Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

A good friend of mine visited me a few months ago and she brought along a book as a gift. The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer was that book. I have read some of Neal Stephenson's other works; in particular, Snow Crash and Anathem. I enjoyed those two books and have been meaning to read more from him. This was an excellent opportunity to read the book some consider a stepping stone into the steampunk genre, despite the fact that at a glance it doesn't look like a steampunk novel at all.

Click through to read the review. As always, I try to avoid spoilers.

Overall Impression
The book was good and typical of Stephenson's style, at least what I've read from him. A lot of effort goes into describing the world and it's uniqueness. Given the emphasis I place on world building and setting, this makes it enjoyable. However, like his other works, the plot suffers in that it's not clear what the main point of the book is until perhaps the final third or so. We, like the main characters, struggle to figure out what's going on throughout the novel, which on the one hand brings us closer to the characters, but on the other, leaves us blind most of the time.

Plot-wise, the book is weak. As previously mentioned, it's not clear what the point of the story is for most of the novel. The main thing I held on to was that this was a coming-of-age story for Nell. That certainly is the strongest plot line of them all, but the conclusion deals with other things like the Drummers, the turmoil in Shanghai, and the Alchemist and his Seed project. Things do tie up together near the end, but most of the novel we are left wondering "what is this book about?"

Another problem I had with the book was the time cues. Every so often I would be surprised to learn that 1, 2, or even 10 years had passed between events in the prior chapter. It was not subtle and ended up being a bit jarring. It threw me out of the story a few times, particularly when I started wondering how a single book can be continuously read and not be finished after over a dozen years. To be fair, the Primer is no ordinary book, but still.

There are many characters in the story, several of which have viewpoints. The main one, however, is Nell, the young girl who receives the Primer. The novel basically follows her life as she grows and learns from the Primer. The Primer at first looks like a fairy tell, but it is far more than that. It's very interesting when the book anticipates certain events in her life and guides her through possible actions. She amazingly learns martial arts skills as well as how to nanoengineer materials. An odd thing is that a human (Miranda) is reading out loud the text of the novel to her via a future version of interactive entertainment (ractives). Later on, it's clear that the Primer could be read by machines, but apparently this makes all the difference in the world, which is a little hard to swallow.

John Percival Hackworth is another major character. He is a reserved, brilliant nano-engineer. He feels somewhat dissatisfied with his lot in life, yet his ambitions remain small. It is only when he thinks about his daughter's future that he's willing to put everything on the line in order for her to have a more fulfilling life. It is this passion that drives the main events of the story, as Hackworth creates the Primer, covertly copies, and sets the plot moving forward as he seeks the Alchemist and the Seed. Though he is pressured by two superpowers, it's almost never clear which side he's favoring and if he is a double or triple agent.

Setting / World Building
The Diamond Age is considered by many to be a steampunk novel, however, at a glance it is anything but. Steampunk generally is set in alternate history where Victorian ideals are held by society and modern machines exist, but are driven by more primitive means, such as steam power. It is a very popular genre of science fiction and a lot of novels and movies draw elements from steampunk.

The Diamond Age is set in the far future, in an age where anything can be synthesized from Matter Compilers. You can turn on your computer, ask for a new bed, a sword, some lunch, etc, and voila- you have it in a few minutes. This feels like a post-scarcity era, since anything at all can be compiled and thus you could ensure that even the poor and destitute have a home and meals. However, society is far from perfect and the human race is now divided into phyles or tribes which embrace certain ideals.

Many of the main characters are considered neo-Victorian. These are the evolved remnants of Ango-Saxon society and have fallen back to the "good old days" of the Victorian era. They have strict codes of etiquette, which sound appealing in our current age of anything-goes. I can certainly see the rise of such a culture in reaction to our modern times and can understand the appeal steampunk has. This harkening back to the Victorian era is what makes The Diamond Age a steampunk novel, despite all the futuristic technology.

In addition to the neo-Victorians, there are also the Nipponese and the Han as powerful tribes that drive the world. Although it's sometimes weird to consider them as tribes, the book spends some time describing the world and how it came to be. In short, the globalization of economies made countries largely irrelevant so people have grouped themselves in other manners (ideology, culture, etc). The conflict between these tribes helps drive the plot of the story.

Final Thoughts
Despite the meandering plot, I enjoyed the book. I am a big fan of clever constructed worlds and this novel certainly presents one. The characters were cool and I personally identified somewhat with Hackworth, who has trouble blending in and socializing, yet is brilliant in terms of nanotechnology. The socially incompetent scientist may be an overused trope, but sometimes I feel just like that. Characters like Nell or Hackworth, with their similarities and differences to the reader, can, when placed in fantastical situations, broaden our views of society and ourselves.

Having read several of Neal Stephenson's novels, I am not sure I would recommend this one as his best. My favorite thus far has been Anathem, but I hope to continue reading some of his other works and see what else he has to offer.

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