The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

January 26, 2010
By ConnorNickerson BRONZE, Tumwater, Washington
ConnorNickerson BRONZE, Tumwater, Washington
4 articles 2 photos 1 comment

The Diamond Age is an odd work even among the obscure themes that cyberpunk has to offer. It is considered to be under the sub-genre of cyberprep, or post-cyberpunk, which is a variant of cyberpunk that takes technology to a slightly more advanced stage and does not necessarily assume dystopia. In Neal Stephenson's work the technology has moved from the age of virtual worlds and cyberspace to that of nanobots. Nanobots so small that they can reform molecules. In cyberpunk nanites are only as small as cells. Stephenson steps into the sub-genre of cyberprep when he creates a world where everything can be created to its best potential using nanobots. This is where the name derives; many substances are made of thin compact layers of diamond because of its toughness and thus the era is referred to as the diamond age.

The Diamond Age introduces some odd and interesting concepts to the themes of cyberpunk. In his world the author describes an age of philosophy, ethnicity, and other phyles (people grouped by a common goal or similarity) all ruled by common laws called Common Economic Protocol (CEP). Though nation-states still exist and have their own government it is the phyles who have the power. Under the CEP a 'Feed Line' is connected to the different nations, then phyles, then people, based on their economic status. The 'Feed' is a database of matter which runs machines called matter-compilers (MC) that create, through nanite technology, anything that the person orders. The nation-states are essentially kept to monitor the 'Feed' and enforce CEP; each phyle and nation is allowed to interpret and enforce justice in their own way. The 'Feed' also acts as a matrix of entertainment and information which is accessed through reactive virtual devices (ractives) that seem to have taken the place of television and computers.

It is upon this future Earth where even land can be created through nanobots, in the nation-state of China, now consisting simply of the metroplex of Shanghai (the rest of China was claimed by the Celestial Kingdom, a phyle trying to bring about a 'pure' China of old) that The Diamond Age is set.

All of this information is a lot to take in and The Diamond Age is a long book; at times everything is overwhelming but in the end the author does a good job explaining it. I find a feeling of being overwhelmed and a constant sense of never truly knowing whats going on is a common style in well-done cyberpunk.

I didn't find the emboldened summaries that replaced chapters very attractive though. The short little sentences didn't give too much away but at times they just confused me, and they didn't hide the fact that the author was jumping from person-to-person. In the cyberpunk I've read, the factor of blending your stories together into one, is a hard but eloquent concept to pull off. In a lot of cyberpunk the jumping from viewpoint-to-viewpoint and the added jumping from virtual reality, drugs, or flashbacks is all a part of the storytelling process. At times it leaves you confused, because although the author mainly focuses on a few main characters they might also jump into off-handed views of a situation to create a sense of unknown or suspense. This factor lets you wonder what characters you will see-through next; especially if a small side-character and their story sounds interesting to you.

In cyberpunk every little experience and scene can influence the story as a whole. This keeps you on your toes for little foreshadowing hints. These summaries that Neal Stephenson uses give a away what character's viewpoint it is and ruin the fun of not being exactly sure of who did what, or trying to find the tell-tale voice the character has before you're told who it is or where they are. They also oversimplify a situation, and in the complicated weaving of cyberpunk that is something that can lead the reader to miss the subtle hints that later lead to making connections.

Though it was cyberprep it still held the common theme that the main character, though sometimes in this style of writing that decision of most-importance is left up the reader, comes from the bottom of society. Sometimes the character is even at the bottom of the food chain in societies underbelly. In cyberpunk it is those at the bottom of the human race whose subtle actions tend to change the larger society and even effect the 'higher-ups.'

The many forces at work can blur the plot of cyberpunk sometimes. In The Diamond Age the plot jumps from theme to theme. From the development and implantation of a Seed, a communal unconscious version of the Feed that would greatly change the workings of society, to the rags to riches story of luck about a little girl and her ractive book, to the deviation of future generations, and in-the-end to the development of a new phyle based on the teachings of the deviant book and lead by the young girl. All these things tie in to the final scene. It is completely confusing, but it makes you think. Thats cyberpunk at its best.

Although I thought some of Stephenson's ideas where a stretch, as most cyberpunk and prep, stays semi-realistic in its outlook, I did enjoy the book. Like a lot of cyberpunk its plot is hard to explain. This book takes that concept to a whole new level. I think I'd have to write a book of my own just to explain the overall plot. Or you could simply read the book yourself. I won't even attempt to explain the unexplainable. Wouldn't that ruin the point of storytelling?

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