on July 11, 2004
This book is pleasantly dense with interesting ideas about what the future holds. The title refers to the progression of material-driven stages of human progress -- the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, etc. In "the Diamond Age", matter compilers can easily create diamonds out of raw carbon. Basic foodstuffs and many other material wants can be satisfied by these matter compilers. This has created a world in which no one need starve. However there are still tremendous disparities between rich and poor, because many human comforts such as entertainment and fine food still require the services of other people, which must be bought in hard currency. Networked nano-technology is all-pervasive, with microscopic robots putting these poorer citizens under constant surveillance. Faced with this hyperactive stew of technologies, ancient instincts and traditions run strong. Crime, poverty, and tribal conflict are still rampant in this world. People cling to old ways of thought (a strong Confucian motif runs through the book) to help make human sense of the rapidly changing world.
Against this backdrop, a fantastically advanced piece of technology (a sentient child's primer) is stolen, and winds up in the hands of a destitute young waif named Nell. Her resulting world-class education, and what she does with that education, is the binding for the various threads of the story.
The book's characters are well-realized for the most part, the writing style is honed and mature, the plot is intricate and engaging. The ending is controversial in its ambiguity, but that does not diminish the power of the book as a whole. In all, a very thought-provoking read.
on April 20, 2004
...few books do that. Admittedly at the time of read I would have given the book 3.5 to 4 stars. Lacking in my opinion was a coherent storyline; the book was convoluted, you never knew what the point really was.
However, this novel has left a lasting impression on me. Of the numerous "takeaways", the most enduring are these:
1. Nanotechnology will change everything (not so apparent to the public now, much less back in 97).
2. Technology of this magnitude could offer the key to "leveling the playing field" with respect to economic inequity.
3. I devised a business term as a consequence of reading this book that has helped me immeasurably in my career: "attention units". In the future Stephenson posits that marketing will be so efficient that virtually every piece of visual real estate will be covered with what he calls "mediaglyphs"; billboards with audio and video (even on chopsticks). Not saying that I think that's a future I'd like to help build, but it does give you greater appreciation for any venue that could garner consumer attention.
And finally, my greatest lesson of all was what the Primer (the supercomputer/teacher designed by the futures equivelant to a Bill Gates for his grandaughter in an effort to stave off the near inevitable corruption of his heirs owing to great fortune); the Primer's number one lesson in all of it's teaching was appreciation and capability in one principal skill; subversion. It taught her how to go "around, under, over" any obstacle with unorthodox, even risky thinking.
Anyway, didn't give anything away of great substance there, but did want to give you a few more reasons from my perspective to read this very special book.
Hope this was helpful.
This gargantuan novel, like a lot of Stephenson's works, contains two interconnecting stories based on the life of Nell, a tribeless, orphaned, and John Hackworth, an ostracized engineer, both trying to establish themselves in a post-modern society governed by nanotechnology. This scientific concept entails society allowing the individual the capacity to produce anything he or she needs by re-arranging the molecular structure of any substance. The primer (interactive training manual) is full of all kinds of technological wonders, such as matter compilers, smart paper, chevalines, artificial intelligence and aerostatic micromachines, all of which Nell learns to master in her efforts to form an independent society. Her teacher is the ractive (interactive actor in the primer) who teaches who the virtue of learning how the technology works to her advantage. Hackworth is one of those shadowy characters who operates under a number of covers in order to create a more enlightening form of nanotechnology that will be shared among the cultures of the world in the interests of peace and justice. As a fugitive from a Confucian society that has rejected him for his decision to make his own copy of the primer, Hackworth assumes a double identity that will allow him to start transforming nanotechnology into some new and better. Throughout this very complex and multi-layered novel, Stephenson shows the reader that technology in itself is pointless unless i
on March 13, 2003
Remember Mary Shelley's signature work about a man whose ultimate knowledge of technology seemingly gives him control over even life and death only to realize that his creation is not only out of control but to be his own undoing?
Think of The Diamond Age as a neo-Frankenstein story reflecting the same themes: the Victorian idea of total control through technology (here, nanomachines that can build or modify nearly any structure) verses the ultimate trimuph of chaos and Nature over that control (again, the nanomachines as a vector unseen of ultimate loss of control).
In Diamond Age, Stephenson presents a more mature work than his very entertaining "pizza mafia" book, Snow Crash, with complex themes of man verses nature and a reflection of the Victorian-era ideas of Frankenstein. One example is a local toughguy who uses technology to build up his muscles even while he sleeps but is done in by "cookie cutters," nanoexplosives that basically shred his body into pieces without his even knowing they were there.
The story mainly centers on two characters, one a brilliant nanoengineer stifled by the neo-Victorian society within which he lives who finds himself put in contact with the kind of dirty life that is anethema to his culture; the other is a young, underprivilidged girl who comes by his creation, a powerful nanotechnological book to serve as a primer, through which she learns and grows and even raises her own army of sorts taught by the same book. At the same time, tensions in the Middle Kingdom (that's China, by the way) threaten an agrarian revolt and invasion akin to what happened in Cambodia, yet another facet of the nature/chaos vs. technology/order storyline.
