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THE DIAMOND AGE, by Neal Stephenson

by Kate McDonnell

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A Nanotech Future

The first thing people said when I mentioned I was reading The Diamond Age was "how does it compare to Snow Crash?" It's impossible to approach the more recent book without considering Neal Stephenson's earlier success, so I will say up front that I enjoyed Diamond Age at least as much, and found the writing richer and more complex, if more whimsical and lacking in Snow Crash's headlong momentum.

The Diamond Age posits an intricately imagined nanotech future in which nations no longer exist: people gravitate to "phyles" of like-minded individuals, large disseminated groups which afford them protection, work and a more or less predetermined lifestyle. Possibly the richest and most influential phyle is the New Victorians, who are disciplined, wealthy and tend to design and control (although not to slavishly make use of) high technology. People from poorer phyles work for them and make handicrafts so they can enjoy a largely re-created culture in protected areas in various pleasant spots around the world.

A highly placed engineer-artifex, John Percival Hackworth, is approached by the aged Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw with the commission to invent a device that will educate his granddaughter beyond the complacency which he fears will be the Victorians' downfall. Hackworth creates the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer of the book's title. It is not merely a book, but a vastly complex multimedia device designed to evolve itself in response to its user. But he makes a fatal error: he pirates a copy of the book for his own young daughter and loses it in a trivial mugging. The book is snatched by a thete -- a classless person, an illiterate boy who brings it home and gives it to his little sister Nell, whose life is gradually transformed by it.

An outline of the plot hardly begins to suggest the book's overwhelming wealth of detail. Stephenson sometimes tells rather more than you want to know about the technical basis of the gadgets that encrust the story, so that at times it's not clear whether the background is an excuse for the plot or vice versa. But it isn't done crudely: the details are woven into the storyline itself so that they're not extraneous. The issue of how this society will confront yet another major upheaval in its social and technological fabric is crucial to the story, and isn't resolved in the orchestration of plot elements that closes the book. That's not a criticism: there's nothing wrong with leaving the reader wondering how such a society would evolve, and I hope Stephenson won't be tempted into the morass of sequel-writing which has trapped so many sci fi writers.

What elevates the book is its high spirits and sense of fun. Stephenson must've enjoyed imagining all the hard-science geeks plowing through the pages of children's-book prose spoken by the primer -- stories crucial to the plot in oblique but interesting ways so that they can't be skipped. He also contrives to create plausible characters called Dr. X and Judge Fang and hints that another character is someone from Snow Crash -- although this isn't too obvious a maneuver and I admit to being quite pleased to notice it. Besides that, in one of the scenes of greatest tension he tosses off a comic riff so funny he had me laughing out loud on a crowded city bus.

In its lighthearted homage to the 19th century, with detailed chapter headings like a book from the era, this is what Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine tried and failed so miserably to be.

A minor carp: the book is long, at 500 pages in paperback, and it's typeset in tightly-leaded Palatino with the children's-book passages in a faint and nearly-illegible size of Optima. Bad move -- not a book to read in a dim cafe.

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