The Diamond Age

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The Diamond Age  
Author Neal Stephenson
Cover artist Bruce Jensen
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Spectra (U.S.A.)
Publication date 1995
Media type print (hardcover & paperback) & audio book (cassette, audio download. narrator: jennifer wiltsie) & e-book
Pages 455 pp (hardcover), 512 pp (paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-553-09609-5 (hardcover), ISBN 0-553-38096-6 (paperback)
Preceded by Snow Crash

The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a postcyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson. It is a bildungsroman focused on a young girl named Nell, and set in a world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. Some main motifs include: education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence. The Diamond Age was first published in 1995 by Bantam Books, as a Bantam Spectra hardcover edition. In 1996, it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Nebula and other awards, placing it among the most-honored works of science fiction in recent history.[1]

A six-hour miniseries scripted by Stephenson and produced by George Clooney is being developed for the Sci Fi Channel.[2][3]


[edit] Plot

The protagonist in the story is Nell, a thete (or person without a tribe; equivalent to today's lowest working class) who illicitly receives a copy of an interactive book (with the quaint title Young Lady's Illustrated Primer; a Propædeutic Enchiridion in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, &c.[4]) originally intended for an aristocrat's child in the Neo-Victorian phyle. The story follows Nell (and, to a lesser degree, two other girls named Elizabeth and Fiona, who receive similar books) as she uses the Primer. The Primer is intended to make sure its reader leads an interesting life as defined by Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw[5] and grows up to be an effective member of society. The Primer also reacts to its owners environment and teaches them what they need to know to survive and grow.

The Diamond Age is characterized by two intersecting, almost equally developed story lines: Nell's education through her independent work with the primer, and the social downfall of engineer and designer of the Primer, John Percival Hackworth. The text includes fully narrated educational tales from the primer that map Nell's individual experience (e.g. her four toy friends) onto archetypal folk tales stored in the primer's database. Although The Diamond Age explores the role of technology and personal relationships in child development, its deeper and darker themes also probe the relative values of cultures and shortcomings in communication between them.

[edit] Explanation of the novel's title

"Diamond Age" is an extension of labels for archeological time periods that take central technological materials to define an entire era of human history, such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. Technological visionaries such as Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle, both of whom receive an honorary mention in The Diamond Age, have argued that if nanotechnology develops the ability to manipulate individual atoms at will, it will become possible to simply assemble diamond structures from carbon atoms, materials also known as diamondoids .[6] Merkle argues enthusiastically: "In diamond, then, a dense network of strong bonds creates a strong, light, and stiff material. Indeed, just as we named the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Steel Age after the materials that humans could make, we might call the new technological epoch we are entering the Diamond Age".[7] In the novel, a near future vision of our world, nanotechnology has developed precisely to this point, which enables the cheap production of diamond structures.

The title can also be seen as a reference to the Gilded Age, a time of economic expansion roughly coinciding with the first Victorian era. Likewise it can be seen as consistent with Queen Victoria's regime, the apex of which is often seen as her Diamond Jubilee.

[edit] Setting

Cover of the 1996 Bantam Spectra paperback edition; cover art by Bruce Jensen.

Like Greg Bear's Queen of Angels, The Diamond Age depicts a world completely changed by the full development of nanotechnology, much as Eric Drexler envisioned it in Engines of Creation (1986). Nanotechnology is omni-present, generally in the form of Matter Compilers and the products that come out of them. The book explicitly recognizes achievements of several existing nanotechnology researchers: Feynman, Drexler and Merkle are seen among characters of the fresco in Merkle-Hall, where new nanotechnological items are designed and constructed.

Exotic technology such as the chevaline (a mechanical horse that can fold up and is light enough to be carried one-handed) and forecasts of technologies that are in development today, such as smart paper that can show personalized news headlines, are personal-use products, while major cities have immune systems made up of aerostatic defensive micromachines, and public matter compilers provide basic food, blankets, and water for free to anyone who requests them.

