08 February 2013

The Diamond Age

Sorry for the unexplained hiatus…

I’ve been working on Susanna Clarke’s mammoth Hugo winner, applying for grad school, and spending time having fun being a dad who is not as much worried about finishing this thing on time.  I think I’m back now, though posts will probably continue to be sparse until I get through both Clarke’s and Vinge’s leviathan novels.  Anyway…let’s finish off the damn 90’s!  Woot!

Think you can guess what the “Mom Pick” will be?


The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
1996 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Public Library
455 Pages

The Diamond Age is the age of the rampant proliferation of (seriously cool) nanotechnology, limited-to-no government, and a social structure that is more or less organized around class/ethnic districts.  While nanotechnology has revolutionized the production of goods, the organization and policing of cities, and the consumption of media, extremes in the distribution of wealth and power persist…

What I liked
I love that The Diamond Age unfolds just a bit at a time.  In the case of the nanotech achievements, this means a slowly telescoping view of daily-life, which now boasts such wonderful toys as: matter compliers (they’re like microwaves…in that they have buttons and doors anyway), microscopic (and biological) surveillance, scary-smart media (both “paper” and video), and basically anything can be made lighter-than-air.

Stephenson lets us in on a whole world of tech practically one element at a time so that we’re still learning how things work right up until the end.  Each piece of tech seems to allude to another entire novel’s worth of other possibilities so much so that one gets the sense that there are two separate (and successful) endeavors at worldbuilding taking place in the same book – the cultural and the nanotechnological.

Despite radical mechanical and structural design, Stephenson conveys the smallest and every detail in a way that is understandable, not boring, and which maintains the pace and excitement of whatever is actually happening.   The logistics of how the Primer works might have been the only instance when I might have wanted a mental reversal of fortune, but I figure that’s bound to happen at some point whether it’s warranted or not when a book is so crammed full of endless information.

People are telescopes too.

Stephenson relies on dual narratives, which have been used in not a few of the Hugo winners thus far.  At the same time, he introduces a false protagonist, which has become one of my favorite tropes these days.  The combination establishes the disparity of economies and access across districts but further amplifies the extent of Nell’s privation even in a district composed almost solely of a terrifying mix of despondency and abuse – it places her in a well at the bottom of a mine shaft, which was instantly endearing.  I’m restraining myself from delving too deeply here; Nell made me want to cry a lot.

But back to the point, Stephenson only releases those details in small bites as a result of the transitions between narratives, Nell’s ignorance, and the Primer’s method of instruction.  Somehow this works out to make Nell’s life both easier and harder to cope with sometimes.  The end result is a novel that seamlessly ranges from bad-ass engineering and mechanical descriptions to heart-thumping emotional distress.

What I didn’t like
The book ended.

The Diamond Age is an exciting example of where crossing subgenres can take us.  I’ve personally always been pretty attuned to more similarities than differences between steampunk and cyberpunk, so this worked really well for me.  I would recommend this book to nearly anyone.  Just be prepared for a bipolar reading experience.


Universe 3/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 4/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Characters 4/5

Overall 21/25


  1. Ooh, time for a re-read, I think.

  2. Ooh, time for a re-read, I think.

    1. Sure, right after you finish the rest of Hugos right? ;-)

      Was this consistent with your thoughts when you first read it?

  3. Good luck with the grad school applications! I'm on the other end of that journey right now, trying to get graduated and employed :).

    I really enjoyed The Diamond Age, too. I said at the end of my review, "I had so much fun reading the book that I was mostly disappointed that it had ended at all," so I think we're on the same page with this one!

  4. This is one of the few Stephensons I haven't read. And i've got a copy, which means I have no excuse.

    1. No excuse other than the thousands of other books also waiting to be read ;-)


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