Friday, May 25, 2012

The Epic Sweep of Ideas

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
The Diamond Age: 
Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

"Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it." (p 31)

Neal Stephenson describes our world after nanotechnology has revolutionised every aspect of it, and introduces the reader to members at polarised ends of the class divide: Nell, a young "thete" who comes into possession of a "magic" book created by John Percival Hackworth an artifex for the New Victorians (pardon the jargon, but if you read this book you'll have to get used to it). The story itself is sprawling, almost Dickensian with a postmodern twist. The comparison with Dickens comes to mind as the future world of the novel mirrors the Victorian era (as seen through a fun-house mirror). But it also reminds me of any of the great SF of the golden age that posited the fantastic in new and exciting ways. Another reminder of Dickens is the descriptive heading for each chapter that were inexplicably uninformative. And the heroine's name is Nell. 
Stephenson impressed me with the fecundity of his imaginative ideas in a future world that includes the Feed, which allows most anything to be created at any outlet (think Star Trek replicators), making for a minimum standard of living for all mankind, and the spread of nanotechnology. This technology at the smallest imaginable scale makes for many fun clouds of mites -- engineered nano-probes that fly (swarm !) about, gathering information or doing nasty (or nice) things. The mites reminded me a bit of the computermite concept that Jeff Noon developed in his hilarious novel, Automated Alice. 
Viruses affecting humans have also now become, in a sense, technological ones as people can be infected by these mites. A popular form of entertainment in this brave new world are so-called ractives (interactives). There is little live theatre in this world any longer, but there are still many ractors -- actors who play along in these interactive scenes. 
Much of the action takes place in or near Shanghai and this allows the reasonable inclusion of Confucius-like principles in the narrative. The most interesting story-line is Nell's growth through the use of an interactive book that serves as a teacher and as an alternate world to that she actually lives in. Conceived as a prod to the imagination by a scientist, John Percival Hackworth, who creates a unique copy of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. It was originally intended for the daughter of a prominent member of the society, but Hackworth goes to the Chinese territories to make a second copy for his own daughter -- a copy that then makes its way into the hands of our poor little Nell, abused daughter of a neglectful mother. It is her interaction with this primer that leads to much of the best action in the novel. Hackworth, however, gets in a great deal of trouble for losing the Primer and makes several deals to extricate himself from this mess -- and a Chinese Judge, Fang, Dr. X, and the search for the Alchemist. 
I was impressed the least with the tales told by the primer to Nell. However the breadth of ideas, even when they are not completely fleshed out, kept my interest level fairly high. And while the concluding sections of the novel were somewhat anarchic Stephenson presents a future vision that has both believable ideas and epic sweep.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Bantam Books, 2000 (1995)

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