Matter compilers receive raw materials from the Feed, a system analogous to the electrical grid of modern society. Rather than just electricity, it also carries streams of basic molecules, and matter compilers assemble those molecules into whatever goods the compiler's user wishes. The Source, where the Feed's stream of matter originates, is controlled by the Victorian phyle, though smaller, independent Feeds are possible. The hierarchic nature of the Feed and an alternative, anarchic developing technology known as the Seed mirror the cultural conflict between East and West that is depicted in the book. This conflict has an economic element as well, with the Feed representing a centrally-controlled distribution mechanism while the Seed represents a more open-ended emergent behavior method of creation and organization.

The world is divided into many phyles, also known as tribes. There are three Great Phyles; the Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorians (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans, and others who identify with the culture), and Nippon (consisting of Japanese). The novel deliberately makes it ambiguous whether Hindustan (consisting of Hindu Indians) is a fourth Great Phyle or an association of microphyles. In addition to these larger phyles, there are countless smaller phyles. Membership in some phyles, such as the Han and Nipponese, has an ethnic requirement, but the Neo-Victorian phyle and many lesser phyles accept anyone who aspires to live according to the phyle's mores.

[edit] Characters

Cover of the 1998 Penguin edition.

Nell (Nellodee) - The story's protagonist, if you read the novel as a coming-of-age story. She is born to Tequila, a lower-class single mother, and, with the help of the nanotech Primer, grows up to become an independent woman and leader of a new phyle.

Harv (Harvard) - Her older brother, who plays an important role in the beginning as her protector.

Bud — a petty criminal and “thete,” a tribeless individual, Tequila's boyfriend and Nell and Harv's father; he is obsessed with his muscular body, flaunts his masculinity and near the beginning of the novel is executed for mugging a member of the Ashanti phyle.

Tequila, Nell and Harv's mother; after Bud's death, she has a series of boyfriends who abuse the children.

John Percival Hackworth — the second major character. He is an upper-level engineer at Bespoke and develops the code for the Primer. He makes an illicit copy of the primer for his daughter, who is Nell's age. When his crime is detected, he is forced to become a double agent in a covert power struggle between the Neo-Victorians and the Celestial Kingdom. Hackworth is forced to spend ten years with a colony of "Drummers," to use their distributed intelligence (similar but not identical to distributed artificial intelligence) for the development of a new technology, the Seed.

Fiona Hackworth — Hackworth's daughter, and his motivation for stealing a second copy of the Primer. During Hackworth's decade-long exile with the Drummers he is able to maintain a connection with his daughter through the Primer, and when he returns she joins him, eventually choosing to stay with a surrealistic acting troupe in London.

Gwendolyn Hackworth — Hackworth's wife.

Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw — an "Equity Lord" with the Apthorp conglomerate who commissions the development of the Primer for his granddaughter.

Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw — Lord Finkle-McGraw's granddaughter. It was for her that the project to develop the Illustrated Primer was begun. However, she never became as engrossed in the stories created by the Primer as Nell, and later rebelled against her Neo-Victorian upbringing by joining the secretive CryptNet phyle.

Judge Fang — the Confucian judge who sentences Bud to death in the beginning of the book. He also investigates Hackworth's mugging after he had illicitly had a second edition of the Primer created. This investigation leads him to question his allegiances to the Coastal Republic (in and around Shanghai), and transfer to the Celestial Kingdom. (Also see Judge Dee mysteries below).

Chang and Miss Pao — Judge Fang's assistants.

Dr. X. — a mysterious character who evolves from being an illicit technology specialist and hacker to being a powerful Confucian leader and nefarious force. His name comes from the fact that most westerners can't pronounce his Mandarin name which is why he encourages people to call him by the first letter of his name, 'X'.

Miranda — "ractor" (actor in interactive movies) who, by performing in the stories of Nell's Primer, effectively becomes a mother figure for Nell.

Carl Hollywood — "ractor" and performance artist, Miranda's friend and adviser. This character also becomes more important towards the end of the novel.

