Neal Stephenson novels are always a treat. It would be inaccurate to say they are formulaic, as each one is uniquely and wildly creative; however, they tend to share some characteristics, for better or worse. Last year I read Snow Crash, and prior to that I read his Cryptonomicon, and can’t help but notice, as others have, that though Stephenson expends considerable energy setting up a complicated plot and a tremendous, realistic world in which it occurs, his plot climaxes are so short and unexpected that one isn’t quite sure if it happened or not.
While Snow Crash sat very solidly in the realm of cyberpunk, The Diamond Age offers a variant of a variant, mating cyberpunk’s stepson, steampunk with nanotechnology. It’s been referred to as “post-cyberpunk”, which I don’t think quite does it justice.
As is custom for *punk novels, the book takes place in the relatively near future, and governmental institutions and nation-states as we know them are largely gone. In contrast to traditional cyberpunk, wherein a token, ineffectual government is overshadowed by powerful, global corporations, The Diamond Age proposes a future wherein people are divided in phyles, which are cultural or political groups, which may or may not existing together under corporate and/or governmental umbrellas. The larger phyles are still cultural ones along national lines, namely the Anglo-Saxons, the Han (Chinese), and the Nippon, as well as the up-and-coming Hindustan, but smaller phyles exist as well.
The technology at the heart of The Diamond Age is speculative nanotechnology. Stephenson imagines an age, based on work by Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle, wherein constructed organic “diamondoid” material at the nanometer scale is so cheap and easy that creating flawless diamonds is actually cheaper than creating glass. At the same time, computers as we know them today don’t exist either, replaced instead by a version which runs using nano-scale gears and “rod logic” rather than transistors.
At the heart of the book are two competing narratives. The first is that of John Percival Hackworth, a nanotech engineer living in the Victorian-era phyle of New Atlantis, who commits a crime in order to make a copy of a new interactive book for his daughter, Fiona. The consequences of his doing so take him on a decade-long journey that I still don’t quite understand.
The book, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, resembles a normal book, but is in reality a very complicated piece of nanotechnology, used to help raise young girls and inculcate critical thinking and engineering skills. Hackworth’s copy accidentally comes into the possession of Nell, the young daughter of a neglectful whore of a mother whose succession of physically1 abusive boyfriends eventually drives Nell and her older brother into the streets. The benefit of the Primer is that it not only acts as a teacher to Nell, but via the use of “ractors”, or paid actors working over a digital network, actually provides a human narration and level of interactivity. Essentially, acting as a surrogate mother.
A good deal of The Diamond Age is told as a story within a story, as the Primer re-tells Nell’s current situations in fairy-tale style, adding dashes of pedagogy (such as not trusting strangers), and making the stores more mature as Nell grows into a teenager. She ends up in an anti-nanotech community, goes to a prestigious school, and never stops using the Primer, though of course she depends on it much less than in her youth.
All this is a very simple summary of what is, in reality, a tangled web indeed. There are a number of intersecting narratives; Hackworth goes on a decade-long mission as a double-agent for the New Atlantis phyle as well as for a rogue Han named Doctor X, which leads him into an underground community called The Drummers which have special powers that Stephenson doesn’t do a good job of explaining, though they are an integral part of this plotline. At one point, his daughter Fiona joins him (Fiona, for whom Hackworth’s illegal copy was originally intended, and who ends up with yet another copy). Other characters orthogonal to the points come and go; allusions to cryptographic networks take readers down deadend speculative paths; Nell takes part in Primer simulations that do little for the story except allow Stephenson to create interesting analogies for Von Neumann architecture.
The abrupt crescendo, when it does come, makes little sense and creates even less satisfaction. Hackworth’s plotline is not only dispiriting, but damn near unintelligible. The resolution of Nell’s plotline is equally strange, crashing into a tangential plot point from much earlier in the book, the resulting wreckage of which is suitable grandiose but rather nonsensical. The book’s end, it seems, is its least satisfying part.
The Diamond Age is interesting for two reasons, and this is a criticism which applies to most of Stephenson’s books (at least all that I have read). First, Stephenson is great at world-building: he has a knack for detail which is typical of “hard” scifi writers and well-grounded speculative fiction writers2, and one gets the impression that in a perfect world, he’d be able to write novels that are nothing but a sandbox, in which there are no central plots, but merely a place for him to speculate about near-future governments and technology; to an extent, this is what his books are anyway, since the plotlines seem a weak and post-hoc addition. The only, well, “plot” structure of this novel which seemed genuinely unique and interesting was Nell’s relationship with her Primer, and her adventures in a fantasy kingdom that teach her boolean logic are great fun… so much so that pivoting back to the murky machinations of Hackworth and inter-phyle politics is something of a letdown.
Even knowing in advance Stephenson’s idiosyncrasies as a writer, I was surprised how much the general messiness of The Diamond Age bothered me. The post-*-punk worldbuilding was interesting, and Nell is perhaps his most human character to date, but the book seems to lack what little narrative focus Stephenson usually does include.