Thoughts on The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age

Government has failed. This is the first thing you need to know about The Diamond Age. In some cases, it was simply destroyed through public revolt. In other cases, through economic systems that made taxes both impossible and impractical. Still others through outright disintegration. Whatever the reason, government is dead, and it isn’t coming back.

But, no matter how bohemian folks claim to be, nobody really likes anarchy, and so rising up to take the place of government is big business, catering to the law society and security that customers demand. Say you’re a white, Christian, right-wing conservative: well there’s a community for you. It’s a hyper-advanced gated community called a burbclave, guarded by microscopic defense robots called mites. Perhaps it’s run by Walmart, or Microsoft or some other megacorperation. Well, you show up at the Walmart burbclave. You pay Walmart money, and they let you in the gate, give you a house. You live in that burbclave, until you feel like leaving. You pay Walmart, and Walmart supplies you with gas and electricity and utilities. They have their own police force, that patrols the burbclave and shoots the people who don’t have permission to be in there. But it’s not just Walmart who has burbclaves. They have burbclaves for everyone.

If your a hippie, there’s a burbclave for you. If you want to be immersed with fellow spanish-speakers, there’s a burbclave for you. If you’re in the KKK, and hate everybody but white people, there’s a burbclave for you. And each one is a sovereign nation, which might be split in to hundreds of individual franchises scattered all across the world. If you’re a citizen of the Uncle Joe’s Chinatown in Kentucky, then your a citizen of Uncle Joe’s Chinatown in England, and in China as well. They’re all one nation, owned by good old Uncle Joe.

It’s a world where you can go shopping for whatever culture happens to float your boat, and with no government and, by and large, no law outside of these burbclaves, nobody can criticize you for it.

This is the world that was presented to us in Snow Crash, a book by Neal Stephenson that came out slightly before the Diamond Age. It’s important to talk about this, because in many ways, The Diamond Age is a sort of indirect sequel to the previous novel. It takes place in the same world, some fifty to sixty years later. The plots of the two books aren’t connected, and it doesn’t really matter which order you read them in, but Snow Crash came first, and the world setting in that novel is sort of a stepping stone over to culture in The Diamond Age. And believe me, the world that’s thrown at us in The Diamond Age requires a stepping stone to fully grasp.

The Burbclaves are still present, although toned down somewhat with time. This isn’t the primary cultural icon of The Diamond Age, though. Franchise Nations are old hat in this novel. The that has completely revolutionized the world is an invention known as The Feed, which catapulted humanity out of the space age and into the diamond age, from which the book draws its name.

The concept behind the feed is that nanotechnology (that is, machines that work on a very, very, very tiny scale) has come to a point now that we are able to construct things a single atom at a time. With the birth of this technology, diamond, which is really just a whole lot of carbon atoms stacked on top of one another in a very simple way, becomes the cheapest and most common substance in existence. The feed itself is a massive storehouse of atoms, containing all the different elements on the periodic table. People use Matter Compilers (MCs for short) which are hooked up to this feed.

Want a hunk of diamond? Go over the the MC, hit in that you want a hunk of diamond and wait a few minutes. Then, like getting heating a cup of coffee from a microwave, you open up the MC and theres a diamond, probably in a cube a few inches square, sitting there.

But why would you want diamond? It’s cheap and worthless. Even glass is more valuable. There are millions more uses for the MC than just diamond.

Say you’re hungry. Hop to the MC, and order some rice: it’ll pop out seconds later, and if you were smart about how you ordered, it’d be steaming, ready to eat, and in a disposable bowl. Or say you needed a place to sleep: go find an MC big enough, and crank out a mattress, maybe along with some pillows and a comforter. Not everything is free, of course. Rice doesn’t cost anything, effectively solving world hunger, but if you want a shiny new laptop, you’d have to pay for that.

This is life in The Diamond Age. You live in your prepackaged burbclave, and eat rice that was constructed, not grown.

Enter Nell, a 4 year old street urchin who doesn’t even know what letters are. She has a mother, Tequila, who jumps from abusive boyfriend to abusive boyfriend like a child playing hopscotch. Nell also has a brother, who tried his hardest to protect Nell from the walking emotional land mine that is their mother, and the string of attempted rape and beatings that come from her boyfriends. She has four children, consisting of a stuffed dinosaur named Dinosuar, a stuffed duck named Duck, a stuffed rabbit named Peter Rabbit, and a doll with purple hair named Purple.