[edit] Major themes

  • The importance of a personal connection between educator and child.
  • The importance of cultural association over "racial" affiliation; some characters (esp. Lord Finkle-McGraw) hold the belief that certain cultural systems are naturally superior to others;
  • The importance of education over biological ancestry, and the importance of experiencing genuine adversity/life-experience over education.
  • A coming-of-age or Bildungsroman central plot centered on a female character;
  • Turing Machines and the nature of artificial intelligence;
  • An introduction to the theory of computation and encryption basics in the form of a fairy-story within the primer — which the reader encounters with the heroine as the novel unfolds;
  • The contrast between Victorian and Confucian world views, and the contrasting way they view the dangers and opportunities of molecular assemblers and artificial intelligence (as applied to child-raising);
  • A setting in which nation-states are obsolete
  • The emergence of human hive consciousness, using human brains interconnected through nanotechnological messengers (the "Drummers"); and
  • Confucianism as an ideological system (that's portrayed somewhat inaccurately); including a quasi-historical re-telling of the Boxer Rebellion.

[edit] Sociology and cultural relativism

The Diamond Age deals extensively with the notion of cultural relativism and seems to postulate its failure. The neo-Victorians are clearly represented as technologically, culturally and economically superior to other "phyles" (see Micronation), with the Confucians as close rivals. Although membership to the phyles in most cases is voluntary and not determined by an individual's ancestry or race, the cultural and class hierarchies established in the novel create a clear distinction between the "haves" and the "have-nots." The novel is also notable for a number of incidental descriptions of other cults or groups, such as the Reformed Distributed Republic, which in contrast to the more elaborate "phyles" impose a minimal social protocol. In some cases this protocol only tests the willingness of members to risk their lives, and come to each other's aid by following instructions, with little or no capacity to understand the importance of tasks they undertake in doing so, but a full understanding of the risks.

These cultural differences manifest themselves in the very different effect the copies of the primer have on the girls who use them. The original copies of the primer, created for a young girl of the Victorian phyle, provide for human interaction, even if it is mediated through the "ractive" technology. The Victorian girls who are raised with these copies become fully realized and independent individuals, while an army of Han Chinese girls raised with modified, fully automated clones of the primer with no "parental" human contact become efficient, devoted, but incomplete followers. An allusion early in the book suggests that the cloned primers were intentionally disabled by the Victorian engineer who designed them, perhaps to foster a propensity for the Chinese children who use the clones to follow the leadership of the Victorian girls who use the original copies. When asked to make copies of the Primer,

John Percival Hackworth, almost without thinking about it and without appreciating the ramifications of what he was doing, devised a trick and slipped it in under the radar of the Judge and Dr. X and all of the other people in the world. 'While I'm at it, if it pleases the court, I can also' Hackworth said, most obsequiously, 'make changes in the content so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership. But it will take some time.'

[8] However, this difference can also be interpreted as a desirable feature from the point of view of the Confucians, who emphasize duty, honesty and obedience in their training of women. The limits of the authority of officers, more than the degree of visible tactical control, is an emphasis of Confucianism. The text is ambivalent about whether the "Mouse Army" of girls is merely efficient and devoted or also usefully creative.

[edit] Failure of artificial intelligence

Many have recognized that a major theme of The Diamond Age involves a distinction between artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence, with AI being depicted in the novel as having failed in its goal of creating software capable of passing the Turing Test.[9] This theme met with much criticism among AI and nanotechnology enthusiasts. [10]

In the novel, "Artificial Intelligence" has been renamed "Pseudo-Intelligence" (Hackworth declares the older term to have been "cheeky", meaning presumptuous). That this "pseudo-intelligence" is lacking compared to human intelligence is demonstrated by the fact that humans are able to earn a living as "ractors", interacting with customers in virtual reality entertainments. Since ractors are more expensive than AI, the only reason to use them would be that the customers could tell the difference, implying that in the world of the novel, the marketplace of virtual reality entertainment has become one ongoing Turing Test, and software is continuously failing it.