The Diamond Age is a tougher read than Snow Crash but yet a more fulfilling one, indicative of Stephenson's growing mastery of his writing talent. Casual readers may have some difficulty penetrating the text and find themselves skimming ahead at first (as I did when I first picked up the book), but most will also find themselves drawn back into the book as the pace picks up and the plot thickens.
on May 9, 2004
The Diamond Age is the second of Stephenson's books that I've read. I enjoyed it far more that Snow Crash. While Snow Crash got off to a great start, I didn't enjoy the second half at all. I found myself reading it because it was a groundbreaking book, not because I enjoyed it. I read The Diamond Age because it was a fast-paced enjoyable read AND because it was unique and thought-provoking.
The Diamond Age is set is a very plausable near future where nanotech has eliminated basic problems, such as starvation, but its created its share of problems as well. Nasty nanotech devices that can track or kill people require sophisticated nanotech defenses.
Meanwhile, all nanotech products are provided be a central feed that both controls what can be delivered, what is free and what costs money, and frees peasents from substistence farming and the poor from working to survive. While this world is harldy a utopia -- as there are still massive economic disparities between the rich and poor and a tremendous amount of crime and pollution -- Westerners on the whole seem happy with this arangement.
But there are more than a few who are unhappy or restless. The Diamond Age is the story of what happens when a father who wants a better life for his daughter collides with an entire culture that wants change. Throw in an enormous computer made of human bodies, an interactive storybook that tells a story that takes over a decade to read, an army of teenage girls and a few other interesting characters and you have a compelling and fascinating view of the future.
When I first finished the book, I thought the ending was abrupt and disappointing. But, as I started to think about the end, I could see everything falling into place.
This is the best book I've read in a while and I highly recommend it.
on January 19, 2004
This book started out with a remarkeable amount of promise. The opening third of it is very, very good. The details and crafted naturalness of the various plot threads is better than nearly any other SF writer out there... but then something happens. it's almost as if the writer became so sure of his inate talent that he didn't care to really think out what he was writing anymore.
He began clearly writing a modified victorian novel, complete with the pedigree prologue dovetailing into the main plot, but then- bam!
By the end, the neo-victorian structure of the novel is lost in a morass of plotting that no self-respecting novelist should allow himself anywhere outside of his own journals and musings, and self-stimulating pleasure.
Stephenson is not a bright enough person (his OS book, being a prime example of mediocrity and plagiarism in thought posing as an amusing parle with a man of mind), nor a skilled-enough craftsman to get away with it- not even close.
The originality of his idea (small as it is) is lost in a book this size. He would have been better off writing this condensed to about half the size- that would have suited the neo-victorian style he attempted here much better.
A real waste of money, again. I've learned my lesson with this guy- he's just not a very good writer.
on January 11, 2004
Stephenson has undoubtedly created one of the most intricately designed futureworlds imagined during the last decade, and the plot and characters of "The Diamond Age" are equally complex. The first forty pages work as a preface of sorts: even though the main character, a petty criminal named Bud, quickly bites the dust, his story sets the scene, introduces elaborate technological advances (nanotech viruses, surgically implanted weapons, and fully--and I mean fully--interactive media), and posits a nightmarish tribal society divided into such "claves" as the Vickys (or neo-Victorians), Parsis, and Hindustanis.
After Bud's trial and gruesome execution, the focus shifts to his daughter Nell. Lord Finkle-McGraw hires John Percival Hackworth, a pseudo-intelligence (A.I.) engineer, to create an interactive primer that will not only teach Finkle-McGraw's granddaugher useful lessons but keep her removed from the "degeneracy" of society by making her life "interesting" and "subversive." Finkle-McGraw has chosen his engineer all too well, however, and Hackworth performs his own act of subversion: making a duplicate of this book for his own daughter, Fiona. His crime fails when he is mugged and the book falls into Nell's unwary hands by way of her brother Harv, a street tough.
The rest of the story intertwines these female-male, daughter-patron strands from three different levels of society: impoverished Nell and Harv (and, later, Constable Moore, a Dickensian father-figure), middle-class Fiona and Hackworth, privileged Elizabeth and Finkle-McGraw, along with an ingenious assortment of supporting characters. There's Judge Fang, a strict by-the-book disciplinarian whose Confucianism allows him a soft spot for the care of children (including Nell); Miranda, the mothering "ractor" who provides the human voice behind Nell's interactive primer; and Dr. X, an underworld baron whose real allegiances are rarely clear even to his allies (or to the reader). The political and social intrigues greatly enliven Stephenson's philosophical ruminations, and there's too much going on to summarize in any meaningful way.
Still, in spite of everything it has going for it, "The Diamond Age" has its flaws. I enjoyed the first half of the book immensely--it reads almost like a political thriller--but "Part the Second" falters. Things take a bizarre turn when Hackworth is ensnared by the "Drummers," a communalistic underwater tribe that exchanges digital information by collective sexual osmosis. At this point, for my tastes, things get a little too New Age "touchy-feely" (excuse the double entendre), and the book never entirely recovers.
