Book: The diamond age - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: The diamond age
Friday, 16 May 2008 at 08:15 pm
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Author: Neal Stephenson

Details: (c) 1995 Neal Stephenson; Pub Penguin 1996; ISBN 0-140-27037-X

Verdict: The diamond age is geekily delightful.

Reasons for reading it: I've heard various people enthusing about it, and I liked the concept of a futuristic neo-Victorian setting. (I also enjoyed Snow crash but I haven't got round to reviewing it yet.)

How it came into my hands: cartesiandaemon lent it to me.

The diamond age is mostly an extended description of a future world where there is near-unlimited nanotech. The effervescent ideas about what people might do with that sort of technology are just loads of fun; detailed descriptions of imaginary tech can be rather boring, but here they are just delightful. The descriptions of society are rather fun too, sort of like an over the top version of contemporary reality, slightly adjusted to account for the social changes that might accompany the future tech. I really like the idea of cultures and ideological groups replacing nation states, and the explorations of how that might work.

There is a plot of sorts, but it's very rambly and seems to be mostly an excuse to show off all the ideas. The ideas are so well presented and orginal and just pure fun that the somewhat skimpy plot compared to the length of the novel is forgivable. The characters are a bit cartoony but good enough to sustain interest. Nell is a bit of a non-entity, though; she's intelligent, and nice (not even so super-amazingly nice as to be a Mary Sue, just vaguely kind-hearted), but not very memorable, and she does get an awful lot of stage time. In general, I liked Hackworth's strand of the plot a lot better, because things happen, he gets caught up in political intrigue, and betrays his principles and has to live with himself afterwards, and he has motivations and goals and relationships. Nell simply goes through a process of education.

I have to admit I didn't really buy the premise of the Primer. This may be a silly remark if I'm prepared to suspend disbelief enough to read about a world where atoms can be manipulated at will and both materials and energy are unlimited. But I think the primer in order to work as described would have to be something close to a human-equivalent AI, and it would be a very different book if this were considered. Also, it's just unlikely that any book, however interactive, would hold the attention of an intelligent girl more or less continuously for 15 years. I can understand Nell spending all her time playing with the book in the early part of the story, when the rest of her life is miserable and devoid of intellectual stimulation. But once she escapes from the Leased Territories and has people in her life and is taking part in education, it's utterly implausible that she would rush to spend every spare minute playing with her book during her entire childhood and adolescence. Even if it were the most fascinating object ever, nothing holds anyone's attention at that obsessive level for that long. I think the book might have been better if the primer had simply been described and summarized, because the extended excerpts make it quite clear that the quality of storytelling isn't anything much, and if I'd simply been told it was fascinating and absorbing I would have believed it. The Turing machine stuff is particularly dull and over-described, and could have been summarized in a couple of paragraphs both for me as a reader, and for any student as intelligent as Nell is described as being.

I did enjoy the revelation about the mouse army, and the way that the Drummers cult are slotted in to the setting to resolve the final climax. The scene of Nell using her knowledge to save the day is fun and provides the appropriate quotient of explosions and gratuitous action and heroics. (Though locking her in a closet with a matter compiler has to count as among the stupidest evil plots in all of literature!)

Stephenson is clearly making a strenuous effort to write about Chinese culture without exoticizing or orientalism; I don't think he entirely succeeds there, but the book is not massively offensive by any means. And there's something to be said about a future that is very explicitly not ruled by white Americans. The really gratuitous violence is toned down compared to Snow crash, and often the hints and allusions are more powerful than detailed descriptions of exactly what futuristic weapons can do to their victims' bodies.

Basically, this is a book for geeks, and I'm geeky enough, and sufficiently exposed to modern SF by now, to appreciate it for what it is. I had a lot of fun with it, but it's nothing revolutionary.


