Retro Friday Review: The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson


April 12, 2013 by Heidi

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!

The Diamon Age by Neal StephensonTitle: The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Neal Stephenson [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: SciFi, Cyberpunk
Published: January 1st, 1995 by Spectra
Format: Hardcover; 455 pages.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

John Percival Hackworth is a nanotech engineer on the rise when he steals a copy of “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” for his daughter Fiona. The primer is actually a super computer built with nanotechnology that was designed to educate Lord Finkle-McGraw’s daughter and to teach her how to think for herself in the stifling neo-Victorian society. But Hackworth loses the primer before he can give it to Fiona, and now the “book” has fallen into the hands of young Nell, an underprivileged girl whose life is about to change.

Imagine, book-lover that you (presumably) are, a book that loves you back.  A book that knows you–knows your needs and thoughts and desires, a book that can interact with you at your will, and teach you about the world around you.  A book that can teach you to read, and teach you self defense, teach you to solve problems, and understand code.  A book that isn’t just interactive in an artificial intelligence way, a book that’s interactive with machine intelilgence in a human way.  A book that can truly be your best friend, or even, your mother.  That, my friends, is the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.

Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age may be lesser known than his other early novel, Snow Crash, but honestly–I like it better.  There’s just something about the story of Nell, a girl who comes from nothing and with the help of a book obtains the skills and disposition to live a remarkable life, that absolutely captures my heart.  It is a story about society and human nature, but more touchingly a story about raising strong young women who will think for and take care of themselves, as well as the fathers, brothers, or well-meaning strangers that will risk much to protect them.

Stephenson’s view of this not-so-distant future is a complex and intriguing one, involving the development and commonplace use of nanotechnologies, in which any requested item (including food, articles of clothing, etc.) can be programmed to be created from a matter compiler.  Unfortunately, he indulges in chapters of technical jargon to get this basic point across, which made for fascinating world building, but I also felt was a little in the extreme.  I’d recommend to readers who, like me, lack the level of intelligence necessary to completely grasp the concepts Stephenson puts forth, to not get too hung up on the details or let them deter you from digging through to the real heart of the plot.  Yes, Stephenson’s work is sometimes convoluted and tangential, but I’ve also found that once I get into the swing of things I very much enjoy the details (and humor) of the worlds he creates.

“It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way.  But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few billion other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost–swallowed up in the ocean–unless you are doing it along with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward.  That is why the world is divided into tribes.”

Set against the backdrop of a futuristic Shanghai, The Diamond Age presents humanity as no longer divided regionally or nationally, but most predominantly culturally.  Various tribes have formed under the political belief that people are not genetically different, but culturally different, and that some cultures were better than others.  Enter the Vickys, hippies of the future.  The Victorians are a group who, like the first Victorians in reaction to the Regency and Georgian eras, has founded its morals as a reaction to the squalor of the previous generations.  However, it begins to occur to several men in this tribe that their children are being raised to believe the same things they have come to believe, but for entirely different reasons.  Their children do not understand why their tribe has been constructed the way it has, and are in danger of being unable to think for themselves.  With the notion that success does not lie in one’s native intelligence, but rather in a difference of personality, two men embark on a mission to create for the young ladies in their lives the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, a book that will mold their bright young minds into leaders.  The creators of the Primer, however, have no idea the affect it will have on the lives of young women, particularly when one precious stolen copy falls into the hands of a tribeless and abused girl.

The Diamond Age admittedly has themes layered upon themes, but what connected me to this story in an emotional way was the relationship that forms between Nell and the voice of her Primer, along with Nell’s journey into adulthood.  We enter the story prior to Nell’s birth, and as she bonds with a book her brother brings home for her, we bond with her.  The Primer draws Nell into the story in ways that every ardent book lover dreams of, with a story that takes years to tell and can be sped up, slowed down, or questioned at will.  Instead of being kiddie or indulgent, the Primer offers a darker education, with elements of unreconstructed Grimm Brothers content painting a reflection of the harsh realities of the real world.  All for the sake of Nell, a girl so focused on being a child that she fails to realize she is a veteran and a survivor in her own life.

