The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson, is one of the most complex cyberpunk novels you can read.
Stephenson delves into theories about pedagogy and artificial intelligence, to name but two. Below are ten quotes from the novel to give us insight into those themes.
There are also some of the best science fiction quotes we’ve read.
“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.”
The Diamond Age can seem like a mess at first read. But what it actually is, is subtle. Stephenson revels in making the point that a smart person doesn’t just know the facts about the world around them. A smart person perceives their meaning.
“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?’ said the Constable, sounding very interested. ‘Conformity or rebellion?’
Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded – they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”
The world is full of people who want it to be binary. Good and evil. Right and wrong. Right-thinking people like them and the rest of the idiots in the world. Stephenson rejects this thinking resoundingly in The Diamond Age. The world is not a simple place and wishing it was is a fools 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.”
On one hand, this is a rather sad quote. You are not special and your ‘achievements’ will ultimately be an irrelevance. The more hopeful angle that your ideas can live on without you as they continue to help influence others. Ultimately it is this truth that lies at the heart of education, a key theme in this novel.
“If the item of stolen property had been anything other than a book, it would have been confiscated. But a book is different—it is not just a material possession but the pathway to an enlightened mind, and thence to a well-ordered society,”
Diamond Age is, in part, about the mutation of ideas and the role of education in creating society. Given that, is it surprising that books are so revered?
“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”
This is an idea we should all remember. We should not expect others to be able to live entirely by their moral code, just as we sometimes fail to ourselves. Acting in discord with that code isn’t always hypocrisy, or even weakness, sometimes it’s necessary.
“…he liked his transcendence out in plain sight where he could keep an eye on it — say, in a nice stained-glass window — not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.”
Another mind trying to impose order onto a world that is not suited to it.
What does it really mean when such a young person moves to another phyle? It means that they have outgrown youthful credulity and no longer wish to belong to a tribe simply because it is the path of least resistance—they have developed principle, they are concerned with their personal integrity.
Each generation wants to break free form the norms of the preceding one. It’s part of the ability to think freely and of growing up. Society is constantly remade by people who are able to reject previous ways of thinking and develop their own.
If you enjoyed these quotes, you may want to read our review and analysis of The Diamond Age. Or perhaps our article on the 5 reasons you need to read Snow Crash, another novel on our list of the best cyberpunk books ever.