I found a list of the Top 100 Sci Fi Stories not too long ago and there were a few titles I haven’t read. Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age came in at 58. The Diamond Age was written in 1995, which makes it one of the younger books on the list and one that I missed when it came out.
In our own world, where any random question can be answered with a quick Google and it hasn’t even created a world of better Jeopardy players, The Diamond Age seems a bit quaint. It’s the story of poor ignorant girl who finds herself in possession of magic book. It’s not real magic, it’s advance science magic. A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer leads our hero Nell from ignorance to wisdom by telling her stories, teaching her skills, and answering any and every question she can imagine.
But Nell and her quest for knowledge is just one part of the story. We also find ourselves learning about a young actress who provides the voice for the Young Lady’s Primer, the genius who wrote the Primer, and sundry and various men who want to use the Primer for their own ends. The Diamond Age has several parallel stories, all of which at first appear random, but ultimately weave themselves together.
This complex story is filled with violence, profanity, betrayal, and stereotypes. There is a lot of talk about poverty and wealth, machines and people, and the general state of affairs in this strange world during the reign Queen Victoria II. It seems that some people are never happy, even when they have free food, clothes, and shelter.
Neal Stephenson calls The Diamond Age post-cyberpunk, and it has a steampunk feel to it for me. But I suppose a steampunk purist would have to call it steampunk revival, as this is a story about the future that returns to Victorian style instead of a Victorian world filled with futuristic machines.
There are enough odds and ends in The Diamond Age that anyone who reads it can take whatever they like and make an argument about what the book is really about. Striped to it’s bones, it’s Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rip Van Winkle-and maybe a few others I wasn’t paying attention to.
I found the constant talk about Turing Machines near the end of the book annoying, one place where the author’s love of giving everything an old fashioned name wore on my nerves.
The Diamond Age ends abruptly and in mid-action. It was one of those times when you go back and re-read it a couple of time to see what you missed and still come up short. The Diamond Age in a book in serious need of a sequel.
I loved the writing and the names. Source Victoria sounds like an interesting city. The details and the history were wonderful. I like how the Young Lady’s Primer acts in much the same fashion as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Like all great sci fi books, The Diamond Age has lots of sex, violence, and things to think about.