells coming from the Victorian clave in the background.
Needless to say, I-loved-this-book! It’s exploration of science, society, epistemology, technology, and its many cultural and historical references were both profoundly interesting and downright cool! One could also feel the literary inspirations just piling up throughout, ranging from Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells to the Wizard of Oz and other old Hollywood classics. But what I loved best was the profound sense of historicism that made it into this book.
Take for example the repeated allusions to 19th century China, a time marked by rapid change, growing resentment, and attempts at cultural revival. Stephenson’s predictions for the future played a key role in this respect, predicting that China would split between the interior and the coastal regions, that Communism would be denounced as a “Western philosophy” and the country would return to the state of division and confusion wherein it would be vulnerable to foreign influences. The concept that it would also need or want to find its own way, that it would desire technology that was compatible with its sense of culture, was also very interesting.
In addition, the actual references to historical periods – 19th century China, the original Boxer Rebellion, Confucianism, the Cultural Revolution – were also VERY interesting. As was his explanation of how the moral relativism of the previous century (i.e. 20th) is what led to the creation of the Victorian phyle, a group built on the idea of discipline and moral absolutes (much like their predecessors). His exploration of cultural differences, and how some were “better than others” was also though-provoking, though its not entirely clear if this was a rhetorical or a firm statement.
I was somewhat confounded by this last aspect of the book. True, Stephenson’s predictions have so far been wrong, rather than experiencing collapse and division, China has taken to the path of rapid industrialization and privatization that is likely to make it a solid, albeit polarized and radicalized, competitor in any future world. In addition, I was not entirely clear on whether or not he believed in the idea of cultural superiority, namely how through a commitment to hard work, repression of emotion and the imposition of moral strictures. However, I do believe the point here was meant to be rhetorical and allegorical. Mainly, I think he meant to show how history is full of repeats, how the pendulum swings back and forth and how technology can have a regressive as well as progressive effect on cultures. And in this respect, he was quite apt!
This is not to say that I didn’t love the technological aspects too. Holy crap were they cool! Feeds, Matter Compilrers, nanomachines, rod logic, nanomaterials, etc etc etc. It was to have a profound influence on my own writing as well!
I’ve already mentioned one of the main weaknesses of the book, and that is the predictive aspects which felt like they missed. But as I indicated, it’s not exactly a weakness. Nevertheless, for anyone who was old enough to remember the nineties and has seen what’s become of modern-day China, the notion that they would regress to a revamped 19th century version of themselves, or indeed that they would look backwards for solutions instead of forwards, seemed a tad off. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20 and you can’t exactly fault an author for making predictions that didn’t come true. More often than not, these things are meant to illustrate a point, not as valid predictions they would stake their career on!
And this really was not the big weakness of this book, which was (once again) the ending! As I mentioned in the previous review, Snow Crash established Stephenson’s reputation for writing awkward endings. And this book cemented that too! This time around, the ending was even more truncated and odd, the reader being left with the feeling that not one but several chapters were being left out! For example, what became of Nell and the other main characters? Did she stick around in China to lead the Mouse Army, did the country reunite, and what became of Hackworth and his fellow Victorians once they washed up on shore? What happened with Dr. X’s plans for the Seed? Did China become a powerhouse in its own right like the Victorians, Japan, Hindustan, et al?
There was plenty of room for things to still go wrong and several key decisions that felt like they still needed to be made. In addition, readers were given the distinct impression that Miranda and Nell would come together in the end, but this really didn’t happen. Like everything else, I guess we were meant to imagine what would take place next, being left with a cliffhanger of sorts. Still, even the last sentence felt like the closing scene out of The Sopranos, where everything just ends abruptly and no one has any idea what’s supposed to happen.
The story can also be a bit hard to follow at times and feel a bit hokey. This latter part can easily be forgiven simply by reminding oneself that this is Stephenson, a man who mixes wit, satire and genius so freely that it can oftentimes feel a bit comical. But the complexity of the story and narrative is somewhat more daunting. This is one of the reasons I re-read the book, hoping it would be less vague the second time around. I was marginally correct.
Still, these weakness hardly detract from what it a work of genius and in my opinion, a thumping good read! For anyone interested in what the next great technological leap will look like, or who’s interested in a futuristic tale full of cultural/philosophical/technological/psychological and educational departures, I strongly recommend this novel!