Whereaboooots: New Chusan
Moooood: cheerfulcheerful
Tuuuuune: Jon Bon Jovi: Livin' on a prayer
Discussion: 32 contributions | Contribute something
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leora: ouroboros
From:leora
Date:May 17th, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 12:15 pm (leora's time)
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Weird... the primer was the whole point of the book to me and everything else was just fluff around it. That she continued using it struck me as obvious and ridiculous that she'd do anything else. It's the only being she can trust and it's her best source of guidance - why would anyone give that up? I wanted one so much, and wished I had had one as a kid.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:May 18th, 2008 08:39 am (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry, 08:39 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
I do think the Primer comes across as really wonderful, especially as a teaching tool for a young child. But I can't imagine a 14-year-old living by this point a reasonably normal life, spending her whole weekend implementing Turing machines in order to solve silly puzzles and progress through a childish fantasy quest. I mean, sure, one weekend, people spend whole weekends playing Neopets, but every weekend and evening throughout her teenage years? She could just as well have read Gödel, Escher, Bach, or consulted archived materials for Turing's original papers, for that matter.

I think it's more likely she would have ended up like Carl is portrayed, searching the net for more information about topics that interested her and teaching herself, rather than waiting passively for the Primer to provide information for her. I don't think she would give up the book, having it there to turn to for guidance or reassurance would obviously be very valuable to her, but using that as her only source of entertainment and information throughout her adolescence rings false. It also goes against the values that the book is supposed to inculcate, it's supposed to make her independent and free-thinking, and an independent person doesn't just passively accept the contents of her Primer. Most intelligent teenagers I know find things out for themselves, they don't just wait to be taught. It's also weird that she never seems to think about either sex or philosophy, but is willing for her education to be restricted to programming, self-defence and a smattering of history.
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lethargic_man: green!
From:lethargic_man
Date:May 17th, 2008 09:41 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 09:41 pm (lethargic_man's time)
(Link)
Stephenson seems to do a very good job at predicting—or inspiring—the future. As well as Snow Crash's Earth inspiring Google Earth, I was gobsmacked when I discovered that matter compilers—or at least 3D printers, which are a crude early version—already exist. I may also have mentioned to you being startled to realise the best part of a decade ago that, though RL nanotech is still in its infancy, we could already back then achieve the same effect as the handwriting recognition in the book using an Internet pen, electronic paper, and a bluetooth connection to the nearest pooter....

Did you spot the appearance of Y.T. in The Diamond Age (the title of which has conventional capitalisation in my edition)? I didn't.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:May 18th, 2008 12:06 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
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I was gobsmacked when I discovered that matter compilers—or at least 3D printers, which are a crude early version—already exist.

Oh yes.

Did you spot the appearance of Y.T. in The Diamond Age

Oh! No, I didn't see that at all (although by now I should be used to cryptonomicon, I could see the worlds were related, so if I had asked myself "who could this character be in another book?" "how about this one?" I might have worked some more out).
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(no subject) - livredor (5/18/08 08:50 am)
adrian_turtle: default
From:adrian_turtle
Date:May 18th, 2008 01:24 am (UTC)
7 hours after journal entry
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Having re-read _The Diamond Age_ while working for a company that makes 3D printers, it had not occurred to me that a 3D printer could be a crude early version of a matter compiler. Yes, we could use the printers to print little model printers, but the little models weren't glass and plastic and metal with moving parts...they were just plaster statues the right shape. Maybe the difference was that I tend to focus on material more than appearance.
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(no subject) - livredor (5/18/08 08:56 am)
(no subject) - lethargic_man (5/18/08 09:20 am)
(no subject) - livredor (5/18/08 08:45 am)
(no subject) - lethargic_man (5/18/08 09:29 am)
(no subject) - livredor (5/22/08 06:43 am)
(no subject) - lethargic_man (5/22/08 05:52 pm)
I tend to lower-case book titles, though I'm not consistent about it. - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 01:22 pm)
capitalization - livredor (5/22/08 06:48 am)
Re: capitalization - lethargic_man (5/22/08 06:08 pm)
Re: capitalization - cartesiandaemon (5/27/08 05:43 pm)
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of the Curious Dog in th - cartesiandaemon (5/27/08 06:39 pm)
cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:May 18th, 2008 12:03 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I'm glad you enjoyed it! Your descriptions sound very similar to what I thought. A rambly plot to explore a bunch of cool happenings is what all of Stephenson's books are like, as are cool endings without great relevance to the plot :)

I have to admit I didn't really buy the premise of the Primer.

