Reviews & Commentary

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995)

Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age is a, somewhat indirect, sequel to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash, which explored a world where nation-states had broken down and been replaced by distributed republics called “Franchise Oriented Quasi-National Entities” (FOQNEs)—autonomous enclaves run as franchises of some corporation, party, or ideal, e.g. “Narcolombia” (the Medellin cartel), “CosaNostra Pizza” (the mafia), and so on. The plot concerned a memetic virus modelled on the Sumerian concept of me—a sort of programming language for human brains.

The FOQNEs of The Diamond Age are run by phylesi or tribes, the three most significant of which are New Atlantis (a neo-Victorian corporation ruled by Queen Victoria II), the Han (Han Chinese), and Nippon (Japan). The novel’s plot begins when Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, an “Equity Lord” (share-holder) of New Atlantis, commissions John Percival Hackworth to create the “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”—an interactive book for young girls, designed to teach Finkle-McGraw’s granddaughter Elizabeth all the things neo-Victorian society can’t.

Like all Stephenson novels, The Diamond Age is labyrinthine and expansive, spanning over a decade and at least half-a-dozen focal characters and almost as many conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. But there is one main protagonist, Nell, a young thete girl who comes into possession of an illicit copy of the Primer after it is stolen from Hackworth, who had secretly created a copy for his daughter, Fiona. Hackworth’s attempts at covering up his deception lead to him falling under the influence of both Dr X, a mandarin of the Celestial Kingdom, and the Drummers, a phyle that uses psychotropic nanotechnology to link themselves together in a hive mind. Nell’s and Hackworth’s stories are interwoven with several other plot strands that all affect one another. One of Stephenson’s strengths as a writer is that he doesn’t get lost in all these plot strands, and nor does the reader. The structure of the plot is complex but also logical—it fits together rather like the gears of some intricate Victorian clockwork device.

If the gathering had included more veterans of that elongated state of low-intensity warfare known as Society, this observation would have been keenly made by those soidisant sentries who stood upon the battlements, keeping vigil against the bounders who would struggle their way up the vast glacis separating the wage slaves from the Equity Participants. It would have been duly noted that Gwendolyn Hackworth, though attractive, hard-waisted, and poised, lacked the confidence to visit Lord Finkle-McGraw’s house in anything other than a new dress made for the occasion.

The complexity of his plots is reflected also in Stephenson’s prose; he has a sardonic, slightly distant style, but also a sharp eye for detail, and an enthusiasm for his characters and plots. One of the things I like most about Neal Stephenson is this eye for detail—his way of using details as stepping stones for launching into discussions of the idiosyncrasies of people and their societies and technologies.

Like most of Stephenson’s novels, The Diamond Age is about how individuals create ideals and communities, and about how ideals and communities create individuals. The story’s catalyst is Lord Finkle-McGraw’s plan to use the Primer to create subversives within the neo-Victorian phyle—the artists, idealists, and inventors that the phyle’s regimented society would otherwise suppress. Central to Finkle-McGraw’s motivation is the fact that both he himself and the Primer’s inventor, Hackworth, and in fact all the great imaginations of Atlantis came from outside the phyle; there’s something about neo-Victorian society which stifles creativity. Inherent to his plan is the idea that people are not born into greatness but that people are made great by circumstance. Nell grows into the person she becomes not because she was predestined or genetically predisposed to, but because she was moulded into that role by the book and her circumstances. There’s a sort of feedback loop going on: it’s not only circumstance and society that create individuals, but also individuals that create circumstance.

The Vickys have an elaborate code of morals and conduct. It grew out of the moral squalor of an earlier generation, just as the original Victorians were preceded by the Georgians and the Regency. The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code—but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.

The Diamond Age, then, is a dense, multilayered novel, where Stephenson builds up a complex world—with its phyles and ractors and artifexes and equity lords, and all their various plans and conspiracies—then drops a little girl with a Primer into the middle of it and sees what happens. It is this sense of a single event setting off ripples into an intricately designed world that drives much of my favourite speculative fiction—and it is this that makes The Diamond Age such an exhilarating read.

Written by Kalle on Monday May 2, 2011
Permalink - Category: Books - Tags: 2000s, sf

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