peteg's blog

Neal Stephenson: The Diamond Age

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This is an old Stephenson that I stole from mrak's shelf a while ago. It seems to lack the cachet of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, but I get the impression that this author's prose is systemically flawed, so I won't be reading another. In some ways he reminds me of Philip K. Dick in that the ideas are not so hot, or have been absorbed into the ambient culture, or whatever.

At the centre of this book is a purported marriage of Victorian values with a nanotechnological society that is mostly hanging off the ex-colonial coastline of China. The aesthetic is borderline steampunk at times, more fantasy than futuristic, with some dodgy and somewhat tedious analysis of the ethics of the "Victoria I" era and Confucianism. I came away thinking that Stephenson must have recently visited the place, with his lack of Gibson's perceptiveness, the ability to scope the locality to the novel and vice-versa, resulting in this occasionally xenophobic, sometimes sinophilic melange.

This being scifi or cyberpunk or something, he is obliged to slip in some unerotic deviant sexuality. Strangely enough, the three heroines (one somewhat fleshed out, the other two skeletal) are virginal for all we know, even though the fleshy one works as an overblown architect of narrative in a high-class brothel. Possibly virginal until the sexual assaults, anyway, that are presented as a fait accompli to the sort-of revolutionary Chinese Fists. In any case, all the characters seem to be bound in overweening power relationships that lack personality.

The nanostuff is fairly plausible but not too imaginative: it generally behaves like programmable organics, and the story could have been told using biochemists rather than nangineers. Indeed, the nanostuff seems to largely bioactive in effect, apart from producing horrendous architecture and justifying an entirely predictable making-stuff-by-hand-for-rich-people unicorns and blacksmiths district.

Stephenson uses Turing machines as a plot point, firstly by having the "young lady's illustrated primer" be one, for the most part, and secondly by portraying vast numbers of young chinese girls as being entirely programmable. I found it ironic that he pronounces that Turing machines have no soul, and cannot do what a human can (yadda yadda), even while railroading his shallowly characterised actors into overly predictable fates. "Castle Turing" read like a high schooler's account of a book by Raymond Smullyan, missing the logic for the scenery. Neologism ahoy, how cheap.

The narrative stalled something fierce in the middle, and entire plotlines are left hanging variously through the novel. The children's stories from the primer are jarring rubbish. Anyway, why didn't they commercialise the book? Surely they could have been more broadly subversive without too much additional cleverness, and there'd be a huge market for it, just like TVs as "educational" child-pacifiers. Also Stephenson seems to believe in the DRM fantasy, that you can control what a user does with a digital artefact through some clever encryption: I found it impossible to believe that Dr X could not fabricate more books after he has created the first.

I never really got a handle on what the Fists were trying to achieve, or what the Seed was supposed to be. In some ways the Feed reflects the current internet: centralised to some extent, but distributed enough that the paranoid can get enough redundancy, privacy, etc. for the most part. If each Matter Compiler logs too much info, well, compose your artefact out of many things and use many Matter Compilers...

The text itself tends towards patronising flabbiness, with a subtext that the author is uncertain his jokes and allusions are going to be understood, possibly because he lacks faith in his audience, but more likely due to him not really grasping what he's trying to talk about. The section titles telegraph the action to the point where there is no tension or subtlety to be found. Ultimately this is more fantasy that scifi or cyberpunk or whatever, and not a patch on Brunner's world-building.