Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

*Some Spoilers Below*

It has taken me a while to figure out what I think of this book, and I'm still not entirely sure. I finished it with a bit of bafflement - what was what I'd just read actually about? It was entertaining, sure, and the world rich and inventive, the characters interesting, but if I were to tell you what the book were about...I wasn't sure. I think I have a better idea now, but I might just be projecting.

The world Stephenson creates here is a fascinating one, post-global warming, with different parts of the world in ascendancy, and everything governed by groupings, whether corporate or ethnic or voluntary. The two given most prominence in the book, which takes place in what it today China, are the Neo-Victorians and the Confucians.

Nanotechnology/3-D printing has advanced to the point that every home in every slum has a Feed, a pipeline to the basics, at very least. The Feed is heavily regulated, as far as amount, and more advanced stuff takes more money, but it's a basic resource, like running water. Because it all comes from a central location, what it can be used for can be regulated. But what if, instead of Feeds, there were Seeds? You can't control a Seed. It could be used for anything, great good, great evil, consumer goods or, well, whatever you can imagine. The Neo-Victorians back the Feed. The Confucians might back the Seed.

Some of the cultural "oh, the Chinese are conditioned to be more obedient and wouldn't abuse the Seed like you Westerners and your individualism" was more than a little overblown, and seems to believe in way more homogeneity in populations than I think has ever existed ever.

But that's not really what this book is about.  I think this book is about childrearing, and how to do it well. Particularly if you're trying to teach subversion. The grandfather of the heir apparent to the Neo-Victorians doesn't want his granddaughter to be brought up to be a little conformist, so he hires a bespoke engineer to create an interactive children's book that will bootleg a little trickster into her life. The engineer wants a copy for his own daughter. And through happenstance, a copy ends up in the hands of a very poor child from the slums, with an irresponsible mother who tends toward abusive boyfriends.

The story is about Nell, the poorest of the children, but the other two girls stand as background comparison, making the point that it's not the book itself that makes the difference in why Nell emerges whole the way she does. The privileged heir gets the subversion without the practicality, and joins a revolutionary group. The engineer's daughter falls into a world of fantasy and has trouble peeling her way out. Nell has to cope with the real world, but more importantly, she has mentors to help temper the book. One actress gets involved in reading the book to Nell exclusively - becomes, in essence, her mother. Nell also gets good advice from her brother, and later, the craftsmen she lives with while attending a Neo-Victorian school, including practical strategical advice from the military man who guards them, and the teachers at her school. The book does a lot, but so do the people in her life who she manages to connect with.

It's that human interaction that lets Nell transcend the book, while still needing the book to find her way through the world, and to what she feels she's lost. And also to survive a second Boxer Rebellion. It's an interesting note about the limitations of technology in childrearing. There are possibilities, sure. But it can't be a substitute for parenting. That's subtle, but it's there.

Of course, this is not a didactic text. It's a rich, verbose, ornate, almost Neo-Victorian in itself, romp through a world descended from our own but utterly different. I can't say I loved it, but it was quite enjoyable. All right, Stephenson, we're at two books I really enjoyed, and two I either didn't like or was a bit bored by. Let's see what I find next.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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