I thought similarly. The premise of matter compilation can be boxed up so you assume one thing, and can work out what happens from there. But it's never quite clear how intelligent the primer can be. (OTOH, predicting AI is notoriously impossible, so who's to say my intuition is right?)

OTOH, I could sort of imagine her sticking with it. It did make me wonder if it could really be as relevant when she was older. But if you imagine a cross between World of Warcraft, a library, and school syllabus, that could pretty much sink all your time, and that is what the primer is meant to be...
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:May 18th, 2008 09:11 am (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry, 09:11 am (livredor's time)
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*bouncebouncebounce* Yay, thank you for such a fun book. I like A rambly plot to explore a bunch of cool happenings, that's a very precise and elegant description.

I think the thing that broke my disbelief with the primer was the bit where it worked out that an abusive man had started living with Tequila and incorporated that into the story. I mean, in order to do that, it would have to be able to see what's going on in the house, which must be mostly outside its line of "sight", and infer from that a whole lot of information about human relationships and emotions and sociology and so on, to work out that someone was abusing Nell and she should run away. Nell herself isn't anything like articulate enough to explain the situation to the Primer at this point.

I take your point about WoW. I realize that people do get obsessed with activities, even fairly stupid activities, where there's a goal they have to complete. But those obsessions last months, not decades. pnh said something at some point about how the reason that the "interactive media" fad from the 90s failed was that people don't want to interact with their computers, they want to use their computers to interact with other people. WoW has that social element, and that's what keeps people addicted. Nell doesn't have a virtual social circle based around her games in the Primer; given that Stephenson makes the mistake of actually reproducing dialogue with NPCs, I can't believe that her conversations with Dojo, the Duke of Turing, the Raven King or even the narrator of the Primer itself would give her enough emotional validation to want to keep reading / playing for years on end, when she has real people to hang out with.
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(no subject) - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 11:46 am)
siderea: default
From:siderea
Date:May 18th, 2008 05:07 am (UTC)
10 hours after journal entry, 12:07 am (siderea's time)
(Link)
I'm glad you liked it, but I have to say I substantially disagree with your assessment. I have come to consider it one of the most important books I have ever read, with some of the most thoughtful and important discussion of humans and the groups they live in that I have ever read. Definitely on my top 10 list.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:May 18th, 2008 09:18 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 09:18 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
That's interesting, that you got so much more out of it than I did. It might be that Stephenson's ideas are an early incarnation of something that is now such common currency in SF that I didn't find tDA particularly novel, but maybe it really was original when first written and I've just read a lot of imitations. Would you care to say more about what you think it has to say about human groupings?

(This sort of disagreement is not likely to cause offence; if I write a review saying, fun but nothing special, and you tell me that in your opinion it's one of the best books ever, I'm much less likely to be upset by that than if it were the other way round. I don't know if you're actually apologizing for expressing this opinion, but you come across as slightly defensive, so I wanted to make it clear that I'm interested in what you think, not annoyed with you.)
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(no subject) - siderea (5/19/08 07:10 pm)
(no subject) - siderea (5/19/08 07:10 pm)
(no subject) - livredor (5/21/08 09:15 pm)
hairyears: default
From:hairyears
Date:May 18th, 2008 11:31 am (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 11:31 am (hairyears's time)
(Link)


I loved The Diamond Age - Snow Crash de-punked and a splendidly upbeat future of geekery with just a few dark hints.

The structure is indeed "A rambly plot to explore a bunch of cool happenings" but the device of having a predictable and shallow lead character to propel the plot while all the interesting conversations and personal development occur in 'peripheral' figures works surprisingly well.

The Diamond Age is the reason I persisted with the Baroque teratology, in the hope that there would - eventually - be moments of Stephenson's magnificent madness.

The future? As in, a future of 'clades' rather than corporations or even nation-states? Not as improbable as it was a decade ago: our overlapping circles of diffuse relationships on LiveJournal are a long way from it, but they could evolve into a recognisable clade, especially if people use a social networking tool and a wiki as the core of a Mondragonist co-operative. The starting point and the social tools exist today, and Stephenson wrote the book before they did in what - I hope - is a tour de force of futurology in fiction. Nevertheless, Gibson's dark anarchy of Corporate States in Neuromancer is, in my opinion, the most likely future.

