THE DIAMOND AGE
by Neal Stephenson
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Neal Stephenson's latest novel, The Diamond Age is an attempt to combine two recent SF sub-genres together. Stephenson has created a neo-Victorian (Steampunk) society which exists in a near future after the collapse of the nation-state (Cyberpunk). For good measure, Stephenson includes a heavy dose of nanotechnology.
Stephenson works through a number of viewpoint characters although it centers on Nell, a young girl from the slums who could have grown up in any Dickens novel and John Percival Hackworth, the neo-Victorian social climber and nanotechnologist.
Nell grows up in the type of home one wishes on no child. Her father deserted her mother before she was born and now her mother lives with increasingly abusive lovers. Her brother and protector, is continuously involved in the same sorts of crime which their father took part in. The only high point of Nell's existance are her stuffed animals and a strange book her brother gave her after attacking a neo-Victorian gentleman.
The neo-Victorian gentleman, of course, is John Hackworth, the creator of A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. This book was commissioned by Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw in order to help in raising his grand-daughter to be a proper neo-Victorian lady. Seeing a chance to help his own daughter get ahead, Hackworth arranged to have a second copy made, which was then stolen and given to Nell.
The book, written on "smart paper", forms the third major character of the story. It's purpose is to serve as an educational tool, entertainment and game for Nell, much as Orson Scott Card uses the video game in Ender's Game and The Lost Boys. As the novel progresses, the book's passages grow longer and longer. These passages, which do mirror and foreshadow Nell's own life and adventures wind up being redundant, since the plot occurs twice.
Although Stephenson has innumerable memorable characters, he relegates most of them, to small support roles. In many cases, these characters, the most interesting in the book, are based on stock Victorian stereotypes. Judge Fang is the wise Oriental magistrate (poor choice of names. I kept expecting someone to jump out and explain that no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition), Doctor X is the inscrutable Chinese crime-lord (he does have a real name, but it is unpronounceable to Westerners), and Lord Finkle-McGraw, the perfect Victorian subversive.
The merger of cyberpunk and steampunk fails also. Stephenson's society is so stereotypically Victorian, it is hard not to see it as some huge masquerade. However, Stephenson offers no wink and nudge to show that his characters are in on the joke. The Diamond Age has more substance than Stephenson's SnowCrash, but it is not as enjoyable as that earlier novel.
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