Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review - The Dimond Age

The Diamond Age
by Neil Stephenson
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I've encountered quite a few people who think that the definition of "science fiction" is a story which takes a technological advancement and depicts the impact of that advancement. I'm not one to define the field so narrowly since the label has been used to encompass just about everything (at this point I think of science fiction more as a style than a genre), but there was a time when it seemed like that narrow focus was what authors were working on.

The Diamond Age is firmly in that form. There's a story there but really it takes a back seat to the exploration of what the advent of nanotechnology does to humanity. Stephenson is exceptional at this; his novels work best when they dig into how technology transforms people and The Diamond Age would be my selection for the top of his form.

As mentioned the book is set in a not too distant future where the ramifications of nanotechnology have completely changed the world. Anyone can have whatever they want through matter builders in the home, impossible architecture made possible by super-strong materials grows buildings out of the ground, an entire island is raised from the sea and populated with animatronic mythological beasts in a matter of minutes. It's a time of miracles.

And then there are the horrors. Ever present nanopolution and a fragmentation of mankind into tiny cliques. The needs of survival may be easily available to everyone but the same class divisions still exist.

Into the crushing poverty of a slum on the Chinese coast a girl named Nell is born without a father. She has little hope for the future but her brother mugs people on the street and one evening he steals a very special book. He gives it to his little sister and it triggers a chain of events that changes the world.

The book is The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a nanotech supercomputer built for the daughter of the CEO of largest corporation the world. He was concerned that the society that his granddaughter was being raised in was too static so it was intended to be able to each a young girl everything that she needs to succeed in life. A copy was made by one of the designers who wanted to give his daughter the same advantage and that copy was what the one stolen and given to Nell.

The focus of The Diamond Age is Nell's education from her birth to becoming a woman. There are side trips into the lives of the actress who provides a voice to the book and consequently becomes a surrogate mother to Nell, the designer who stole the book and becomes involved in a plot to take nanotechnology to forbidden extremes, and a magistrate caught between the law and justice.

I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the ending. It is beyond anti-climactic. Several plot lines that I though were dropped and just didn't go anywhere are suddenly reintroduced three pages from the end and wrapped up with text that essentially amounts to, "And then everything was better and they all lived happily ever after." Stephenson has a reputation for not being able to end a book and The Diamond Age is a perfect example of this.

Also while Nell is an interesting character no one else is. Every time the book drifted away from her I just wanted it to get back to Nell's story. Everyone else is just there to report the plot or tell us about the wonders of the future.

That future on the other hand is breathtaking in its depth. I can't think of an aspect of nanotechnology that Stephenson didn't delve into. It literally transforms every aspect of the world but Stephenson also knows that no matter how technology changes human beings will still act like human beings.

For this reason I think The Diamond Age is worth the attention it received. The complexity of the world building and the thoughts on a technology that is becoming more and more important makes it feel very relevant. So despite its flaws I found it to be a great book.