The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 20 March 2000

The Diamond Age

by Neal Stephenson

This is a world that looks a lot like the one to which we're headed. Imagine global society fragmented by the advances of technology. Imagine people living in an environment clouded with microscopic nanotech robots and computers which live in the air, in our bodies, form our architecture, our food, our very way of life. It is a world in which vast diamond airships float in the sky and even support towering and flimsy skyscrapers. Neal Stephenson imagines just that in a detailed realization of the world deep into the 21st century. This world is fragmented into countless "phyles" in which people of like minds associate. Some are concentrated, others distributed and interconnected across a vast electronic network. One such phyle is the neo-Victorians, a highly structured echo of the Victorian age of the 19th century.

One man, an economic "lord" who heads a powerful nanotech firm, looks around him at a world buried in consumerism and entertainment, and dreams that his grandaughter would one day rise above this world and excel. He contracts one of his best engineers to create a "primer", an intricate and subversive interactive "book" which serves as teacher. And this is just the beginning. The primer falls into the hands of a young poor girl in Shanghai, and the novel follows her growth and nuturing as she reads. Little Nell is a very sympathetic character, and one can get caught up in her adventure. Parallel stories in this book involve many people who are connected in one way or another to the creation of the primer. Its subversive character sends waves across the electronic and nanotech world, giving birth to a new paradigm. This book has a lot of potential at the beginning, as Nell sees a new and different world open up for her. But Stephenson doesn't quite live up to the existential promise of this plot. The second half of the novel, while remaining exciting, entertaining, and highly readable, unfortunately also dissolves into a somewhat more conventional denoument. There are some unpleasant surprises and bizarre twists in this tightly-wound novel. The future is excellently realized. But Nell's primer, originally a powerful formative tool becomes merely a course in computer programming.

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Also by Stephenson: [Zodiac]

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