One thing Neal Stephenson's predicted - a new Boxer Rebellion - seems all too probable to me. I'm left wondering what else he said, and what I might have missed. Time to re-read it, I think.

Your objections to the Primer are well-founded: no, I don't think it could plausibly hold a child's attention quite that way throughout her childhood and her youth, either. Your point about it needing to be an AI is sound, but it needs some refinement as 'AI' is an ill-defined term that sometimes means a simple rules-collecting 'learning algorithm', and sometimes means an entity of incomprehensible transhuman omniscience. The Primer is intelligent - possibly near-human in it's processing capacity - but not sentient: it isn't self-aware and never will be. This is a very strange kind of entity and one that may be rather difficult to explore and explain, even in science fiction; the plot device of illustrating it in terms of a relationship with a growing child is a creditable attempt but I'm left with the hope that Stephenson - or someone else - will have another go.


A footnote: Hackworth is the Mary Sue - it's a geek novel!

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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:May 18th, 2008 03:14 pm (UTC)
20 hours after journal entry, 03:14 pm (livredor's time)
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I agree, the clades and phyles seem quite plausible, and the way they would interact with eachother geographically and politically. It's interesting that there's no real internet as such in this world; 1996 is recent enough that I'd expect a geek to have something to say about communication tech. But yes, it's already true that people are far more likely than at any point in history to connect with like-minded people rather than geographically local people.

I don't think Stephenson's future is so tremendously Utopian, actually. I mean, even with the post-scarcity he postulates, so that nobody needs to starve, there are massive class and wealth divides portrayed, and a lot of people constantly exposed to violence that comes close to anarchy. The life Nell would have had without the Primer, and that Harv and Tequila do have, is pretty miserable, and there are clearly more people like them than like Hackworth. The portrayal of the future of China is as you say very dark and from my limited knowledge, fairly probable. I've not read the Gibson, but if you have a starting point of post-scarcity it's reasonable to assume that out of control capitalism is going to be less of an issue.

I know that AI means different things in different contexts, which is why I specified human-equivalent. You may be right that the primer is supposed to be intelligent without sentience; I felt that Stephenson basically dodged the philosophical implications of this, but perhaps he is just being light-handed about approaching the issue and breaking his usual habit of enthusiastic exposition.

I didn't find Hackworth too Sue-ish. Sure, he's an amazingly brilliant nano-engineer, but there's a good plot reason for this. (Obviously, Finkle-McGraw is going to pick someone who is that brilliant for his project.) And morally, he's not particularly wonderful or universally adored, but rather weak and easily manipulated.
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mummimamma: Posing with book (Lecturing)
From:mummimamma
Date:May 18th, 2008 07:20 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 08:20 pm (mummimamma's time)
(Link)
I agree with you concerning the Primer, it was way too one-way to be as captivating as presented. I can, as you believe that Nell read it a lot during her childhood, but after she grew up and got into a more challenging milieu, both intellectually and socially, I would imagine picking it up less frequently, and sometimes more of nostalgia than actual interest in the storyline, which seemed sometimes both boring and stupid to me. If it had been more of an interactive thing I could have understood it better. Below there is a comparison with WoW, and as you say, it has an important social element, which is lacking from the Primer. The only time I can remember the Primer being interactive is when Miranda, stepped outside her boundaries as the "reader" and told Nell to get out of the house. Of course if the Primer had been interactive it would have gotten to be a way more difficult book to write. But, what annoys me, is that the primer had, at least in a small way, the possibily to be interactive, with the voice actor and all, thus better explaining the obsession Nell had with the book. Now it is more about tehnological possibility of such a book, than how it actually works and is used in a (non-)social enviraonment. Personally, as attracting as I would find a book like this initially, bibliovore as I am, I find the Primer's two other owners actions more believable. ALso, where are the other information sources in the society?

As for the end, I maintain that Stephenson can not write ending, which is the reason his Baroque triology is a triolgy, he just continues becasue he can not find any place where it is reasonable to stop. For me the drummer's didn't quite fit, and the ending felt like more of a random fade out than an ending (I like my endings ending!).

