Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review of "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson

The best metaphor that can be drawn of Neal Stephenson’s 1996 The Diamond Age is a shotgun blast.  Expectations high for the follow up to his highly successful Snow Crash, Stephenson upped the ante by wadding a larger number of ideas into his literary gun and firing away.  The pellets scattering across the target, some strike dead on, while others, particularly the ending, are off the mark.

At heart, The Diamond Age is a bildungsroman told only as the imagination of Stephenson can (read: a ninja must be in their somewhere).  Occupying the same future as Snow Crash, the setting this time around is Shangahai rather the American west coast.  Living in one of the lower class ‘claves is a little girl Nell, an illegitimate child everyone abuses save her older brother, Harv.  Nanotech having solved the world’s hunger problems, Nell and Harv survive easily on food produced in their apartment’s matter compiler.  Their mother working the streets, bringing home one loser boyfriend after another, the two still lack spiritual sustenance. This situation soon changes, however.
Nell’s life takes a permanent transition when Harv comes home one day with a nanotech-ed interactive book he and his gang lifted from a high-society engineer.  Called A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, the engineer, whose name is Hackworth, designed the book to educate and guide a girl from childhood into adulthood for a rich noble.  School subjects, social issues, and the realities of life are all taught in an interactive manner through voiceovers, pictures, and moving stories that adapt to the young girl’s life as she develops in the real world.  How Harv “acquired” this quickly places the siblings in the midst of a heated search for the precious copy of the primer.
Of all the pellets fired from Stephenson’s gun, the one striking closest to center is the nanotech.  Brilliantly described and wonderfully detailed like no author (I know of) has yet to do, the possibilities of nanotech engineering are delivered in big, beautiful packages.  From weapons to providing the most basic of needs (like food and clothing), whole ecosystems to blood cleansers, Stephenson excels displaying these nano concepts.  Descriptions are vivid and pseudo-science based, and while still wholly fantastic, are presented in fashion that allows the reader to willingly accept the reasoning.  The uses to which society puts the nanotech—good and evil—is likewise realistic in its understanding of humanity’s application of its discoveries.  The sub-titular A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer in particular is a wonderfully creative set piece derived from the nanotech and one of the most positive visions of how science could benefit society if applied correctly that sci-fi has ever seen.
The second pellet striking close to home, buoying the novel along and keeping it above water as other elements threaten to drag it down, is characterization.  Though some are wonderfully unearthed only to be quickly discarded, all the voices have a feel of their own.  Excluding the ending, the empathy one feels for Nell is palpable and a credit to a nerd’s ability to write.  Dr. X, Judge Fang, Bud, and Elizabeth likewise have fallen directly out of our society and landed in the novel.  That the characters receive non-uniform treatment from a plot perspective is, however, another issue.
Attempting to capture some of the Victorian age in a sci-fi novel, Hackworth and the noble, along with the other characters filling out the dramatis personae, appear with appropriate degrees of the era’s detail.  Top hats, overly-formal address, and the equine are all part of the throw-back fun.  Honing skills that would later reveal themselves in better light in the Baroque Cycle, dialogue is amusing for its stylish tone but lacking the fresh simile and wordplay of Cryptonomicon.  As a result, the dialogue and retro feel render the novel more steam- than cyberpunk.
Negative points, however, are an unfortunate must when discussing The Diamond Age.  Something like too much bread in the mouth, most readers will spend their time trying to gum through the wad of ideas Stephenson pushes upon the reader.  Such a plethora exists that the windows of possibility are thrown open to the extent the sky is the limit.  With anything seeming possible, a disconnection arises between the simple human story of Nell’s development and the vast technological and political canvas its spread across.  That strong elements of hallucinatory fantasy are added to “bolster” an otherwise brimming plot seems over much and creates a narrative that never truly identifies itself. 
If Stephenson left the windows open writing the plot, then the climax sees the shutters blown off and glass shattered on the floor.  Many readers have taken exception to The Diamond Age’s conclusion, and the uproar is apt.  The story trundling along at a steady pace, events suddenly take a sharp right turn that jumps the tracks with 50 pages to go.  Events straining plausibility, the storytelling necessary to build to such a point is not present in enough quality or quantity prior to convince the reader that things have suddenly gone from individual self-realization to outright societal revolution.  Though Stephenson’s intent is clear, the stepping stones to arrive there remain mostly submerged.
In the end, The Diamond Age is a novel with good ideas spoiled by its lack of cohesiveness.  Victim to an issue many sci-fi writers fall into, Stephenson’s range of concepts is too large for the simple story he is trying to tell.  Without giving away any of the plot, the methods and tech introduced would have been able to drastically alter the events in the climax, but for reasons of artistic license, do not--a disconnect appearing, as such.  This problem disguises itself for most of the novel as plot, characterization, and theme seem to develop cogently.  However, when the ending digresses to such an extreme point, the overall intent becomes confused—Kill Bill meets 1984.  While remaining an interesting read based on the strength of Stephenson’s ideas alone, those looking for a more cohesive, toned, and interdependent story in the vein of the author’s later work will be disappointed.  Those who loved Snow Crash, however, will probably also like The Diamond Age.  If you want better Victorian steampunk, read William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine.

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