The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
I sometimes get the feeling that Neal Stephenson’s writing process goes something like this:
Hey, I found a really cool idea here! I wonder what I can do with it…?
He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possible uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social, political, and economic ramifications, and then thinks, Oh, crap, I’m writing a story here, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and World War 2 treasure and brought up all kinds of gems, and it happened here, too.The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen – or what might happen – if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government and commerce as we know them became obsolete? With the Feed and Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet would come undone, and in the case of the world that Stephenson has made, this led people to reorganize their social loyalties. Rather than band together into geographically or historically determined nation-states, they came together in phyles – places where like-minded individuals could come together and bond with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty. This treaty of phyles, in turn, supported the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.
Within one of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world in which he lived. The problem wasn’t the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young. Indeed, it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, becoming members of their own free will, but they were indoctrinated into them from birth. This, in turn, made them… well, boring, and it was making the community stagnant.And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work – The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – to guide his granddaughter into a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been rather short. Two other copies of the Primer were made, however. One for the daughter of the book’s designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.
The Primer is a smart book, of course, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history, and martial arts, among many other things. What it teaches Nell, whom we follow more than most, is how to be great. In a world ruled by this amazing science and yet rigidly stratified by an ancient Victorian code of social stratification, Nell generates turbulence wherever she goes, and the book helps her do it.
All of this is quite awesome – there’s a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans, and all that. And then, suddenly, for no reason that I can recall, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.
I know a lot of people who love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He’s an incomparably imaginative writer, able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn’t even imagine. He’s an heir to the world that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating and detailed worlds with living characters who have complex problems without simple solutions. Hell, even Stephen King gave him a direct shoutout in his book Cell, which was had some thematic similarities with Snow Crash.For all that, though, he just can’t seem to stick the endings, and that more than anything else has kept me away from his newer books. Seriously, it’s like a whole new story kicks in around page 250. If he can kick this problem, he’ll be a writer for the ages.
The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
-Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age