January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

This early novel by Neal Stephenson is ambitious in its scope and several times had me cursing him under my breath for anticipating some ideas I've been playing with in my free time. It is confusing, immersing, and thought-provoking, but at the end, I have to leave it with this verdict: "Dude, that's some trippy shit."

Nor am I the only one to have ambiguous feelings about the book, despite the fact that it won Stephenson the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of 1996 for this book. And don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the book and it gave me a lot of interesting ideas to consider. This is ultimately a positive review. Here's the thing -- at 500 pages, I very much enjoyed the part that started around page 100 and lasted until about page 450. Before that, I was in too much of a fog to enjoy it, and after that, I was left with the impression that Stephenson didn't really know how to end it.

For people who are expecting a simple science-fiction adventure, the book is probably too deep and focused on other sorts of disciplines. At the end of the day, I think the book is best when it addresses what rapidly-advancing technology might do to society as a whole.

The book follows the early life of a girl in the late twenty-first century, a world transformed almost beyond recognition to late twentieth-century thinking. More about that below. We follow her as she grows up and we also follow the lives of people who affect her -- her educators, for lack of a better word. Along the way, we are treated to an examination of this future world and how it works, and to the kinds of conflicts and concerns that arise in it.

As written, the book owes much to William Gibson's Neuromancer. Neuromancer launched a movement in science fiction that came to be called "cyberpunk," and I think that in a very real way, this book ends that movement. The difficult thing about Neuromancer was that it didn't explain the new things in the world it described; you just had to read the story from the point of view of a person in that world who took its innovations and developments for granted, and the terms and phrases -- especially the slang -- for those new technologies and activities are not explained other than by context. The result is that it takes about a hundred pages before you get a really good idea of what's going on. Stephenson seems to almost consciously emulate that technique in The Diamond Age; the result is that the first quarter of the book left my head spinning and my mind in something of a daze as I tried to process all these ideas by gestalt.

Now, in terms of exploring concepts and teasing out the socio-economic effects of all this astounding new technology, The Diamond Age is sporadically brilliant and uniformly thoughtful. The basic premise of the book is the exploration of the world roughly a century into the future, when nanotechnology makes possible things that would seem miraculous to us and elevates a minimal standard of living for all so that hunger, homelessness, and grinding poverty are things of the past. The interesting parts of the book are an exploration of what the proliferation of that technology would do -- not just technically but how it could affect warfare, politics, sociology, medicine, economics, and the very existence and viability of nation-states. Where he explores these ideas, Stephenson is really a remarkable thinker and a better-than-average writer.

I've been thinking about that kind of a world for a while -- for instance, would there still be war? Stephenson offers the same depressing answer I would -- people would find other reasons to make war on one another, to be cruel to one another, to kill and hurt each other. If they could not find one, they would manufacture one. He identifies not only on religion (as I would have) but also nationalism, ideology, and most depressingly, race as motivating factors for conflict. While this is a dreary assessment of human nature, I suspect it is an accurate one as well. Many of the ways that abundance gets blended with the unavoidable stratification of society in Stephenson's vision of this future are eminently plausible and others, while fanciful, are at least within the boundaries of a willing suspension of disbelief.

Less plausible is Stephenson's vision of future politics. He wants to depict a world in which the difference between being in England and being in China is as trivial as the difference between being in Arizona or Maryland. He would like to suggest that people would affiliate into "tribes" rather than into nations, and that these "tribes" could be based on things like ideology, religion, or race. But at the end of the day, he cannot do that; nationality remains important and states do fight wars to protect or expand their geographic limits because they are still important.

Nor does Stephenson adequately describe (at least, to my satisfaction) the new sort of society he darkly hints at emerging as a result of the proliferation of nanotechnology in the realm of human biology. What he describes is certainly organic in nature but the concept is either too alien for me to understand, or was presented in too deadpan a manner for me to be able to step back and comprehend what was being illustrated.

On a related note, the very end of the book is bizarre in the extreme. I understand that Stephenson was trying to say that the ultimate values in such a world would be the love between individuals, and adherence to the personal codes of conduct and knowledge one has worked out for oneself. But I also think that the story betrays a certain hesitancy, a rejection of the ultimate conclusions of the premises that the book so richly explores. The ultimate destinations, and the ultimate choices that the characters make once they get there, are surprising but unsatisfying.

This is all rather elliptical, I know. That's because I don't want to have too many spoilers in my review, should you read the book. Not as good as the Baroque Cycle, but definitely thought-provoking and entertaining, The Diamond Age is probably the last word in the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction.

This plot is ultimately kind of like the multi-season story arc of The Sopranos. That series was profoundly dissatisfying to this viewer because I wanted to know what was going on with Tony Soprano and his family. But all too quickly, the writers spent all their time following secondary characters like Bobby Baccala and Vito Spatafore. By the time the series got around to focusing back on the Sopranos again, the grand story arc felt like it got lost and had to be grafted back on to all the other stuff, until the end of the series dissolved in anticlimax.

The Diamond Age is ultimately like that. It's got a lot of great stuff built in to make the ride a lot of fun -- but there are too many "B" plots and the payoff at the end of the "A" plot is kind of like the end of a mid-1980's ITV-2 production of an obscure Edwardian tragedy -- it just kind of ends. The bulk of the book is very enjoyable. Like The Sopranos, it's well worth your time. But also like The Sopranos, The Diamond Age will leave you asking, "Where did the last chapter go?" But you'll enjoy the ride on the way there.

1 comment:

Craig said...

Read this, along with Snow Crash, the Big U, and Cryptonomocron. Havent' embarked on the Baroque Cycle because I know it will mean to many sleepless nights trying to finish it, but I realized in reading your review, how much I had forgotten, thus forgettable nature based on how confusing it was.

I love Crypt, really liked Snow Crash, amused but unfulfilled by Big U, and entertained but equally frustrated by this one.