Also enter John Hacksworth, a nano-engineer from a neo-victorian burbclave who is working on a very important project for a very important little girl: a princess named Elizabeth, in fact. The project is a book. Not just any book, in fact, but the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This isn’t a normal book, made of paper and bound in leather. The pages of this book are made of countless nano-machines, constantly observing, processing, and calculating information. It is through coincidence that the book doesn’t end up in the hands of Princess Elizabeth, but instead the hands of young Nell.

When the little four year old, not even able to read, opens the book, her life changes forever. This is Nell’s first experience with the Primer, which reads aloud to her, because she cannot read herself:


Once upon a time there was a little Princess named Nell who was imprisoned in a tall dark castle on an island in the middle of a great sea, with a little boy named Harv, who was her friend and protector. She also had four special friends named Dinosaur, Duck, Peter Rabbit, and Purple.

Princess Nell and Harv could not leave the Dark Castle, but from time to time, a raven would come to visit them…


“What’s a raven?” Nell Said.

The illustration was a colorful painting of the island seen from up in the sky. The island rotated downward and out of the picture, becoming a view toward the ocean horizon. In the middle was a black dot. The picture zoomed in on the black dot, and it turned out to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. “R A V E N,” the book said. “Raven. Now, say it with me.”


“Very good! Nell, you are a clever girl, and you have much talent with words. Can you spell raven?”

Nell hesitated. She was still blushing from the praise. After a few seconds, the first of the letters began to blink. Nell prodded it.

The letter grew grew until it had pushed all the other letters and pictures off the edges of the page. The loop on the top shrank and became a head, while the lines sticking out the bottom developed into legs and began to scissor. “R is for Run,” the book said. The picture kept on changing until it was a picture of Nell. Then something fuzzy and red appeared beneath her feet. “Nell Runs on the Red Rug,” the book said, and as it spoke, new words appeared.

“Why is she running?”

“Because an Angry Alligator Appeared,” the book said, and panned back quite some distance to show an alligator, waddling along ridiculously, no threat to the fleet Nell. The alligator became frustrated and curled itself into a circle, which became a small letter. “A is for Alligator. The Very Vast alligator Vainly Viewed Nell’s Valiant Velocity.”

The little story went on to include and Exited Elf who was Nibbling Noisily on some Nuts. Then the picture of the Raven came back, with the letters beneath. “Raven. Can you spell raven, Nell?” A hand materialized on the page and pointed to the first letter.

“R,” Nell said.

“Very good! You a clever girl, Nell, and good with letters,” the book said. “What is this letter?” and it pointed to the second one. This one Nell had forgotten. But the book told her a story about an Ape named Albert.


And thus begins Nells education. The story is a bildungsroman about Nell, wherein she travels from an ignorant street urchin to, transformed by the nurturing of the primer, a brilliant lady capable of studying and comprehending subjects like advanced nano-robotics without any more than a few pages of scrap paper (which the primer is always ready to supply).

The novel is set in the Hong Kong/China area, and is heavily influenced by Confucian thought. The quote from Confucius I posted a few days ago was pulled directly from the text of this book, in fact. It delves into matters of education, and where the duties of rearing a child belong, along with the power of technology for both advancement and destruction of culture and society. The characters are original and believable. The plot is, 95% of the time, coherent and educated, and while the book is a dense read, there isn’t any need to drudge through it.

Stephenson is a masterful writer of fiction. He understands humanity and people well enough to come up with good characters, and he understands how dialog works well enough to write quality conversation. He manages to explain the technology in enough depth to satisfy the sci-fi buffs out there, but does it in such a way that even the most technologically inept could follow along. On a level of both linguistics and storytelling, this is certainly worthy of a read.

Now that the praise is over, there needs to be a few warnings. First and foremost, this is a work of adult fiction, and deservingly so. It is very, very good adult fiction, but adult fiction nontheless. If you are queasy, not up to dealing with mature themes, or under the age of 17-ish, don’t try and read this. Second off, there are passages of this that get very surreal and hard to follow. The society that the novel takes place in is for the most part followable, but there are times when it gets weird enough to throw even the most avid readers. I had to read these passages through several times, and even now they’re still hard to follow.

The last warning, is that Stephenson seems to have a little trouble with his endings. In this particular case, I like the ending. You might not, though. There are a lot of little side stories that don’t get resolved, and compared to the sheer scale of the story (it ranges over 14 years, and has a huge cast of characters) the end can seem underwhelming or abrupt.

Despite these few hitches and warnings, though, the book remains fantastic. Neal Stephenson is a good author, and one can never really go wrong with him. I highly recommend you give this one a read, along with Snow Crash, as soon as time permits.


1 Comment

  1. Dad said,

    May 19, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Par. 3, second word. Love, Dad

    (But I like the review!)

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