The Diamond Age; or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

Opportunism, synergy, or vampiric leaching off other bloggers, you be the judge.

Inspired by From Couch to Moon‘s recent review of Stephenson’s novel, I’m posting this.

Yes, these postings of mine and other blogger reactions to a book are often a lazy, pre-fab implicit argument. There is some of that here but some of Megan’s criticisms about the novel’s logic seem valid to my dim memory, (It’s been 19 years since I read the book.)

Diamond Age

Raw Feed (1996): The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson, 1995.

Stephenson’s Snow Crash was rightly taken to task by critic-author Gwynnth Jones for implausibility (particularly in the chronological details of characters’ lives) and wrongly nominated, I thought, for a libertarian Prometheus Award.  (I thought Stephenson was satirizing privatization as a force for anarchy though I grant his portrait of the remnants of US government was dark).  Still, it was a funny book.
This book has less humor, a great deal more plausibility, and has another variation on the idea of information as a virus (here sexually transmitted nanomachines that exchange data with each other when they enter a new host).  This is a conservative novel in its basic plot, its politics, its technology, and its basic conceits even if it’s many elaborations on nanotechnology, the stories from the Young Ladies Illustrated Primer, and asides on the consequences of new information/nanotechnology technologies make it a unique reading experience.

Literarily, the plot is very basic – a young woman grows to adulthood (the Dickensian touch to this is a brother dying of consumption in a hostel) and, in keeping with the fairy tale motif of the Primer, becomes the Princess of her own tribe; Miranda (Nell’s surrogate mother and object of her quest) marries Carl Hollywood (who rescues her from the collectivist/gestalt mind/tribe of the Drummers, a place where she would literally be burned up in the lust of an orgy, and has her personality submerged) in a classic comedy ending.
Part of this novel’s uniqueness lies in its deliberate, constant evocations of the 19th century in a 21st century world of nanotechnology.  The evocation lies not only in the chapter titles a la a 19th century novel and the obsolete technologies (books) and features of the 19th century (robot horses, Victorian fashion) but epigrams about the Victorians and Confucianism, but also goes far beyond such surface details.  As Lord Finkle-McGraw tells Hackworth, “there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation”, that virtue must be sought in the models of the 19th.  McGraw decries (he is one of the principal architects of this new age of dispersed tribes in the wake of collapsed nation states who, due to Net encryption, lost the ability to track and tax the flow of money (not an idea original to Stephenson). McGraw rightly criticizes our current  20th century’s labeling hypocrisy as the worst sin.  He makes the valid point that in a society of moral relativism where it is not permissible to say one moral code is better than another one the only sin one can be accused of is hypocrisy.  Finkle-McGraw rightly points out that most so-called hypocrites believe in the moral code they espouse; they simply have moments of weaknes.s (The spirit is willing; the flesh is weak.)
The world (in a reversion to forms even older than the 19th century) has balkanized into tribes (based on made up “synthetic” lines like the Masonic (they have degree levels) CrytNet, racial lines, and ideas).  The two main tribes are the Victorians and the Confucians.  Politically, the book, in the sections with Nell and Hackworth, shows a political conservatism (usually in discussion involving Finkle-McGraw or the Primer).  Some cultures are said to be better than others.  When one of the inhabitants of the artisan (as opposed to nanotechnology produced) colony Dovetail rather snobbishly tells Nell that the Victorian culture is only good for making money, Nell correctly replies that if not for the business acumen of the “Vickies” the artisans wouldn’t have any buyers for their products.  The Victorians – like their namesakes (the so-called “Pre-Victorians”) – place a premium on family and reputation and work.  Success in life is not, according to this tribal world, not a product of genetics but of the cultural values inculcated in a person as well as their personality (Hackworth rightly notes success comes from a daring personality not necessarily intelligence) Nell is told by a teacher that part of her schooling is to “inculcate” self-discipline and humility through tedious, meaningless tasks.
