Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

A cautionary tale about nanotechnology? Not really, the Diamond Age is more a case of showing what ubiquitous nanotechnology might be like. Nanotechnology is not the point of this novel, it’s a coming of age book wrapped in Stephenson’s excellent writing style and ability to create places that resonate and fascinate in equal measure.

Nanotechnology is part background, part driver in The Diamond Age. The Neo-Victorians and other groups, for example, have found a new use for the waiting room – as an antechamber to scan visitors for hostile nanobots. In the less prosperous areas of town, people can be afflicted by sudden clouds of toner – the corpses of millions of nanobots created during a war no one can see or understand.

The Feed supplies the basic needs of citizenry, machines that compile useful objects, food, household items, basic medicine, by simply assembling them, atom by atom. None of this is the story, just the background.

The story itself centres on a girl called Nell, who comes into ownership of a book called The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This book, powered by nanotechnology, is one social group’s answer to the problem of how to educate their children. The book is an attempt to provide an education that enhances the ability to think, reason, and come up with new ideas, without creating rebellion for its own sake.

The Primer becomes the target of other factions, once it becomes known, and Nell finds herself with an unlikely benefactor.

The end of this book is, to use an expression of Sir Humphrey’s – courageous. It’s as though Neal Stephenson simply reaches a point where his role as author is concluded, and stops there. Many readers have felt left hanging by the ending, or simply confused. If you like sure and certain endings, prepare for disappointment, but read anyway.

This is not the first time I’ve read the Diamond Age, but it’s the first time I’ve read it as a parent. This time around, what was more fascinating was the evolution of storytelling that follows Nell as she grows up with the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. If such a book were available today, I’m sure I would buy one for my daughter.

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