Personally The Diamond Age is my least favourite of Stephenson's books. I enjoy his description of society and his world building, especially when seen in conjuction with his other books, but I didn't get into the characters, the Primer annoyed me and the ending fell flat.

Sorry, I didn't know I had all these disgruntled feelings for a book I read 5 years ago, so it must have stuck in one way at least.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:May 22nd, 2008 11:38 am (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 11:38 am (livredor's time)
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Ooh, I love that Moomin book icon!

It seems we're very much in agreement about the weaknesses in the book. The Primer doesn't make consistent sense and the philosophical potential of such an amazing book isn't really developed. The characters are not compelling, and the ending seems a little bit tacked on. I was less annoyed than you, though, because I liked the strengths in terms of world building and general fun narrative a lot. But yeah.

You have a very good point about information sources. I hadn't looked at it that way, but you're quite right, pretty much the only media mentioned other than the Primer is porn adverts. There's no news, there's no real internet in either a social or informational sense, there's a brief mention of people who watch old "passives" (ie films), but nobody seems to read books, even in fancy electronic versions. For something that covers such a broad range of aspects of an invented society, that's a big hole.
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pw201: default
From:pw201
Date:May 20th, 2008 01:01 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 01:01 am (pw201's time)
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Stephenson's books all seem to speak to some extent about how a society can only survive if it can instill some sort of code in its members. It's clear he's got no time for post-modern relativism. We can see this from passages in both Cryptonomicon (the dinner party scene, the "War as Text" stuff, the Christians with Sunday school drawings on the fridge) and even more so in The Diamond Age, where the people at the bottom, in unsuccessful societies always believe in total relativism (q.v. Nell's mother's comment about why she broke up with Brad); where, as siderea points out, there are large sections of authorial exposition in the mouth of Finkel-McGraw (here's another example); and where a lot of the book is a story about how you instill the code without making kids into automata who just follow the rules blindly.

Stephenson spells out his views in In the Beginning was the command line, which is notionally an essay about computer operating systems but is actually about cultures.

I think Stephenson's argument is convincing, as I've mentioned previously. I often wonder about how you do get the code without a religion (which functions as a cheap way to instill it, but has the drawbacks that Finkel-McGraw worries about).

[Edited for punctuation!]
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:May 22nd, 2008 12:04 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 12:04 pm (livredor's time)
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This is a fascinating angle, thank you. I hadn't actually taken the stuff about the need for rules and rigid value systems at face value; I assumed Finkle-McGraw was just pontificating and Hackworth was trying to rationalize his choice to live in a neo-Victorian cult. And actually I sympathized with Tequila's reasons for dumping Brad; who wants to go out with someone who thinks you're scum from the bottom of society, and graciously agrees to spend time with you to show how much better than you he is?

Thanks for your links, there are some really interesting discussions going on there. I shall follow up more when I'm not supposed to be working. As it happens, as well as not really noticing what argument Stephenson was making (I haven't read his essay or many of his other novels), I am less inclined to agree with it than you.

I do follow a religious tradition, one which is notorious for having rules about everything. But I don't at all think that's necessary for a stable society; politically, I'm quite secularist. I think a healthy society can work with strict rules and a top-down value system; but I think you can also get a healthy society where people have a strong loyalty and connection to eachother. If I hypothetically had the choice I would prefer the second kind of society, based on people valuing and taking responsiblity for their fellow citizens, not based on everybody following a particular code.

Take for example two groups of people who consider themselves to be patriotic about England. Some of them see "English values" as being about white people eating fish and chips and playing cricket and listening to Elgar. Some, and I count myself in the second group, see "English values" as being about being welcoming to immigrants and having a strong democracy where different opinions can be expressed freely. I don't understand post-modernism, but I am certainly a pluralist and to some extent a relativist.

Have you come across the Red family, blue family analysis? It is really about US politics, but I think the concepts can be extended. To me, the idea that Muder calls "Negotiated commitment" can be the basis of a really good way to run society, with people taking on moral responsibility for other people, rather than everybody being committed to some overriding value system.
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(no subject) - pw201 (6/16/08 12:47 am)



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