The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Time Warner Audiobook - 12 cassettes / 18 Hours
Review by Ernest Lilley
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Though The Diamond Age came out several years ago, I never got around to reading it. Recently though, I found myself driving two hours (or more) a day to get to work at about the same time that Time/Warner sent us a copy of the audio book...unabridged. Ironically, Amazon doesnt't have the Time/Warner version, though you can download the content from them (see link).

The Diamond Age or "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer", put me off as a book. It seemed too style conscious and somehow just failed to pull me in. In general I'm a fairly big fan of Stephenson. Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon are books I often recommend, though the latter plays to a smaller but possibly more rabid audience. 

Thankfully, time and opportunity conspired to let me discover The Diamond Age in its new audio format. The actress, Jeniffer Wiltsie, has exactly the right tone to present the considerable amount of story told by the Primer itself, and the I found the story riveting, the characters compelling...and the sudden tendency to talk and write in the clipped formal tone of a new Victorian. 

Friends will tell you that I'm a bit of a sucker for formal manners, supposing that they lend an air of "poshness" to persons or proceedings, and the stiff collared, bowler wearing "Viccies" turn out to be just my kind of folks...complete with the fatal flaw of being unable to pass their vigor or values onto the next generation.

What? You never read it either? Oh, well, in that case, allow me to divulge some of the basic elements of the plot and introduce you to the principle cast. But first, might I offer you some tea?

It all started when Lord Finkel McGraw began worrying about his granddaughter's education. Pardon me. It started some time before that, of course, when the New Atlantean enclave was built out of nanotech materials off the coast of China, and the industrious, moralistic, highly formal, New Victorians set up their very industrious culture there. They prospered and enjoyed the security that living in moral certainty offers. 

Lord Finkel McGraw, as I mentioned, was an equity Lord, having made more money that could be reasonably spent, one may enter, or be installed in, a position not unlike Larry Niven's Protectors, looking over the works of society and worrying about how to keep it all going. In this case, his worry resolved to how to keep a certain amount of spunk in the future generations. How to keep both rebellion and orderliness alive so as to maintain a dynamic society. And not incidentally, to keep his granddaughter from leading a boring life.

To this end, he employs one of the premier nano-technological architects of the day, John Hackworth. Having gotten halfway through Neal Stephenson's  Snowcrash without realizing that "Hiro Protagonist" was a dreadful pun on the part of the author, I was on my guard for a repeat performance..."Hackworth", I've decided is both a feint and an thrust of this nature. But I digress. 

Hackworth is to construct an intelligent book, capable of teaching a young girl everything she needs to know. Capable of interpreting her surroundings and tailoring the lessons, and capable of providing an interesting education. Cost is no object, though it's only material in the design phase, since everything is made by matter compilers theses days anyway. Well, most everything. 

Hackworth executes his commission, and devoted father that he is, slips across to mainland China, where things can be had for money without a lot of questions being asked, and has a copy made for his own daughter. He's wrong about the lack of questions asked though, and wrong in his choice of who he contracts to make his copy of the Primer. 

Dr. X, as he likes to style himself, is a powerful force in the Chinese underground. One that has his own matter compiler feeds, which leave no record of items manufactured for the New Atlantean authorities to worry over, but one who might just have a use for the technology in the Young Lady's Primer. 

Hackworth suffers a misadventure on his return to New Atlantis, returning without either his bowler, or the book.

The book falls into the hands of a little girl living in squalor with her older, gang member brother, her addict mother and a succession of her mother's abusive boyfriends. Designed to bond to the first age appropriate girl who opens it, the book begins the adventures of Princess Nell, stopping to explain anything Nell fails to grasp, teaching her to read in the process.

The only part of the book that's not self contained is the voice. It seems that a really good voice can only be provided by a "ractor", a thespian trained in the art of interactive drama. Ractors are accessed by wireless networks, no doubt the descendent of the internet, and the whole thing works on a secure packet network that keeps both parties from knowning who the other is. It's a weak point that AIs can't handle voice well enough to replace actors, but it's Neil's book, so I'll concede the point.

Miranda, a new ractor, becomes as involved in the story of Nell as deeply as Nell herself, and commits more and more of her time to the single account, throwing herself into what she realizes is nothing less than the project of raising a child through the book.

There are about four storylines woven together in this wonderful tale. Nell, growing up from squalor with the knowledge of a young and privileged New Victorian, but none of the illusions. Hackworth, sent off as double agent for both his own government and the rising mainland Chinese, disappearing mysteriously from sight while he creates his most masterful his dreams. Miranda and the Theater owner, a Mr. Hollywood, take us through the creative worlds and provide some of the richest parts of the story, and Dr. X and his efforts to save nothing less than China itself from "foreign devils". Incidentally, I don't mean to denigrate Dr. X or China, by this colloquialism. From his entirely valid perspective, the interlopers on Chinese soil are nothing less than devils, dedicated to the destruction of a people, and have been, since before the Opium Wars. 

I often complained that SF doesn't expand my universe as much as it used to. Hopefully that's because my universe is pretty well stretched by all the SF I've already read, but sadly because few authors put the kind of thought into the concepts behind the story as Neil Stephenson. I really enjoyed his discussions of "Moral Relativism", the original Victorians, Confucius, and nanotechnology that he weaves the story around. 

A lot happens in this book, and I found the audio format to be especially good for keeping me from skipping ahead to see what happens next and missing something good. It's a coming of age story with a vengeance and if you haven't read it already, I suggest you move an hour from work and listen to it on your commute.

(and then I went on to Snowcrash, Neal's earlier novel. Though I liked the production of Diamond Age better than Snowcrash, I've always meant to go back and reread all the parts where Neal discusses the origins of religion, viruses, and language. The audio book form turned out to be perfect for this, and the cyberpunk sex and violence was fun too.)

2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu