Hugo: The Diamond Age (1996)

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Read July 3, 2013 – July 21, 2013

Premise: In the not-too-distant (but not too close) future, you can compile anything you want almost-for-free out of centralized matter compilers, the world has split into “Phyles” or self-defined ethnic groups based more on shared values than on national boundaries (which are defunct) and you can make some seriously sophisticated technology if you know how. One man, Hackworth, is asked by his company’s CEO to make “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” or a computerized educational book that will teach the CEO’s granddaughter “subversiveness” in the face of the strict moral codes of the Neo-Victorian Phyle she belongs to. Hackworth does so, compiles a stolen copy for his daughter, is mugged by thugs, and the copy falls into the hands of Nell (who amounts to something like a street urchin in this society.) Nell is basically raised and educated by the Primer (and the “racter” or actor hired to read the lines to her.)

Verdict: I adored this book, and then it got more towards me being emotionally confused instead of just adoring. There were parts in the novel related to literacy and adventure that got me kind of choked up because they were very poignant and beautiful. The parts where the Primer is a refuge or an incredibly patient and effective teacher are amazing. I’m even especially fond the Stephenson’s technological future and the way he envisions race, class, and ethnicity in a world that’s both idyllic and Rodenberry-esque but also horrific and full of culture-clash and racism without shying away from it. Which is why I think the climax/conclusion is sort of rammed onto the end and not as self-aware as the rest of the book, just because of the creepy racial implications that it has—more with regard to Nell and her Mouse Army, and Hackworth’s Seed than anything else. Neo-Victorians are basically the white English-speaking folks from around the world, with modified Victorian mores. Pretty much all of the main characters are Neo-Victorians who live in Shanghai (which isn’t abnormal because it’s illustrated in the novel that the various races/ethnic groups have spread all over the world regardless of national boundary. I don’t want to spoil anything but I’m not as thrilled with the last like twenty pages of this book as I was with the rest of it.)

I do really like Nell’s being the sort of “big sister” to the “Mouse Army” (which is a bunch of rescued ethnic Han Chinese girls from the devastated interior of China), and I found it very touching when she basically freed them from enchantment in the Primer, but it got sort of weird when they lifted her up on their arms in real life and started carrying her through the streets. Also: the bits where Nell is raped and she “transcends her soul with the power of her mind” or whatever the shit were just sort of like wtf.

I also feel like I’m less inclined to forgive it these faults because it was incredibly well-written and well-imagined and I’m astounded that it was written in 1995 and (a few notable times) forgot that it wasn’t actually real life.

I really loved reading this until I got around to the strange conclusions full of white saviors, and almost-ignored rape and now I’m just confused as to how I feel because a large part of the story was about the fluidity of ethnicity and “nationalism” when such things are largely defined by technological practice and shared social codes. So I don’t know if it’s like “hurray, white saviors!” or using it to make a point or was just a spiffy conclusion or what.