The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson

DiamondAgeLately, I have been really burnt out on reading. I know! What is going on? Reading is basically my number one favourite thing to do of all time. When I’m happy, I read. Sad, read. Angry, read. Noodley-brained and indecisive, read. I think about my mortality and feel gloomy about the fact that I will never be able to read all the books. I’ve made reading my day job. And when I’m not reading, I’m usually writing. So the written word is sort of central to my life and my identity at this point.

And yet… I have been hit with a serious case of the blahs. I have started at least a dozen books in the last couple weeks in the hopes of kickstarting my motivation, but after a chapter or two, they end up on the kitchen chair. (The kitchen chair is where books in progress go to die.) Thinking that this reading ennui might be because of all the work-related things I’m reading (and even though said reading is generally awesome comics, there’s something about reading things because that’s what you’re in the mood for versus reading things because you have to, no matter how awesome those things might be), I decided to flip the work-reading table like a sullen Japanese teenager and read whatever I wanted, shelf of unread books be damned! The Diamond Age it is!

I don’t hide my love of Neal Stephenson. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by him (which is… everything by him) (Although I still haven’t read Reamde, so maybe I will hate that). He is a thought-provoking author who expects—no, demands his readers work, unlike some authors I’ve read. But The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is the thing I love the most. There are a lot of things to love, including Stephenson’s incredible future world, a staggering array of very human, very real characters, and the wonderful fluidity of his prose, but basically all you need to know to realize you need to go and get this book right now is: A little girl gets a book that teaches her how to grow up and conquer the world. For real. If you were trying to write a book that would be relevant to my interests, you could not write something more perfect than The Diamond Age. I say it again: A girl changes the world by reading a book.

This is no Neverending Story though (although that story too holds a special place in my heart). Nell is no suburban Bastian, whose biggest hardship is the loss of a parent (although I am not knocking that sadness). Stuck living in a ghetto of the Leased Territories, called (ironically) Enchantment, with her deeply absent mother Tequila and Tequila’s string of terrible and abusive boyfriends, Nell’s only protector/caregiver is her older brother Harv. It is Harv who gets the titular book for her, after rolling Hackworth, a nanotechnological engineer and the creator of the primer in the title. Although it was designed to look like an ancient leatherbound tome, the primer is in fact, a bunch of computers and fancy, fancy nanotech all bound together.

The story itself is too big and complex to even give a brief summary of without spoiling everything. Within the first twenty pages, we are introduced to Nell’s father and his skull gun, the concept of phyles (or tribes), Atlantis, a nanotech island complete with centaurs, and a world that essentially revolves around nanotechnology and the many wonders it has brought about.

This is part of what I love about this book. Unlike so many stories, our heroine is not cut adrift in the world, left to conquer it or perish according to her own resources. She is strong and clever, but without Hackworth or Miranda or Lord Finkle-McGraw or Harv or… or…, she would be stuck where she started, a little girl abused by the adults in her world with nowhere to turn. Stephenson takes the time to delineate the many links she ends up having to the world around, and the ways that other people affect her life and upbringing without her or their being aware of it. The way people influence and affect each other’s lives is a thing I think about a lot, so I love how I can trace the impact of others on Nell throughout the many charmingly titled chapters of The Diamond Age.

And while there are a lot of heavy things Stephenson is exploring here, like class, gender, and just what education is and should be, he manages to inject moments of pure delight that are completely not necessary to the story but do everything to set the tone for it. Like:

He was bent over using a trowel to extract a steaming turd from the emerald grass. Circumstances suggested that it had come from one of the two corgis who were even now slamming their preposterous bodies into each other not far away, trying to roll each other over, which runs contrary to the laws of mechanics even in the case of corgis that are lean and trim, which these were not.

And if you have ever lived in Japan, you will laugh out loud here:

Mr. Oda went into some peculiar routine of tooth-sucking and throat-clearing that would probably convey a torrent of information to another Nipponese person but meant nothing to Miranda, other than giving her a general hint that the situation was rather complicated.

I don’t know how many times I have read this book. A lot? And I will read it again. Like Weetzie Bat, it is one of those books that offers me something new every time I take it off the shelf. You should read it. No, seriously. Just go get a copy from the library if you don’t have any money and read the damned thing. You can thank me later.


2 thoughts on “The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson

  1. Mmm. intrigued. I have Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’ in my Kindle but I haven’t read it. I am in a middle of a Bradbury marathon right now. I will put ‘The Diamond Age’ in the list of the books to be read next.

    Oh, and I looooove ‘The Neverending Story’. To me, that book contains the best of everything about children fantasy novel. The plot is compelling without being too complicated and Fantasia is fascinating. The book is also not overly ‘bright and sunny’ like Disney’s watered down fairy tales. Bastian is not perfect. He is sensitive and insecure and scared sometimes. A lot of stories for children are too, I don’t know, ‘happy-go-lucky-feel-good’ (I am not sure if that’s a word. Can we pretend that it’s a word?)? And I think even kids should know that the world is not perfect, that bad things happen to good people, that bad people get away with doing evil things and that actions have consequences. Which is why I hold dear to my heart, stories like ‘Charlotte’s Web” or Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’, or Grimm’s ‘The Six Swans’ and a lot of works of Maurice Sendak. I had Grimm’s Fairy Tales picture book when I was a kid. I lost it when my family moved to another city. =(

    News from the science fiction world, author Iain M Banks announced that he has been diagnosed with late stage cancer and is not expected to live beyond a year.

    1. Read The Diamond Age before Snow Crash. I like both books, but I get the feeling that you and I have very similar tastes, and I feel like you’ll relate to the The Diamond Age more. And that’ll give you a nice familiarity with Stephenson before you move on to Snow Crash.

      I couldn’t agree more about The Neverending Story. I love that it’s not afraid of that darkness that any good fairytale has. I hate how stories for kids often tend to focus on the “happy-go-lucky-feel-good” (let’s make it a word!) aspects and ignore the darker elements of life. I think Sendak himself said that being a kid is scary, and stories are a necessary way of understanding and dealing with those fears. I think you’d actually really like this book I’m reading now in Japanese, 大人のための残酷童話 by 倉橋由美子. She takes fairytales from Japan and other places and rewrites them in dark, dark ways. It’s really excellent! I’m actually going to be posting about it soon, so you can read the details then, but it definitely fits with what you’re saying here (although it is very much not for kids!).

      I heard about Banks. Terrible news! I haven’t actually read his work, but I know he’s very well respected in the SF community and it’s a serious blow.

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