Review: “The Diamond Age” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

Whilst waiting for several books to arrive, I suddenly realised that I needed to find something to read in the meantime. Luckily, having read a lot in the past, I’m not exactly short of books. But, although I tried to read “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, I just couldn’t get along with the narration. Even so, I wanted to read something vaguely cyberpunk and/or steampunk.

Then I remembered that there was an old cyberpunk novel in the far corner of my room, wedged behind a stack of old DVDs. So, I decided to fish it out and take a look. It was none other than a second-hand copy of Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age”, which my younger self seemed to have bought for just 80p. After finishing it about two or three nights later, I realised that not only had I found buried treasure but that it was also the best 80p that I’d ever spent.

So, let’s take a look at “The Diamond Age”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Roc (UK) paperback edition of “The Diamond Age” that I read.

“The Diamond Age” is set in a futuristic version of China, and revolves around an interactive book called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. Although this book was commissioned by a wealthy neo-Victorian gentleman in order to teach his granddaughter to think more subversively, an illicit copy of the book (that the book’s designer made for his daughter) is stolen and ends up in the hands of a young girl called Nell from the poorer part of town….

One of the first things that I will say about “The Diamond Age” is that it is one of the most intelligent and profound novels that I’ve ever read. I almost feel guilty about writing a mere review of this book, since some kind of dissertation would probably be more appropriate. Seriously, not only does it tell a complex multi-layered story (my short summary of part of the main plot really doesn’t do this book justice), but it also includes philosophical complexity, thematic complexity, narrative complexity and emotional complexity. Seriously, this book is a work of art.

When I started reading it, I worried that I was out of my depth. Like I’d tried to install a modern “AAA” computer game on the classic mid-2000s machine I typed this review on. But, as I kept reading it and got used to the narrative style, I began to realise what a treasure this book is.

Seriously, it’s the kind of book that makes films like “Blade Runner 2049” and the original “Ghost In The Shell” look like simple, shallow, superficial things by comparison. Not only that, it is the kind of book that holds all sorts of deeper meanings and profound moments that will make you think. In other words, if you put the effort into reading this book, then you will be rewarded for it!

I should probably start by talking about the book’s narration. For the most part, the novel uses a rich, dense, highly-descriptive narrative style that is heavily inspired by 19th century writing (but with some modern elements). Although this narrative style can be a bit of a challenge to get used to at first, you’re in for a treat when you’ve had a bit of practice at reading it.

This dense, formal and descriptive narrative style allows Stephenson to render every scene of the story with a level of high-definition comic book vividness that is really astonishing 🙂 This novel takes the “information overload” narrative technique of a novel like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and turns it into something even more sophisticated and refined. Basically, imagine the ultra-detailed artwork of Warren Ellis’s “Transmetropolitan” comics but in prose form…

The novel’s formal narration is also counterpointed with a couple of other narrative styles too. Whether it’s the traditional 1980s-style cyberpunk narration that appears earlier in the story (during scenes that are a brilliantly cynical parody of “Neuromancer” etc..), or the story within the “Primer” – which starts out as a simple children’s fairytale and gradually becomes more complex as the story progresses (and Nell gets older), the novel’s narration is more flexible than you might expect.

The characters and “world” of this novel are also more complex and realistic than you would expect. Unlike the classic cyberpunk novels of the 1980s, the main characters aren’t anti-heroes. The one character (Bud) who initially seems like a typical cyberpunk protagonist is, after a few pages, realistically shown to be a dangerous violent criminal (who is quickly arrested and sentenced to death). Seriously, this segment of the story is one of the most cynical parodies of 1980s-style cyberpunk I’ve ever seen.

By contrast, the main characters in “The Diamond Age” are people from different walks of life who live in a complex and dangerous world. The novel’s characters really come across as realistic people with emotions, motivations and personalities. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this story highly enough! Whether it is Nell’s journey through life, or the travails of poor Mr. Hackworth, or Miranda’s story arc, or Judge Fang’s Confucian beliefs leading him in unexpected directions etc.. the characters in this story are unique, interesting people.

In emotional terms, this story contains pretty much every emotion under the sun. There are descriptive segments where you will be in awe, there are scenes that will feel warmly reassuring, there are surprisingly harsh moments that will make you recoil with shock/horror/disgust, there are parts that will be really depressing, there are parts that will be really uplifting, there are moments that will make you laugh out loud, there are parts that will make you feel nervous, there are scenes that will make you cry (in a good way) and there are scenes that will fill you with righteous fury. Emotionally, this novel is a truly mature and complex thing.

But, the main attraction of this story is the sheer number of themes that it explores and deals with. This is one of those books that probably requires multiple readings and lots of background reading in order to really get the most of out of it, but here are some of the themes I found when I read it.

One of the major themes in this story is people attempting to make sense of new things using old ideas. Within the world of the story, there are groups of people who try to follow old ways of living in the belief that they are better. Whether it is the neo-Victorians (who try to emulate their 19th century namesakes) or the Chinese traditionalists who follow the teachings of Confucius, a lot of this story is about people apply trying to apply older standards to a futuristic world with varying degrees of success.

Another theme in this story is the power and value of stories. This novel is one of the best works of metafiction that I’ve ever seen. Not only does it contain a story-within-a-story, but the entire novel is about the impact that one person reading one book can have on the world. In addition to this, it is also a novel about how stories can teach and shape us. “The Diamond Age” is a beautiful celebration of the magic of reading and telling stories.

The novel also explores the tension between individuality and conformity. Whilst a lot of the novel focuses on Nell learning to stand up for herself and think for herself, the story takes place in a world that has been fragmented into numerous micro-states that are run by different ideological “tribes”. This novel takes a fairly deep look at the benefits and downsides of both individuality and conformity, with the reader often left to come to their own conclusions. Still, it is important to be aware of this theme, since the story’s ending won’t completely make sense unless you think of it in these terms (eg: is it better to be a unique individual in a dangerous situation or to find safety in extreme conformity?).

These are just a few of the themes explored in this novel (other themes include poverty, ethics, cultural capital, nature vs. nurture, gender politics, technology etc..). But, if you like things that make you think, then you’ll absolutely love this novel 🙂 Seriously, this is the kind of novel that is probably a set text for a university course somewhere. If not, it really should be. Seriously, I wish I’d read this when I was at university.

In terms of how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Not only does all of the futuristic stuff still seem very futuristic, but the narration still feels both timelessly old and timelessly modern too. Aside from maybe one or two brief sentences, references and/or descriptions, this novel could easily be published today and it would still seem very modern.

All in all, this review really hasn’t done this book justice. “The Diamond Age” is a bit of a challenging read, but it is well worth putting the effort into it! Seriously, this is one of the most intelligent, profound, unique and complex books that I’ve ever read. “The Diamond Age” is to books what “Blade Runner” is to film and what Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” is to comics. In other words, it is a profound, unique and thought-provoking work of art that will linger in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading it.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get a solid five. Read it!

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