The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson was released in 1995 and is considered a science fiction classic.
It sits alongside Stephenson’s debut novel Snow Crash on our ultimate science fiction reading list.
Summary of The Diamond Age
The Diamond Age follows the rise of Nell, a young girl from a futuristic slum who receives a stolen copy of an interactive book designed to help mold her into a woman capable of changing the world.
This coming-of-age story takes place in a fractured society that has split into countless tribes (called phyles) that cling to different values and social structures.
The Diamond Age defies easy summary. The novel is full of side plots that interweave cleverly through the main narrative. Reducing the multitude of plot lines into a few lines does it a disservice.
Themes in the Diamond Age
Stephenson is not an author to examine one theme in a novel when he could examine fifty. The Diamond Age is no exception. For the sake of brevity, here are three of the main themes for you to watch out for when reading the Diamond Age.
Human interaction in education
The titular Primer is what is termed a ractive. A ractive reacts to the reader and adjusts it’s story accordingly. Ractives are narrated and acted out by actors and actresses that can be anywhere in the world.
Nell is not the only girl in the novel that receives an Illustrated Primer. She is the only one, however, who builds a connection with another human through her Primer. The ‘story’ in the Primer is acted and narrated by Miranda.
In narrating the story, Miranda starts to care for Nell in an almost maternal fashion. Nell begins to view the Primer, and by extension Miranda, as a cross between a best friend, teacher and the world’s best ever book.
It’s this human element to Nell’s version of the Primer that makes her’s more effective than the others in the novel. Suggesting that, no matter the advances we make, the key ingredient in education will always be the ability of teachers and students to form a bond.
AI will only take us so far
In a similar vein, the boundaries of artificial intelligence are also discussed in the novel. In fact, the term artificial intelligence is referred to as pseudo-intelligence. Psuedo as in sham or fake.
This is one of many indications that AI in the Diamond Age is unable to mimic human intelligence. AI actors are poor imitations of their human counterpoints and, throughout the novel, different AIs fail the Turing Test.
Again we hear Stephenson’s voice telling us that AI can never replicate, or even equal, the rich complexities of human interaction. This is an idea that we should perhaps keep in mind with every advance AI makes. This is made clear by Nell when she states:
“a Turing machine, no matter how complex, was not human. It had no soul. It could not do what a human did.”
Old systems fail in the face of progress
The overarching tension in the novel is between a phyle of Neo-Victorians and one that holds to Confucian values. The irony being, they are fighting a battle with each other when they are both losing a battle with the future. There are many differences between these two main phyles. But their similarities are more important. They are both formal modes of living, relying heavily on formal structure.
A subtle tension in the novel is how these phyles try to enforce their strict systems onto the world around them. A world that changes rapidly due to the pace of technological advances and the powerful tides of ideology. In this novel, as is often the case in history, this is a doomed enterprise. We cannot simply force set structures onto a world that is constantly transforming itself.
It’s telling how prevalent the sea is in the novel, and is often associated with new subversive technologies and ways of thinking. Perhaps progress erodes societies structure like the sea erodes land? Or is Stephenson saying that the formalized systems that form a society are powerless in the face of real change?
The Ending of The Diamond Age
The ending of this book is somewhat abrupt. Indeed, it will only work if you have been paying attention throughout the novel. For many people, this reviewer included, it is only really possible to fully appreciate how well constructed the ending is after a re-read. It is only then that you will notice how artfully Stephenson has weaved together disparate strands of the novel into a coherent finale.
Should you read The Diamond Age?
The Diamond Age is a complex novel that develops and builds upon some of the ideas present in Stephenson’s first novel Snow Crash. It’s also a cyberpunk novel that manages to deconstruct Steampunk despite being written before Steampunk was an established genre. If you like either of these genres or simply like intelligent science fiction, then you will probably find reading the Diamond Age rewarding.