The Diamond Age: A Review In Three Parts (I)

February 2, 2009

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (Bantam Spectra Book)Back in December, before cold became a four-letter word (as it does every January in Minnesota), I re-read Neal Stephenson’s neo-Victorian novel The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Very enjoyable, filled with social insight, and not so easy to analyze.

Stephenson has a powerful ability to combine technology and the fringes of the human condition. And he’s a pretty good story-teller. Some complain that he builds, builds and then rushes to finish. I’ve never felt that. The endings admittedly can feel a bit less than complete – but it usually comes out as not inappropriate. After all, it is the story between the covers that matters, not the wrap up.

The Diamond Age’s central motif is the use of nanotechnology. This was a technology on the bleeding edge of research, futurism, and cultural awareness in the mid-90’s. That it largely still is makes Stephenson a true sci-fi prophet – he was not simply glomming on to the latest sci/tech to capture popular imagination. He was propelling nanotech into our consciousness and imagination. Well, into that of a segment of the geek crowd anyway.

Most of the (non-bio-medical) innovations of recent years have been in the application or extension of existing technology, rather than creation or deployment of new tech. Thus where Snow Crash now feels almost “merely” prescient, The Diamond Age’s exploration and of the uses and ramifications of its subject still feel fresh.

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