Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Jan 26, 2006

The Diamond Age

This book is difficult to summarize because the plot spirals around itself like the shell of an ammonite. It is an exploration of Stephenson's ideas about culture, and since his ideas are strange, the book is also strange. It takes place on the fringe of a modern China, where various Western barbarians have set up their own mini-societies protected and supported by fantastical nanotechnology that seems both impossible and plausible at the same time.

The story follows the progress of a young girl named Nell, born into an irrational society focused on short-term self gratification, who acquires an extremely unusual book: The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Designed by nanotechnical engineer John Percival Hackworth, the pseudo-intelligent book awakens Nell to the many possibilities to be found outside the stifling world where she is growing up and leads her through many adventures, some real, some imaginary. Gradually, she grows up into a truly competent and extremely rational individual. At least, in the Western tradition.

While this is going on the mysterious Dr. X lurks in the background, seeking a technology that he believes will solve the problems of Chinese culture by giving it access to the best of Western technology without having to adopt Western ideas and practices (individualism, freedom, rights). This nanotechnological Seed is being developed by a network of people who have connected themselves using nanosite transmitters and developed a sort of "collective" consciousness. Or, to be more specific, a collective unconsciousness, as these Drummers lose all higher mental function and become cogs in a data-processing machine.

He finds, however, that while they can process data at a tremendous rate, the Drummers need more than that to complete this Seed: they need a creative spark. They need an engineer. They need John Percival Hackworth. So, the Doctor sets about acquiring him.

Throughout, the Western society of Hackworth and Nell is contrasted with both the existing Chinese society and the theoretical ideal one that will be brought about by the seed. Many theories explaining their differences are posited, as well as theories of how to propogate the essentially stagnant Western society, which relies almost exclusively on imports for its progress. Stephenson stumbles around the answer but never really pinpoints it.

The answer is ideology. The Westerners are successful in passing on the trappings of their ideology, but not its substance. From their own youth, who are inculcated from an early age with stiff mannerisms and good posture yet shielded from the real world to such an extent that they never understand the purpose of anything they do, to the underclass "thetes" and even Dr. X, who believe that they can (and deserve to) share in the results without understanding or enacting the cause, no one quite comprehends just what it is that makes these Westerners what they are.

The result is a very 20th-century sort of battle of riots and screaming slogans, only a tiny minority able to put forth any principled resistance. The conclusion of the book comes as somewhat of a surprise, as the reader is never quite certain who they are supposed to be rooting for.

It's a very interesting book, and Stephenson is a very adept writer so it's very enjoyable to read, but I'd have to say that I don't really consider it a good book.


BryanG said...

I enjoy Stephenson's writing. Your right about his attempt, but not quite grasping the overall theme of his book, but he did throw some interesting ideas out there. I read Crytomonicon first (really enjoyed it), then went back and read some of his his earlier work.

Jennifer Snow said...

I think Cryptonomicon is his best book thus far; it has an enormous scope but the story all ties back in on itself quite well.

His new books, Quicksilver, the Confusion, and The System of the World were just too long and had TOO much scope (not to mention reusing character archetypes from Cryptonomicon and some TRULY weird mysticism) to be good.

BryanG said...

I got through about half of Quicksilver. I found the storyline depicting the birth of the Royal Society and the culture of London of that time period very interesting. I lost interest with the Bobby Shaftoe storyline, I just didn't care what happened to the character.

Jennifer Snow said...

Bobby or Jack? I don't remember most of Bob's story being in the first book, he hardly becomes important until the 3rd one.

BryanG said...

My mistake, it was Jack. Bobby Shaftoe was in Cryptonomicon, his story line was more of a tie in to the protagonists love interest - his granddaughter, if I remember correctly.

I’m not a writer, so I don’t how to describe in “writer-eze” how some authors can create and depict characters that have that *something* that grabs you. Authenticity, maybe? They are written in such a way that they don’t come across as paper cutouts, or caricatures, and the author does not beat you over the head with character detail. Stephenson has that ability, I think.

Jennifer Snow said...

Ayn Rand and Terry Pratchett both said similar things about that: technically, when you write about a character you ARE writing about a distillation of traits, a caricature. If you didn't, that character would be so specific as to have no universal meaning; people could not identify with him/her.

Terry Pratchett indicated that you should write about a TYPE of person that you know, not a specific person. Then, only give enough information to evoke that type of person. The reader will fill in the details and thus turn your abstraction into a concrete applicable to his or her own life.

Ayn Rand indicated that it's important to give characters a few personal touches, nothing to invalidate their universality, but enough to make them a real, live, breathing person.

I personally tend to try to fill in odd details about people to make them individual, while not going into so much description that they are divorced from my readers' experience.

Neal Stephenson does kind of the same thing . . . to the point where he can reuse names for characters between books. But the characters all have slightly different quirks that make them individual.