This theme is woven throughout the story of Nell and her primer. Nell's situation is that a single ractor, Miranda, devotes herself full time to racting the various roles of Nell's primer. Nell somehow senses that there is a real person behind the virtual reality, and desires to meet that person. This longing drives Nell to conduct a Turing Test on a central character in her primer's story, who conveniently is named the Duke of Turing. The test involves indirect clues hidden in a poem which the Duke does not catch, showing him to be a non-human automaton. After this adventures, the stories in the Primer involve the exploration of castles with more complex setups which all prove, in the end, to also be Turing machines. The exception is the final castle, that of the King Coyote. One paragraph sums up the novel's viewpoint on AI (emphasis added):

Her study of the Cipherers' Market, and particularly of the rule-books used by the cipherers to respond to messages, had taught her that for all its complexity, it too was nothing more than another Turing machine. She had come here to the Castle of King Coyote to see whether the King answered his messages according to Turing-like rules. For if he did, then the entire system — the entire kingdom — the entire Land Beyond — was nothing more than a vast Turing machine. And as she had established when she'd been locked up in the dungeon at Castle Turing, communicating with the mysterious Duke by sending messages on a chain, a Turing machine, no matter how complex, was not human. It had no soul. It could not do what a human did.[11]

When Nell finally meets King Coyote and defeats him by crashing his systems with malicious coding, he reveals to her that the primer is not entirely a Turing machine, but that there are some real people behind it, such as himself. In fact, King Coyote reveals himself to be none other than John Hackworth. And when Nell asks whether there has always been another real person with her from the beginning of her days with the primer, the foster mother she has never met but senses is there, her emotions with regard to the question are evident:

"And is there..."
Nell stopped reading the Primer for a moment. Her eyes had filled with tears. "Is there what?" said John's voice from the book. "Is there another? Another who has been with me during my quest?" "Yes, there is," John said quietly, after a short pause. "At least I have always sensed that she is here."[12]

The same theme is reinforced somewhat by the reactions to the primer of the other girls, Fiona, Elizabeth, and the Chinese orphans:

  • Fiona, like Nell, develops a strong emotional bond with her primer's main ractor, which in her case is her father, Hackworth. Despite her beliefs being discouraged by her mother, she never doubts that the entity she communicates with via the primer is her real father, not merely a software facsimile.
  • Elizabeth's case is different. Since the default functioning of ractor contracts is that they are assigned on an as-needed basis, and the novel never shows us that someone does for Elizabeth what Miranda does for Nell and Hackworth does for Fiona, we can conclude that Elizabeth's primer has no central ractor working for it throughout the years. Elizabeth is unique in that she does not establish a deep relationship with her primer; she is indifferent to it.
  • The primers used by the Chinese orphans have no human ractors supplementing them. Instead, since all of the primers are networked in some way, Hackworth has altered them to teach them teamwork and group organization while taking advantage of individual skills in the form of the "mouse army", eventually pledged to the service of Nell. The Chinese girls manage to become aware of the existence of Nell just as she does through hints in their narratives. Through the modifications Hackworth programmed into the Chinese girls' primers, Nell becomes the object of their devotion, their Queen. Is this devotion supposed to be akin to Nell's love for Miranda, an expression of longing among the Chinese girls for a conscious entity in a virtual world which for them was otherwise populated only with pseudo-intelligent agents?

Some readers lump this apparent rejection of AI with other "technological flaws" in the novel.[13] These flaws generally involve observations that since the civilization depicted has advanced nanotechnology, even more amazing devices should be present; in fact, a technological singularity should have occurred. However, technological singularity theory tends to involve the notion that an "intelligence explosion" will occur when AI's are developed which are capable of designing yet more powerful AI's. It follows that a future without AI could be one without a singularity. For this reason, a full understanding of the novel requires recognizing that it is an attempt to portray a future with nanotechnology but without AI.

[edit] Allusions/references to other works

[edit] Charles Dickens

The novel's neo-Victorian setting, as well as its narrative form, particularly the chapter headings, suggest a relation to the work of Charles Dickens.[14] The protagonist's name points directly to Little Nell from Dickens' novel The Old Curiosity Shop (1840/41).

