This is a review of the science-fiction book The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.
As much as Snow Crash delved into postcyberpunk, The Diamond Age pushes into the nanotechnological world of science-fiction.
The central locus of this story is the Primer, fully named a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which compliments the role of education in a modern society, made to stream out automatons as children.
The setting is the mid 21st century. The evolution of the Net into a fully secure and automated media form collapsed all of the previous nation-states. They dissipated and new forms of states appeared, aptly named phyles or tribes to which people of different ethnicity belong. The major ones are Neo-Victorian, Han, Nippon, Hindustani and a few others. There are a myriad of smaller phyles, from CryptoNet, First Distributed Republic, Ashanti, Israelis and the Drummers.
The Primer is commissioned by a Victorian Equity Lord named Alexander Finkle-McGraw for his granddaughter Elizabeth. He wants her to grow up in a different way than his own son did. He wants to encourage a certain subversiveness that makes strong individuals coalesce to great destinies. While the Primer compiles in a Matter Compiler, a machine that rearranges energy from the Feed to usable forms such as food and things (like a nano forge vat or something like that, which is common in science-fiction novels exploring nanotechnology), the Artifex John Percival Hackworth makes an illegitimate copy for his own daughter, Fiona for whom he wishes a great future as well.
Unbeknown to him, Dr. X, the man who helped Hackworth create a duplicate wants to get the code to decipher it as well for his own purposes. Dr. X hires hoodlums to get the Primer, but it falls into the hands of Nell, a five year old girl living with her brother Harv and her mother Tequila, as well as her abusive boyfriends.
An important part of the Primer is that it isn’t fully automated. Interactive actors or ractors had to be hired to act out the parts, anonymously. Miranda Redpath takes over all of the racting in Nell’s Primer. She does so for all of Nell’s childhood, effectively raising her with the help of the Primer.
Midway through, Hackworth is condemned to 10 years of prison because of his crimes in the Leased Territories, under Han rule. Dr. X sends him to the Drummers, a secretive sect of humans who live in tunnels underneath the water; they have formed a sort of subconscious hive mentality that could be exploited by apt individuals. During his term, he takes over all of the racting in his daughter’s copy of the Primer. His wife divorces him and he continues on a mission given to him by Lord Finkle-McGraw to discover more of the motives behind Dr. X. The mysterious doctor has his own reasons for putting Hackworth, a brilliant nanotechnological engineer with the Drummers, mainly to put together something they call the Seed, a way of being independent of the Feed and liberating his society.
The Seed, an advanced technology that would allow decentralized compilation of matter (as opposed to the centralized pipelines that currently supply basic molecules through the “Feed”). The “Seed” technology would be advantageous for Chinese culture, which is grounded in peasant labor destroyed by Western industrial society, but is feared as disastrous for Victorian culture, which thrives on precisely these structures of control.
Another important part of this society is mites or nanosites. Mites are small programmable robots (cellular robots) that act as defensive mechanisms for certain phyles or are used in wars. They are distributed and programmed for a variety of uses, such as finding something, defending someone, storing information and killing someone with explosives. The air is saturated with them and everyone, except people living behind an artificial immune system formed by countermites, such as all New Atlantean Claves, has them inside of themselves.
Society is thoroughly cyberntically enhanced, however this is not the focus of this book; the focus is on a society that takes the helm of the old Victorian era in a new format. New Atlantis is ruled by a Queen.
Part of this book concentrates on how Nell acquires all of her formidable skills, from martial arts to discussion and leadership.
By the end of the book, Fiona joins a new sort of theater troupe called Dramatis Personae, her father finds the Alchemist, a quest that he has been on for over 10 years and Nell becomes a real princess. Elizabeth disappeared years ago into CryptoNet and reports have surfaced that she is part of the upper echelons of this phyle, none have confirmed anything. Shanghai is taken over by new forces and Nell finds her mother.
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This is a great book, that is actually a page turner. I finished it in a few days and was glad to read it. I love the concept of the Primer, an interactive book that stores so much data, that a lot of knowledge is contained in it. Also, I enjoyed how old school technology has been integrated in the society that was portrayed here, mainly how smart paper takes written inputs and can store them.
The Primer is an more than an encyclopedia or a reference book. The adventures that Nell lives through the book are simply there to help her learn the skills that she needs.
A good part of the book takes place in the Primer itself, in which we see Nell going through the Land Beyond and learning things at every turn.
Like Greg Bear‘s Queen of Angels, The Diamond Age depicts a world completely changed by the full development of nanotechnology, much as Eric Drexler envisioned it in Engines of Creation (1986). Nanotechnology is omni-present, generally in the form of Matter Compilers and the products that come out of them. The book explicitly recognizes achievements of several existing nanotechnology researchers: Feynman, Drexler and Merkle are seen among characters of the fresco in Merkle-Hall, where new nanotechnological items are designed and constructed.
Exotic technology such as the chevaline (a mechanical horse that can fold up and is light enough to be carried one-handed) and forecasts of technologies that are in development today, such as smart paper that can show personalized news headlines, are personal-use products, while major cities have immune systems made up of aerostatic defensive micromachines, and public matter compilers provide basic food, blankets, and water for free to anyone who requests them.
Matter compilers receive raw materials from the Feed, a system analogous to the electrical grid of modern society. Rather than just electricity, it also carries streams of basic molecules, and matter compilers assemble those molecules into whatever goods the compiler’s user wishes. The Source, where the Feed’s stream of matter originates, is controlled by the Victorian phyle, though smaller, independent Feeds are possible. The hierarchic nature of the Feed and an alternative, anarchic developing technology known as the Seed mirror the cultural conflict between East and West that is depicted in the book. This conflict has an economic element as well, with the Feed representing a centrally-controlled distribution mechanism while the Seed represents a more open-ended emergent behavior method of creation and organization.
The world is divided into many phyles, also known as tribes. There are three Great Phyles; the Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorians (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans, and others who identify with the culture), and Nippon (consisting of Japanese). The novel deliberately makes it ambiguous whether Hindustan (consisting of Hindu Indians) is a fourth Great Phyle or an association of microphyles. In addition to these larger phyles, there are countless smaller phyles. Membership in some phyles, such as the Han and Nipponese, has an ethnic requirement, but the Neo-Victorian phyle and many lesser phyles accept anyone who aspires to live according to the phyle’s mores (for example, one of the Neo-Victorian aristocrats is actually of Korean origin).
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