NESFA Members' Reviews

The Diamond Age

by Neal Stephenson

A book review by Mark L. Olson

This one's a winner!

Neal Stephenson made a splash a few years ago with Snow Crash, which sounded sort of cyberpunk. I ignored it because I'm tired of cyberpunk. Now I'll have to go back and read it.

The Diamond Age is set about fifty years from now in a nanotech future. Micromachines make everything and diamond assembled atom by atom by these machines is the universal construction material. The world is a place of near-magic micromachines linked by a universal net. (Dare I call it nanopunk? No, I guess not.)

Society has perforce changed. The nation-state is greatly weakened, and people associate in clades. Some: Nippon, Hindustan, the Celestial Kingdom are racial or national, but most are based on some shared belief or are just arbitrary groupings, since a man alone is defenseless. The New Victorians are one of the most powerful clades and grew out of our children's generation's rejection of the libertine 20th century.

The story takes place primarily in a New Victorian enclave off the coast of Shanghai. John Hackworth is a brilliant New Victorian engineer who designs a nano-tech, AI, book, The Young Lady's Primer to educate the young daughter of one of the leaders of the New Victorians. The book falls into the hands of a little slum girl, and The Diamond Age follows her growth into a young woman as well as the cataclysms rending South China at the same time.

In many respects the Primer is the center of the book. It is an interactive, multi-media construct which draws the little girl into its story and educates her and directs her growth.

I do have cavils: I find the whole concept of racting to be quite implausible (racting is the use of human actors as the source of real-time rotoscoping for computer animation). Given how close we are to really fine computer animation, I can't believe that this super-science future would still need human actors, but this is really a quite minor complaint.

I also find it impossible to believe that Hackworth could in one or two years, on his own, design the Primer, which merely replaces the entire educational establishment. (That's a bigger accomplishment than Richard Seaton discovering a new element one day, inventing a space drive the next and a week later charging off into interstellar space.) Again, that's a minor point.

My summary doesn't do the book justice. All I can say is that this is in my opinion one of the two best SF books of the year (The other is Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships) and will certainly be on my Hugo nomination ballot. And Neal Stephenson will certainly go onto my must-read list.

Highly recommended.

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