Monday, October 11, 2010

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age is a fascinating Sci-Fi novel that takes place in a future where nanotechnology has become so commonplace that everyone, even the very poor, has access to it. The story centers on a young girl named Nell and the path that her life takes after she accidentally receives an amazing piece of technology (the primer). What starts as a story about a little girl who is stuck in the slums turns into a sweeping mini-epic that spans decades and changes the landscape of the entire world!

As with other Stephenson novels, the plot is so layered and nuanced that I can't competently describe it in too much detail without giving exciting plot-points away. I can, however, discuss some of the central themes of the novel that I found fascinating. One of the main themes examines the way that culture has developed in the world of The Diamond Age. The world has split into many different phyles, (or tribes) these phyles define the culture of the people within them. For example, the neo-Victorians style themselves after English Victorians while The Han are deeply connected to Confusion teachings. There are also many smaller phyles such as the mysterious hive-mind drummers who live underwater or the technology-driven CryptNet. Stephenson spends a lot of time showing how the characters of this world deal with their own identity and reconcile it with the cultural identity of their tribe. Another theme deals with the availability of technology. As we are introduced to the world we see that hunger has been all but eliminated because all people have access to public matter compilers that can create food, furniture, clothing, etc. However the feed of atoms to the matter compilers is controlled by the state, and there is a philosophical discussion over whether or not the flow of matter should be controlled at all.

This book is an amazing ride from start to finish. The story starts very small and over the course of the novel expands to deal with events that change the course of the world. I can definitely see Stephenson's style transitioning from the his early style (Snow Crash / Zodiac) to his later style (Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, Anathem) He uses some very cool narrative techniques in this story. A large part of the book deals with Nell's adventures in The Primer. These adventures are connected to her real life in that they help form her as a person, yet the experiences also stand alone as a self-contained story that is quite entertaining and informative. One of these stories teaches Nell binary and the origins of computers in a way that is so easy to understand that you come away from it with a whole new perspective on what computers are and what they can do. This book is a great read, it doesn't have a lot of the heavy technical sidetracks that turns some people off of Stephenson's other books, and his view of how the existence of nanotech would change the world is exciting to experience! Often in SciFi there is a tendency to use nanotech as a type of future-magic, but Stephenson shows its usage in some very practical ways (food creation) that have huge ramifications to society as a whole. Of course he shows some of the other more miraculous ways that it can be used; to create a fantasy-island for a little girl's birthday party. The Diamond Age is a gem of a novel and as with all Stephenson's books it will have you thinking about it long after you've finished reading it.

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