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.