Other readers have noted that the finale is confusing, open-ended, and rushed. (And here I will be careful not to give anything away.) My initial confusion dissipated after I reread the last fifty pages, and the intended ambiguity didn't bother me since I don't mind certain things left to my imagination. Yet it's true that everything is too hastily wrapped up. There are several problems: first, Stephenson is unable to describe adequately a climactic confrontation involving armies consisting of hundreds of thousands of individuals; the mere dozen or so pages he devotes to this war resemble the confusion of a street brawl rather than the chaos of all-out battle. Second, even as he's trying to describe the battle, he's introducing new characters (such as Colonel Spence) right up to the penultimate chapter.
Third, and most seriously, although one of the strengths of the first half of the book is its character development, Stephenson pretty much abandons his protagonists and nearly all the supporting roles. Actors enter and leave the stage without rhyme or reason (Judge Fang, so fully developed early in the book, doesn't even appear in the second part). In the end, even Nell, Hackworth, and Miranda become little more than political symbols or plot devices. Adding to this impression: the last pivotal twenty pages are related from the point of view of a heretofore minor character, a strategy that only diminishes the book's emotional impact.
Those who expect their books to have satisfying endings, then, might well come away disappointed. I suspect, however, that if you read "The Diamond Age" knowing that the finale isn't entirely fulfilling, then you'll be able to sit back and enjoy the ingenious ride that makes up most of the book.
on January 7, 2004
I first read The Diamond Age before it was released, as my sister worked in a bookstore and provided me with an advance reader's copy (as she had done with Snow Crash before). I couldn't wait - I loved Snow Crash. I had also thought Zodiac was pretty cool, and was looking for the same irreverent and footloose style. After the first fifty pages, I put it down.
I went back to it a week later, and finished it in a day and a half. I couldn't put it down once I got used to the fact that an author is allowed to change his writing style without asking permission from his fan base. I thought the ending was a wee bit abrupt, but considering how well the rest of the work carried me through the weekend, I wasn't displeased.
I found it again in a crate of books, buried during three moves and having been in storage while I lived in California. Since reading it previously, I had married, fathered a child, and watched her grow to the same age Nell is at the beginning of the book. Needless to say, my empathy for her character, and therefore all the characters in the book, shot through the roof. The complexity and richness of the work as a piece of scifi remained as before but it's emotional scope was, for me, enormously broadened. I was moved. Lots.
I will always think that YT's appearance in the book is cool as hell.
on December 29, 2003
First of all, if you come to this book from Snow Crash, know that it starts out MUCH slower. The pace picks up eventually, but the problem is that it takes about four or five years of the book's timeline to get to that faster paced portion of the story. Many of the ideas that this book explores are very exciting and interesting. The author definitely didn't get lost in the technical side of things as there is an emotionally rich storyline that overlays and incorporates those ideas.
However, I found the ending disappointing and abrupt. So much so, in fact, that I found myself looking for specific logical holes in the storyline (specifically near the end). I found myself asking a lot of "But why?" type questions. I guess what I'm saying is that the ending was so abrupt that the willing suspension of disbelief needed for any fictional story (and especially science fiction stories) was stripped away to a certain extent.
That being said, I thought the book was otherwise fantastic. Once you get past the slow opening, the story pulls you in and moves along at a great pace, without detracting or distracting from the emotional impact of the storyline. In addition, the ideas explored by this story are truly engaging and worth the read. I recommend it.
on December 24, 2003
Neal Stephenson is a genius. In The Diamond Age, he combines hard SF with social commentary, political philosophy and touches of high fantasy, serving up a stylish vision of the 21st century in which nanotechnology is dominant and the nation-state has fallen away. Humanity has become divided into many different cultural formations called phyles. The dominant phyles are the neo-Victorians (or Vickys), the Hindustanis and the Nipponese, all of whom base their power on control of the Feed, a centralized matter-conversion technology. The plot revolves around an interactive book called The Primer and its role in the revolutionary conflict between the Feed and a new, alternative technology called the Seed. As the novel unfolds, we meet colorful characters like the Vicky Artifex Sir John Percival Hackworth, the Confucian Judge Fang, the reverse engineer and criminal mastermind Dr. X, and the young heroine Nell, who gets her power from a purloined copy of the Primer.
Stephenson writes with zest, humor and mind-blowing creative energy. Almost every page holds an insight, plot twist or at least a good laugh that repays the whole price of the book. That's why I really wanted to give this book five stars. But The Diamond Age is, after all, a novel, and the reader has a right to expect the author to adhere to the conventions of the form. These conventions include an ending that ties up loose ends and provides a satisfying resolution to the plot. Unfortunately, Stephenson closes the book without explaining what happens to most of the main characters or providing answers to many of the compelling questions he has raised. At this point, we can only hope for a sequel.