Thursday, September 19, 2013

Hugo winner review: 1996 The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson
Competed 7/8/2013, Reviewed 9/19/2013
Rating: 3 stars

Set in a dystopian future with a caste society of neo-Victorians, cyberpunk, and drummers(?!),The Diamond Age introduces the idea of nanotechnology being used to make one a more fully realized person.  It is the relationship between a young girl, an actor, and one such device, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, that makes this book a good read.

I really liked the main character Nell.  I loved watching her develop from a child into an adult with the Primer.  The Primer incorporates its user, Nell, with her environment to create a series of learning programs and puzzles to help her understand and get through life.  What thickens the plot is that there is also a live person, involved behind the scenes of the Primer.  Miranda is an interactive movie actor, or ractor.  She is the live voice among the various AI characters and scenarios of the Primer.  Through the Primer’s puzzles and stories, Nell and Miranda both become obsessed about the other, without ever really knowing for sure who each other is.  The progress of this relationship is an intense roller coaster ride as Miranda helps guide Nell through some harrowing life experiences.  I think this concept is amazing, and loved the excitement of it.

Of less interest to me was the pursuit of the Primer by its creator.  John Hackworth never seems fully realized.  His sole dimension is that he is a sad sack who makes a lot of bad choices.  I never empathized with him, I never really cared.  This I found frustrating because his story is the second main plotline of the book. 

And a review of this story isn’t complete without mentioning the drummers.  They are a bizarre underground cult whose primary function is to drum and have orgies.  (Uh-oh, this paragraph is going to be deleted when I submit it to the my library’s website review database!)  This was so bizarre.  It felt forced and incongruous.  It just kind of appears and you think to yourself, “Where the heck did this come from and why is it necessary?”  It was like Stephenson was trying to create an homage to Heinlein’s free love cult stories, but wasn’t able to figure out how to really do it, and plopped it into the middle of this story.

In general, I have not enjoyed most cyberpunk stories.  I often feel I lose the plotlines and excitement because I have to muddle through the technology.  However, I thought the nanotechnology here was interesting.  Perhaps it seemed a little more organic to me.  Or maybe I’ve just read enough cyberpunk that I’d gotten a little more accustomed to or less put off by it.  Perhaps it was the more steampunk nature of the story that made it more interesting.  I think ultimately, it was the intensity of the relationship between Nell and Miranda through the Primer that made the nanotechnology more palatable and interesting. 

Although this book is classified as cyberpunk around the web, I felt it had more of a steampunk feel to it, even though there was no steam.  This may be due to the fact that the upper class had a creepy neo-Victorian aesthetic.   And they used dirigibles.  I therefore am coining a new genre for this book: Victorian-nanopunk. 

I think I could have given “The Diamond Age” four stars if I could have just cared more about Hackworth and if the drummer sequences were less incongruous.  So it ends up with three stars.  I would still highly recommend this book as a good and interesting read.

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