Reading Challenge #75: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

It’s been a while since my previous reading challenge post. There’s two reasons for that. First, there were a bunch of great books that came out in the past couple months that I couldn’t wait to read. Seriously, if you might be interested in the Cthulhu mythos told from the perspective of a Deep One, check out Ruthanna Emrys’ Innsmouth Legacy series. Or if ghost stories from the perspective of a ghost are more your speed, try the Ghost Roads books by Seanan McGuire.

Anyway the second reason it’s been a while between these reading challenge reviews is that this next book is another by Neal Stephenson. You may remember that my reading ground to a halt during the previous book of his that was on the list. I was so dreading going through that again that I kept putting it off. The book is The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, first published in 1995.

So, was my fear validated? Read on to find out!

This story mainly follows Nell, a young girl from a poor background with no particular class standing, who happened to get caught up in someone else’s social experiment. That experiment is in the form of a very special book. Commissioned by a neo-victorian lord, Lord Finkle-McGraw, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is a piece of bespoke nanotech engineering. It’s purpose is to help a young girl lead an “interesting” life, teaching her to be subversive, but not so subversive that she wouldn’t eventually become a functioning member of society.

The Primer was created by an engineer named Hackworth, who made an illicit copy with the intent of giving it to his daughter. Unfortunately it was stolen by Nell’s brother, who brought it home as a gift for her with no idea what it actually was. The Primer uses narrative to teach Nell, adapting to her needs and her surroundings to provide what it thinks will benefit her at the time.

In parallel with Nell, the story also continues to follow Hackworth. After losing the Primer he gets blackmailed by the mysterious “Dr. X” into sharing the plans for it with him and eventually working for him on an undisclosed project. Dr. X needs to be able to mass produce the Primer because he is overseeing the care of thousands of Chinese girls who had been abandoned to the elements as infants. Like Finkle-McGraw, Dr. X is also trying to use the Primer to engineer a better society, just one with a very different cultural pedigree and values.

X and Finkle-McGraw are working at odds with each other on another project though: the development of “seed” technology. This is a next step beyond the “feed” technology that drives material production in the novel. Instead of getting matter and energy via a feed line, the seed tech would let anyone grow anything they need from a “seed”. Dr. X sees it as necessary for his people to be able to thrive without reliance on the western-based tech of the feed. The neo-victorians fear it because it means anyone could make anything they can engineer, including weapons.

Much like the previous Stephenson novel I read for this list (Anathem), this one has many sections where the plot slows to a crawl while we explore some interesting angle of philosophy or technology. Unlike Anathem, The Diamond Age does at least have a plot that isn’t completely crammed into the final quarter of the book. Both of these books have incredibly intriguing ideas at their core, and both fall flat to me because the story felt like a thin wrapper for the idea rather than something of value in its own right. I find this especially interesting coming on the heels of Rendezvous with Rama which seems to have similar failings, but which I wholeheartedly love. Maybe it’s because Rama is an extension of one simple idea rather than a whole textbook chapter, or because Rama story moves along at a reasonable pace and it’s just the characters that are lacking. It might also be that Rama is half the length of Diamond Age. I don’t mind long books when I’m engaged in the story, but that definitely didn’t happen here.

The Diamond Age ends rather abruptly just as Nell disrupts a ceremony/computation that is likely to result in the seed blueprints. On the one hand I do like that it is left a bit ambiguous. We don’t know if the seed will eventually get made anyway (it seems likely) or how the world might change in its wake. On the other hand the story also stops just short of a moment of emotional payoff, of Nell getting to meet the woman who is essentially her mother (who raised her through her work acting out stories for the Primer). There’s a whole theme throughout the book about how Nell is different from other girls with Primers precisely because she has this mother figure, but we miss out completely on any resolution of this thread. For me this just underlines how the thought experiment of societal structure and technology took precedence over the narrative about actual people, and overall left me with a bad taste.

TL;DR: The story of an experiment in trying to improve society by educating subversive young women. Stephenson is great at being thought provoking, but less great at compelling storytelling.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3/5 stars

Next up: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

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