The Diamond Age will not be for every reader.  As stated, the technological explanations can be verbose, and it should also be noted that there is both physical and sexual abuse of adults and children.  There are a number of plot threads, with sections flitting from character to character, and I will admit to this being one where I highly preferred some characters (Nell, Miranda) over others (Hackworth), though they each come together marvelously in the end.  If you have been interested in Neal Stephenson’s work, I highly recommend starting here.  As one of his earliest books it is of a reasonable length, and probably the most accessible along with Snow Crash.

Here is an explanation of what I, personally, deem the most interesting tribe in the book…call it an extreme take on those stupid “trust building” exercises they make you do at camp (no spoilers):

“Precisely.  These people,” Hackworth said, pointing to the man and the woman at the base of the cliff, “are R.D.R., Reformed Distributed Republic.  Very similar to F.D.R., with one key difference.”

“The ritual we just witnessed?”

“Ritual is a good description,” Hackworth said. “Earlier today, that man and that woman were both visited by messengers who gave them a place and time–nothing else.  In this case, the woman’s job was to jump off that cliff at the given time.  The man’s job was to tie the end of the rope before she jumped.  A very simple job–”

“But if he had failed to do it, she’d be dead,” Fiona said.

“Precisely.  The names are pulled out of a hat.  The participants have only a few hours’ warning.  Here, the ritual is done with a cliff and a rope, because there happened to be a cliff in the vicinity.  In other R.D.R. nodes, the mechanism might be different.  For example, person A might go into a room, take a pistol out of a box, load it with live ammunition, put it back in the box, and then leave the room for ten minutes.  During that time, person B is supposed to enter the room and replace the live ammunition with a dummy clip having the same weight.  Then person A comes back into the room, puts the gun to his head, and pulls the trigger.”

“But person A has no way of knowing whether person B has done his job?”


Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  It may take me a while, but I swear I’m going to work myself up to reading Cryptonomicon sooner or later.  Not sure yet if I’ll be reading any of Stephenson’s other work.

Recommended for:  This one actually works well as a crossover into adult SciFi for YA fans, though the jargon may be a bit much for some readers.  Also fantastic for fans of Steampunk, the only other Cyberpunk I’ve read and reviewed was Fever Crumb by Phillip Reeve, but this is very much in that vein only with more adult themes and writing.  Nell’s interactions with the Primer brought to mind Barbie’s adventures in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Real life repercussions of reading this book:  It was strangely surreal to read this and Infinite Jest at the same time.  As different as these two books are, their similarities (a plot that jumps around through time and characters, predictions on near-future technology, entertainment, and social structures, crazy but fascinatingly awesome cult/tribe groupings, etc.) made for some interesting comparisons.  And headaches.  Lots of headaches.


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  1. While I always thought the synopsis of this was very interesting, I didn’t expect it to be on this magnitude of awesome. Wow. And what an opening paragraph, Heidi! Your review is simply remarkable and this seems like the type of book I’d love, although I know I’d have to work up to the jargon and what-not. Off to add this at once!(:

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Keertana! Yes, Stephenson is big on all the jargon, but he’s also one of my favorite SciFi writers, and pretty much the biggest name in Cyberpunk you can find. I think I loved this book largely for its concept, but I’m okay with that.

  2. VeganYANerds says:

    This sounds like one of the most unique books I’ve heard of. I love the idea of an interactive book and Nell sounds like a character I would enjoy reading about, too.

    The lengthy descriptions of jargon would probably leave me feeling baffled too, but I tend to skim over things like that if I don’t think I’ll miss anything of importance.

    • Heidi says:

      It is incredibly unique, Mandee! But yes, reading this one may require some skimming, and I wouldn’t blame you for it one bit. It honestly made my head hurt in places.

  3. I bounced off this one as a kid. I finished it, but I wound up skimming through large chunks and I know I missed a lot. Maybe I should try it again now.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, I can see a younger me not making it through this one without great deals of skimming either–the world building was honestly kind of hard to understand because of how technical it was. I perked up for the social bits though, and really enjoyed the story overall.

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