Katie Stew

A rich, simmering blend of my favorite things

The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer


Wednesday night my bookclub, The BookClub of Champions, met to discuss Neil Stephenson’s work “The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. The book is considered to be “post-cyberpunk” and was widely awarded in the science fiction realm when it came out. (This post will include spoilers. Be warned.)

The consensus is that the book was well liked, after a bit anyway. This was a sentiment that I whole-heartedly agreed with. When the book began, I was really disappointed by our choice. Last round of books we read included “Neuromancer”. I felt like I had my fill of cyberpunk novels for the time being. The first chapter of “The Diamond Age” was very cyberpunk and I was not excited to continue. However, in retrospect, the death of the first character is a shout out to the death of the cyberpunk genre. From there, the book was solid set-up for about the first 100 pages. It was really hard to get into because there was no real reason to care about anyone for a long stretch. It really needed a little bit more connective material in the first part to grab the audience. In fact, 2 of the book club members didn’t make it past that first boring phase.

However, I am happy to say that around page 100, the book really took off. Suddenly there was a main character. Someone to be concerned and happy for. The rest of the novel, I couldn’t put down.

I’m not really interested in writing out a plot synopsis for the story. So, I’ll let Wikipedia do the work:

The protagonist in the story is Nell, a thete (or person without a tribe; equivalent to the lowest working class) who illicitly receives a copy of an interactive book (with the quaint title Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; a Propædeutic Enchiridion in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, &c.) originally intended for an aristocrat’s child in the Neo-Victorian phyle. The story follows Nell as she uses the Primer, and to a lesser degree, two other girls who receive similar books, named Elizabeth and Fiona. The Primer is intended to make sure its reader leads an interesting life as defined by Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw and grows up to be an effective member of society. The Primer also reacts to its owners’ environment and teaches them what they need to know to survive and grow.

The Diamond Age is characterized by two intersecting, almost equally developed story lines: Nell’s education through her independent work with the primer, and the social downfall of engineer and designer of the Primer, John Percival Hackworth. The text includes fully narrated educational tales from the primer that map Nell’s individual experience (e.g. her four toy friends) onto archetypal folk tales stored in the primer’s database. Although The Diamond Age explores the role of technology and personal relationships in child development, its deeper and darker themes also probe the relative values of cultures and shortcomings in communication between them.

I think that the book is a study in the importance of education and the roles of technology therein. For Nell, the Primer was a doorway. It gave her the information needed to get out of her terrible socio-economic situation. I think that it can be assumed that despite Nell’s curious nature, if she hadn’t been given the Primer at such a young age, she would have ended up in a similar situation as her mother, Tequila, who went from one abusive relationship to another and lost her self in a world of drugs and Reactives, (interactive 3D movies). Through the use of the Primer however, Nell learned everything from simply how to read, to self defense and survival skills, and even history and science.

The voice of Nell’s book was provided by a ractor (reactive actor) named Miranda. Miranda felt an attachment to Nell through the book and gave her career and her life over to making sure she was able to continue reading for Nell. She seemed to understand early on that she was raising Nell through the book. She was in a very important sense, her mother.

The two other main girls who were given copies of the Primer had very different relationships with them. Fiona was very engauged in her copy. I think it is because it was narrated by her father, John Percival Hackworth, who was in exhile at the time. Elizabeth became uninterested in hers after a few years. Her grandfather, Lord Finkle-McGraw who commissioned the book, later suspects that it is because her book was voiced by many different ractors. It seems that the children only formed true attachments if there was a consistant human on the other end.

The final girls to recieve the Primer were a group of thousands of orphaned children. Their books were voiced exclusively by mechanical means. They developed into a completely organized force. They became their own army. They didn’t seem to have the same uniqueness that was installed in the other 3 girls. Their lack of a connection with a human parental figure left the girls relying on each other.

I think that with these comparisons, Stephenson is trying to show us that children cannot be educated by technology alone. Those that had the most humanity connected to their Primer were the ones who were the most successful, independant, and intuitive.

Along with the main themes of education and technology in the book, the question of conformity vs. rebellion is prevelant. The reason that Finkle-McGraw had the book commissioned in the first place is because he wanted to breed a little “subversiveness” into his granddaughter Elizabeth. He was concerned that the current education system would leave her just like everyone else. He thought that a little subversiveness was needed to excel and lead an interesting life.

The foil to Finkle-McGraw in many ways, is Dr X. He is a powerful Confucian leader. He leads a rebellion in order to get rid of Western subversiveness and install classic Confucian principles of respect and obediance. This battle between conformity and subversion plays out in an epic battle between the Confucians and Victorians on the streets of Shanghai.

So, the moral of the story? Technology isn’t bad, but people need more than it. People need a touch of humanity, a connection, to make it worthwhile. And it is pretty clear that education is the great divider and provider between classes in this novel.

There are many more things that I could talk about in terms of this book. Nanotechnology, group consciousness thinking, how this vision of the future came about, or the stories and adventures Nell encounters. But, I think I’ll leave it for you to read and discover.

All in all, I will be recommending this book to people. If you like sci-fi, adventure, and futuristic visions, this is generally, a really well written and fun book.


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