[Review] The Diamond Age

There have been multiple science fiction novels that describe books that contain all of human knowledge. Issac Asimov had his Encyclopedia Galactica, Douglas Adams had his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and that’s only naming two. While these books were helpful in their worlds, they lacked one thing — interactivity. They still demanded that you read them.

It’s likely that if you’re reading this site, you don’t have a fear of reading in general, but wouldn’t it be great if you had a book that built it’s story around you? A book that changed every time you read it, depending on how you were feeling? A book that answered your questions almost before you asked them?

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is a story about just such a book, and what a book like this would do in the hands of three young girls.

The Story

In a future where nanotechnology literally surrounds everyone, our story begins with an nanotech engineer, John Percival Hackworth. He is soon commissioned by Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw (a kind of CEO / Baron of this futuristic world) to create a book, the Primer, for the lord’s daughter that will instruct her in ways that the schools will not. It will adapt to what she wants to learn and frame things using stories from their cultural background.

John creates the book, but, unknown to his employer, he also creates a second copy that he plans to give his own daughter. While trying to sneak his illicit copy home, he is “mugged” and loses the book. The Primer is found by Nell, the main hero of our story. Nell is the young daughter of a single mother who is a close to living on the streets as possible. The Primer is an amazing discovery for her, and becomes her constant companion and teacher as she grows up, starting with helping her to escape from her mother’s abusive boyfriend.

The remainder of the book follows three girls – the daughter of Lord Alexander Chung, the daughter of John Hackworth, and Nell, all three who do eventually get their own copy of the amazing Primer. The Primer changes their lives, but all three in slightly different ways.

A Caring Book

The Diamond Age hooked me with the idea of the Primer. From a pure “geek” sense, the Primer pulls the imagination in very quickly, and the way it adapts and teaches the girls that it comes into contact with presents a hopeful and inspiring look at a person’s potential.

What really keeps me coming back to The Diamond Age, though is the different ways in which different characters care for one another throughout the book. Lord Chung cares enough for his daughter to commission a book that will fill in the gaps in her education, John cares enough for his daughter to risk his life and his carreer to create the second copy of the Primer, the Primer itself nurtures the children that it comes in contact with, and eventually, an actor electronically hired by Nell’s copy of the Primer (to voice the characters), begins to care so much for Nell that her entire life changes.

This book is certainly one that qualifies for re-reading, too. I’ve re-read it a couple of times now, and each time figure out something that I missed the first time around. There are multiple “side plots” that are secondary to the main plot of Nell, but no less interesting. Exploring these side plots during the second and third reading made the whole book that much more intense.

With that said, I think the one weakness of The Diamond Age is that the side plots are somewhat distracting. The interesting thing, too, is that while the main plot is very concrete and substantial to the imagination, the side plots come across as much more esoteric and difficult to really picture and understand. Enjoyable on multiple reads, but again very distracting on the initial read.

Stephenson’s Best Book

Neal Stephenson is quite popular in the world of Science Fiction, and his book Snow Crash is considered a monumental work in the world of cyberpunk. I’ve read that book and others by Neal Stephenson, and enjoy most of them (with some exceptions). However, while Snow Crash is often touted as his best work, I would have to disagree and put The Diamond Age up on that pedestal.

The Diamond Age is a book that challenges, but also launches your own imagination into worlds and thoughts you didn’t have before. If a book is measured by how much it affects your view of the world, The Diamond Age would score high on my meter.


Grade: A-
Who would like this book: Any science fiction fan, and anyone who likes a fast past story with some heart.
Who would not like this book:There are some explicit sexual references in this one, so it’s not great for the kids. It’s also a book that makes you work in some places, so I don’t know if it would qualify for the “beach read” crowd.

3 thoughts on “[Review] The Diamond Age

  1. Hmmmm. I don’t like the explicit sexual references note, but the book sounds like something with which I would enjoy interacting. I may have to check it out and skim the sexual descriptions.

  2. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: November 22, 2008 at Semicolon

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