[edit] Judge Dee mysteries

The novel's character Judge Fang is based on a creative extension of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mystery series around a Confucian Judge in ancient China who usually solves three cases simultaneously.[15] The Judge Dee stories are based on the tradition of Chinese mysteries, transposing key elements into Western detective fiction.

[edit] Cyberpunk

Nell's father, Bud, is presented as an archetypical Cyberpunk character. He is a career criminal (though not a particularly skilled or high-ranking one) with various surgically implanted devices to aid him in his 'work'. Stephenson attempts to establish The Diamond Age as a "post-cyberpunk" book by killing this character early on, while acknowledging the influence of that genre.

[edit] Snow Crash

The Diamond Age can be seen as set in the same universe as Snow Crash, many years later. This reading is based on a connection between Y.T., a major character in Snow Crash, and the aged neo-Victorian Miss Matheson in The Diamond Age, who drops oblique references to her past as a hard-edged skateboarder. This would set The Diamond Age some 60-80 years after Snow Crash.[16]

Further supporting evidence to connect these two novels include:

  • Stephenson's short story "The Great Simoleon Caper" which refers to both the Metaverse seen in Snow Crash and the First Distributed Republic seen in The Diamond Age (another short story which fits in the Diamond Age milieu and even shares a character is "Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast").
  • references to Franchise-Operated Quasi-National Entities (FOQNEs) in both novels.

When taken as part of Snow Crash's timeline, The Diamond Age provides insight into the setting of its predecessor. In a conversation with Miranda, one character tells her that the nation-states of the world collapsed when electronic communications started using an untraceable relay system that made it impossible to enforce taxes on online transactions. Deprived of their funding, large-scale governments collapsed, and small, voluntary governments like the burbclaves depicted in Snow Crash emerged in their place.

Both novels deal with an almost "primitive tech" replacing a current, worldwide use technology, in the sense of the reprogramming of the mind through ancient Sumerian chanting in Snow Crash (which also uses allusions to Babylonian prostitutes passing an information virus like a sexually transmitted disease), and the idea of nanotechnology propagating and communicating through sexual intercourse, passing from body to body like a virus. Both novels use an ancient, almost primitive threat to modern, "Western" technology and ideology (The Raft in Snow Crash and The Fists of Righteous Harmony in The Diamond Age). Stephenson explores the idea of the tech divide and its social and economic ramifications to the extreme using these violent, but not all together surprising, social revolutions.

[edit] Television adaptation

In January 2007, the Sci-Fi Channel announced that it will be making a six hour mini-series based on The Diamond Age. Stephenson will be adapting the novel for the miniseries, and George Clooney and Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Productions will be executive producers on the project. There is currently no scheduled release date[17] but as of September 2008 the project was still in development[18].

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ "Honor roll:Science Fiction books". Award Annals. 2007-08-15. Retrieved on 2007-08-15. 
  2. ^ Clooney Project LiveJournal entry
  3. ^ article
  4. ^ Stephenson, The Diamond Age (1995):184.
  5. ^ Stephenson, The Diamond Age(1995):24.
  6. ^ Cf. Dinello, 2005:232
  7. ^ Merkle, 1997
  8. ^ Stephenson, The Diamond Age (1995):179-180.
  9. ^ SFX Profile: Neal Stephenson "The new William Gibson", SFX magazine #8 Jan 1996
  10. ^ Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near (2005) 1
  11. ^ Stephenson, The Diamond Age (1995):442.
  12. ^ Stephenson, The Diamond Age (1995):445.
  13. ^ Bookshelved Wiki: TheDiamondAge
  14. ^ Cf. "The Diamond Age," the complete review
  15. ^ Mark Kleiman makes this connection in his glowing review of The Diamond Age
  16. ^ In a book signing at the Harvard Coop bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 8, 2003, Stephenson himself confirmed the connection.
  17. ^ Sci-Fi Wire — The News Service of the Sci-Fi Channel: "Clooney, Others Develop SCI FI Shows" 1-12-2007.
  18. ^ Brett Live TV Squad What ever happened to that Diamond Age adaptation?

[edit] References

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Mirror Dance
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Hugo Award for Best Novel
Succeeded by
Blue Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
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