Hackworth loves the Victorian tribe because it has neither too much or too little discipline.  The brief beginning of the novel which details the crime and punishment (lethally) of Bud is not really necessary to the plot.  True he is Nell’s father, but the point of the beginning is to show not only a bit about the problems of being a thete (tribeless person) in this world (Nell’s teacher also notes that only very rarely is a person able to affect the world without a tribe though Nell proves to be such a person) but the morality of individualism 20th century-style run amok.  Not incidentally, Bud is a very cyberpunkish character with his skull gun and criminal pursuits.
The plot of the novel hinges on the creation of a Primer to subvert young girls (and presumably, boys later though Finkle-McGraw, instigator of the project, never mentions this).  Finkle-McGraw has two reasons for doing this.  First, unlike he and Hackworth who have come to appreciate the value of the Victorian tribe by experiencing other lifestyles, the Victorian young simply accept the value of the Victorian tribe on faith.  Finkle-McGraw wants to subvert the young into questioning Victorian values and perhaps social experimentation so they come back to the Victorian tribe with a reasoned appreciation of it.  He also finds Victorian culture lacking in artists.  With Nell, an intended experimental subject, his experiment has unintended consequences of starting, perhaps (though this is not stated because the novel ends at its creation), a better tribe.  The political and military and cultural foe of the Victorians (the at-first-seemingly-buffoonish Constable Moore turns out to be a pioneer of nanotech warfare) is the Confucian tribe.
As the mysterious Dr. X notes, the tribes are quite different.  In Confucianism wealth is said to come from virtue and virtue comes from respect for, reverence for authority, familial love.  He accuses the West of being a poorly organized society of strictly enforced laws because virtue is not in the citizens’ heart, a place where wealth comes from cleverness.  Both tribes agree that merely being able to do something technologically is not a reason to do it – morals and ethics must be considered when employing technology.  It is in the area of technology that their battle is concentrated.
Stephenson, in this novel, gives us one of the most pleasant, yet plausible, nanotech futures, a world I wouldn’t mind living in.  It’s not that he’s ignorant of nanotechnology’s nastier possibilities.  (There are also some interesting speculations on nanotech defense systems against other forms of nanotech.)  Quite the contrary.  The world Stephenson postulates has tamed nanotechnology through the infrastructure of the Feed, connections to nanotech assemblers which provide stockpiles of atoms and prefab molecules.  As Dr X points out, the West fears freeing nanotech from its infrastructure, fears people will make weapons, viruses, drugs, “destroy order”.  Dr. X, aided by CrytNet, wants to develop the Seed – the sort of nanotechnology most sf features, freestanding assemblers that use materials at hand with no ties to a controllable feed.  However, CryptNet wants the technology to create a virtual anarchy of no tribes, no nations (the last I infer, it is not stated) and no material wants.  The Confucians want to leapfrog back to an agricultural society like China had before the Europeans came, a society of biotech with plants producing all sorts of things (medicine, food, fuel, rubber, building materials) all harvested by peasants (in Confucian thought the most virtuous class), a place where the young go to clean cities to be “respectful and dutiful scholars” and elders are honored and cared for.
Nell’s ascent to princess of a new tribe seems to be away around the traps and faults of these three societies:  the individual subsuming, collectivist Confucians; the anarchist CrytNet; and the staid Victorians.  (Again the novel ends with her ascent so we don’t know how her tribe will work out.)  (Stephenson shows a brief bit about the secular tribes of the former America and the bizarre rites they undergo to seal trust and loyalty.)
This is a novel where the strands of cultural, political, economic, and technology are interwoven to present a plausible, dangerous, yet oddly desirable world.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

4 thoughts on “The Diamond Age; or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

  1. I need to read Snow Crash, since it might answer some of my questions about this future world he’s developed. This particular brand of science fiction isn’t my favorite because it doesn’t seem very polished. Just throwing a lot of ideas around.

    I’ve also noticed that the Prometheus Award people seem a little confused about their mission. Either that, or they’re just not sensitive about irony or argument.

    1. The novel’s don’t share a common feature, and I think Diamond Age is better.

      I kind of think maybe the irony detectors are not always engaged when the nominations are drawn up for the Prometheus Awards.

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