Diamond Age by Stephenson (audio)
It's official: I'm on a science fiction kick! It's been a while since I read Stephenson. It's not that I don't like reading long books, I do. It's just a question of bang for the buck. Diamond Age stood out because of the Illustrated Primer, which is relevant to my interests in education, and Young Ladies, one of which I have the pleasure to be raising. And it wasn't too long.
Overall, I enjoyed it. The world building was especially compelling: a few hundred years into the future, an earthbound humanity has balkanized into tribes. These are not geographically bound but global, with enclaves in every major city. This strikes me as both interesting as a concept, and plausible as a way for our already fragile multiculturalism to unravel more fully.
As Diamond Age is a Stephenson book, there are many concrete tech-related ideas that are worth mentioning.
Matter Compiler - a way to synthesize matter of any kind. At seemingly arbitrarily large scales if you have the funds. (Incidentally, I excitedly mentioned Matter Compilers in a recent tweet, comparing 3D printing to Matter Compilers and got roasted for it by a UW professor!)
Mites - nano-technological robots that can do almost anything. Very much indistinguishable from magic.
Neo-Victorians - a tribe living with Victorian ideals loyal to some vestigual British monarchy headed by Queen Victoria II: hierarchy, order, aristocracy. They have a social structure and dukes most of which graduate from careers as successful entrepreneurs.
The Illustrated Primer - an interactive book designed for a Neo-Victorian princess to have an “interesting” childhood so that she grows up to make a dent on the world. The Primer is both adaptive and personalized, and is at the core of Diamond Age.
Ractors - Remote Actors that are instrumented in a way that allows them to do a very advanced form of voice and motion capture.
Cheveleens: electromechanical horse-robots often used by Neo-Victorians as transportation.
For a nearly 30 year old book, I'm surprised at how well it's aged. Written in 1996, most aspects come off as very modern, alluding to a distributed web and distributed ledgers. Brain-computer interfaces are pervasive in the story, and continue to remain a speculative and illusive area of research. Some of the tech has aged poorly, but this is more endearing than annoying. Data is stored on tape drives, large amounts of it is expressed in gigabytes.
If I was to edit Diamond Age, I'd skip the computer science education parts. Nell's Illustrated Primer adventures in Castle Turing rely on thinly veiled analogies that aren't especially insightful. Wordy passages compare zeros and ones to two sorts of links in a chain. Stephenson literally explains ASCII codes. To someone that knows these concepts well, it's boring. To someone that doesn't, I think it would be boring too. I was distracted by the endless metaphors between orgies and distributed computing -- typical Stephenson. Group sex is considerably more entertaining to read and write about than networking.
Overall, the book felt stronger viewed as a world building exercise rather than a coherent work of fiction. This despite the some really colorful characters and an engaging story overall. Some of my favorites were Lord Finkel-McGraw, Carl Hollywood, Judge Fang, and Dr. X, and the narrator's entertaining delivery helped. Other major characters start off interesting, but transform into nagging loose ends: what happened to Nell's guardian Constable Moore? And to her friends Elizabeth and Fiona?
The plot jumps in ways that force the reader to fill in the gaps, and the traverse between Nell's reality and the world of the Illustrated Primer can be disorienting. But if memory serves, this is not unlike Stephenson's other books. Snow Crash comes to mind. The Drummers, the First Distributed Republic and other crypto-adjacent tribes were the most mysterious and difficult to understand elements of the story. Not unlike real life, I might add!
The ending is ambiguous but still satisfying. I can't help but wonder: was the primer comissioned deliberately to subvert the world order by Finkel-McGraw?