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The Diamond Age

By Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson:
The Diamond Age
New York 1995
ISBN 0-553-09609-5

01.07.1998 · Reviewed by Douglas Merrill

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In the middle of the next century, nanotechnology delivers on all of its promises. At about the same time, new tech and way new economics overwhelm existing nation-states, which crumble slowly on their way to the dustbin of history. The characters of Neal Stephenson's novel, The Diamond Age, inhabit a world organized, to use the term loosely, into signatory tribes, phyles, registered diasporas, franchise-organized quasi-national entities, sovereign polities and dynamic security collectives bound together by the distributed but take-no-prisoners enforcement mechanisms of the Common Economic Protocol. But it takes a while to piece together the politics of The Diamond Age, an age marked more than anything by the practical implications of building virtually every device in the world atom by atom.

As in his previous novel, Snow Crash, Stephenson takes a number of visible trends and pushes them to their extreme, laying the foundations of the world of The Diamond Age. With winning characters and a Dickensian plot, he brings readers ever deeper into a future where it seems only natural that a Confucian judge of the Chinese Coastal Republic takes his meals at the House of the Venerable and Inscrutable Colonel, one Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. And he tosses off so many extra ideas along the way -- from half-sentient, artificial centaurs to evolution among sub-microscopic machines -- that the whole creation takes on a fractal appearance, each magnification yielding another layer of intricacy.

The two trends that Stephenson looks at most closely, nanotechnology and the replacement of the nation-state, form the basic equations that the rest of his setting derives from. On the technical side, by the middle of the twenty-first century, nanotech has delivered on all of its promises. That is, humans can create machines on the scale of a nanometer, one billionth of a meter, by arranging each and every atom. Gears, motors, computers; anything mechanical is produced on an infinitesimal scale by so-called matter compilers. In effect, the physical world is reduced to information in the programs of the compilers, which take raw atoms and build whatever the engineers can dream up. And the engineers dream up some amazing things: walls that are lighter than air, so buildings in the coastal city of New Chusan reach well past a thousand stories, diamond cheaper than glass, water filters on the atomic scale that purify perfectly, islands of smart coral that grow exactly as planned. On the individual level, taking nano-machines into the bloodstream to cure disease, or hangovers for that matter, is as normal as breathing. In fact, chances are that almost every breath contains at least some nano-parasites (or nanosites, as they're called in the book), as they are ubiquitous in every remaining culture.

The other trend at work is the replacement of states with cultures. Stephenson is more than a little vague on the transition, but he the technological transformation associated with nanotechnology seems to have overwhelmed certain basic functions of the state at the same time that rampant globalization has made other functions irrelevant. Citizenship has become, literally, a franchise, with persons around the world more or less free to choose their associations as they see fit, and the new groupings - phyle, tribe, state, or whatever - likewise free to set up their own criteria for membership. There's also a huge mass of persons who don't belong to any group, thetes in the book's parlance, kept alive by free food from public matter converters, kept amused by continuous interactive entertainment, and kept out of richer areas by advanced nanotechnological defenses.

The story of The Diamond Age follows a brilliant nano-engineer, John Percival Hackworth, as he struggles with a task set by one of the giants of the new age, the Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, a Korean orphan raised in America who became one of the key entrepreneurs behind the nano revolution. Hackworth belongs to the neo-Victorian culture, one of the three dominant powers of the age. The Victorians' discipline has brought them success, but that same trait limits their adaptability as the pioneer generation prepares to make way for its heirs. Hackworth is meant to build a mechanical tutor that will introduce just enough subversiveness into a Victorian education to provoke originality. When he succeeds, he intends to give a copy not just to Lord Finkle-McGraw's granddaughter but, illegally, to his own daughter as well. The illegal copy of the tutor falls into the hands of a thete girl near Shanghai, and Hackworth ends up in trouble with the Victorians, the Coastal Chinese, and the mysterious Celestial Kingdom. As he tries to extricate himself, the tutor's subversiveness spreads further than ever intended, threatening the fragile balance of the mid-twenty-first century. How it all turns out owes as much to Dickens as to science fiction, but the artful blend of old and new throughout the book reminds the reader of how little human nature changes, even as the world humans create changes dramatically.

From toner fog made by battling nanosites to new forms of theater over a world-wide net; from Confucian learning to popular culture; from airships to the Mouse Army to CryptNet and the Drummers, the relentless inventiveness of The Diamond Age rewards close reading with a vivid new world, a glimpse of the possibilities and pitfalls, along with the basic humanity, of an unexpectedly close future.
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