Novel * Neal Stephenson * The Nanomachine Future * 1995
Hey, remember Snow Crash? That was a whipcrack of a book, teetering on the precipice of try-hard but still largely succeeding in its goal of being a more fun Neuromancer. One of the notable things about that novel was Stephenson’s breathless, kinetic style. There’s plenty of criticism out there levied at the book’s tone, written by those who would disagree me and claim that Stephenson fell all the way into the pit of too-cute, look-how-crazy-I-am self-indulgence. Stephenson, it seems, internalized these criticisms, as The Diamond Age swings hard in another direction, stylistically. Having read some of his later work, I actually think that Stephenson is merely evolving his own style – Snow Crash being an earlier novel – and that The Diamond Age is where he begins to really lay into his more wordy, rambly self. Regardless, The Diamond Age feels very different from Snow Crash, even if the subject matter is largely similar.
The Diamond Age, Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer presents a world that should be familiar to most of us in the early 21st century, even if the structure of that world has not yet come to pass. Most of the novel takes pace in a future China, although such things as nation-states are long gone. Like the world of Snow Crash, where governments took a backseat to corporate franchising, The Diamond Age’s world is comprised of phyles. These are basically solidified groups of people who hew to a particular mode of living, “nations” of people spread across the globe geographically but considered members of the same community, ideologically. Most of these groups align with ethnic groups or religions, although sometimes they’re formed by people with strong opinions about technology or politics. The most powerful phyles, New Atlantis, the Nipponese, the Coastal Republic and Celestial Kingdom of China, all have various means of expanding their economic and cultural influence. However, there is one technology that is at the very root of human expansion, and it is very very tiny.
It’s nanomachines. Microscopic, intelligent machines that can be programmed to do pretty much anything. Probably the most important thing they do is power replication technology, which are known as Matter Compilers. This is straight-up Star Trek shit right here, in which you push some buttons and create items via a machine in your house. Beyond the ability to fabricate anything you might need without leaving the house, nanomachines are used from everything from advertising to warfare. Every phyle has their own array of tiny robots and their own “immune system” which filters out unapproved nanobots. Meanwhile, there are various other technologies that are brought up and expanded upon. It turns out that a lot of this stuff was already being researched in the ‘90’s, so the idea of a world of nation-states breaking apart and reforming along corporate and ethnic lines is simply extrapolating the future from current trends.
Stephenson is heavy with the world-building and plotting, so it would be exhausting to try and summarize each and every nuance of the story. The overall story is about a book, called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is an adaptive book, and imprints itself upon a single person, and from that point tells individualized stories and gives custom lessons specifically designed for that person. As if that’s not enough, the book utilizes the services of paid actors to read these stories. Needless to say, the Primer is a rich person’s toy. Early in the novel, however, an ill-gotten version of the Prime falls into the hands of a little girl named Nell. This girl has an atrocious home life. Her mom’s name is Tequila, for Christ’s sake. The story follows Nell as she grows up, and despite the detached, almost formal style, it’s obvious some horrible shit happens to this poor kid. At no point does Nell despair, through the efforts of her older brother and the actor hired to read the Primer to her. The Diamond Age, while telling the story of young Nell growing into a young woman and advancing her positon greatly in life, is also doing about ten thousand other things. I’ll try to stick to a mere thirty or forty themes.
Nah I’m just kiddin’ I don’t even really want to talk about one or two. This is not to say the The Diamond Age is bad and that I didn’t enjoy it. On the contrary, it’s quite good and would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction. It’s just that Stephenson’s ideas are so densely compacted into the plot that in order to elucidate some of the things that are happening, you pretty much have to explain everything that’s happened in the book prior to whatever it is you’re talking about. And it’s not even that the plot is that complicated! Really, it’s about Nell and her escape from her hellish childhood home to finding a better life amongst the more mobile classes. From there it turns into Nell seeking her fortune in a turbulent China before assuming responsibility for a new phyle of her own, kind of.
That’s pretty straightforward, but there is so much happening on the outskirts of that basic plotline that it’s difficult to keep track of just how much the world has changed in over the twelve or so years the novel covers. Aside from Nell, who until the ending is pretty much just along for the ride, you’ve got an array of characters all working toward their own means. You’ve got the New Atlantis, neo-Victorian Hackworth who is a nano-wizard responsible for designing the Primer in the first place. At first all he wants to do is steal a copy of the wondrous book for his own daughter. He quickly gets caught up in the various machinations of competing phyles before being subsumed by a group of people called the Drummers.
So, okay, there’s a deeply weird scene where Hackworth is basically abducted and sent Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s checking out Steward Park, like you do because that place is very cool, very Pacific Northwest. As he’s doing this, Hackworth ends up finding this weird tunnel that goes out to sea, and the more he follows it, the deeper under water he goes. Eventually, he comes across a large group of naked people. There is drumming and then a ritualized orgy featuring glow-in-the-dark condoms. Good times. Twelve years later Hackworth wakes up and dimly realizes that he has spent the last decade or so drugged out and fuckin’. This is all exceptionally strange! Even writing this out, even understanding that, okay, nanomachines can be transmitted through bodily fluids… what the hell did I just read? The very ending of the book has Nell rushing in to save Miranda – the actor who has basically given up her career to be a mother to Nell – from being sacrificed to create a Seed. This Seed would obviate the Source, which is what the powerful phyles use to consolidate their power and keep the Matter Compilers going.
Look, that’s a lot of proper nouns and I’m not very happy about it. The plotting on the outskirts of the main story came perilously close to derailing the entire experience for me. I will admit that I probably don’t have the attention span required to really dig in and get deep with some of the more esoteric aspects of nanotechnology and the weird things that just seem to happen over the course of the book. I was never terribly invested in Hackworth, or anything the neo-Victorians got up to other than the very concept of neo-Victorians, which is great. I didn’t really care about the Chinese civil war which ended up uprooting everyone involved, at least until Nell got caught up in the proceedings. While I appreciated the whole deal with the Mouse Army, it seems like that particular thread got short shrift in the middle of the book, to the point where when they appeared in the end I had kind of forgotten about them. Now that I think about it, The Diamond Age has one other thing in common with Snow Crash: the ending kind of falls apart in both novels. There’s just so much going on that it becomes unwieldly and it becomes nearly impossible for Stephenson to properly stick the landing. I’m all for heady concepts in my science fiction – that’s pretty much what the genre is all about – but the concepts need to take a backseat to the narrative.