“The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson


The Diamond Age is set a few hundred (?) years in the future, when mastery of nanotechnology has brought the world into a post-scarcity state.  Massive structures called the Feeds pull in raw materials, break them down to their molecular or atomic levels, then use these ingredients in matter compilers to create items on-demand.  Like 3D printers for anything, or like Star Trek’s replicator.  The catch is that, while Feed lines are ubiquitous, their bandwidth is not.  Only the wealthy tribes can afford massive and quick production of whatever they can dream up.  (Everyone else at least has food and shelter taken care of though, so that’s good.)

“Tribes?” you mutter?  Yes, the world’s governments have collapsed, and people have organized generally along lines of mutually shared values rather than nationality.  The story mainly takes place in and around Shanghai, but is concerned mostly with the Neo-Victorian “clave” (enclave).  The Vickys (a term they find offensive) reject the moral relativism of the 20th century and instead hearken back to the heyday of the British Empire of the 19th; indeed claiming that the carefully governed morality of that age and people is precisely what made it so great.

Alexander Chung-Suk Finkle-McGraw is a Neo-Victorian Equity Lord (one of those with a non-insignificant stake in controlling and maintaining the Feeds) who is dissatisfied with the life he sees ahead for his granddaughter.  He’s convinced that education fails to instill a certain “subversive” or creative / confident quality that is absolutely essential for innovation — something that the founders of a great endeavor certainly possess by definition, but something that is frequently missing from the second and following generations due to excessive conservatism and lack of real-world trial and testing.

So, Finkle-McGraw commissions a special book for his granddaughter, “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” from one of the greatest nanotechnological engineers of the day, John Percival Hackworth (“Hack”-er, get it?).  This is no ordinary book; it almost magically adapts to the reader and is designed to teach anything naturally and in-depth, while also forcing the reader to learn to solve problems and be self-reliant.  Kind of reminded me of Wikipedia crossed with a massive, personalized computer RPG.  A kind of weak part of the story is the link to and reliance on “ractors” (reactive actors), real people to provide voiceovers for the book’s stories.  The reason given, that a computer-generated voice could never be as realistic, is kind of lame … but maybe the uncanny valley will reign forever, who knows.

A copy of this book ends up in the hands of Nell, a girl among the (still) many poor and miserable denizens of this future world of wonders.  The parts where Nell is reading through the Primer are actually very charming — she has a pretty miserable and abusive real-world existence, but in the Primer she is a fairy tale Princess, and her friends there teach her things that actually help her overcome her real problems.  Nell becomes the ideal leader and innovator that Finkle-McGraw was hoping for, but the Primer didn’t seem to work for some others, so maybe some personal struggle somewhere is required?  (eg. Nell had to escape her life in the “projects.”)

Besides Nell’s stories, the overarching plot of the book was mediocre at best and really convoluted at worst.  There’s a civil war in China, reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion and Opium Wars, only the “opium” now is technology and the Feeds.  Some want to replace them with “Seeds” which would more directly be controlled by the people.  They try to get there by sending (imprisoning?) Hackworth to the tribe of Drummers, who live in tubes under the ocean and engage in sexual orgies most of the time, and seem half-stoned the rest of the time…but apparently they are really utilizing some STD-like nanotech to become some kind of shared intelligence brain-powered computer.  Or something like that.

With a group like the Drummers in the story, it might be hard to believe, but this book actually made me think quite a bit about morality.  There’s a conversation between characters in the book about how the 20th century rejected the Victorians and basically anyone espousing absolute right and wrong — with moral relativism, the only sins are intolerance and hypocrisy.  But of course, one character contends, it is impossible to always live up to a strict moral code, so everyone is a hypocrite — yet that’s not the point:

The internal, and eternal, struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of morality…determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.

In other words, moral ideals are just that … it’s ok to not be there yet, but it is important to be on the path!

A somewhat related quote, on culture and how some are better that others (*gasp*, totally non-PC, I know!):

There was a time when we believed that what a human mind could accomplish was determined by genetic factors.  Piffle, of course, but it looked convincing for many years, because distinctions between tribes were so evident.  Now we understand that it’s all cultural.  That, after all, is what a culture is — a group of people who share in common certain acquired traits…  Some cultures are prosperous; some are not.  Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not.  Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it.”

And finally a bit on education, continuing the thread from Finkle-McGraw’s concerns for his granddaughter:

The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts.  But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent.  The difference between stupid and intelligent people is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.  They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations — in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.

The Diamond Age is available from Amazon.


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