In The Diamond Age, anything, no matter how trivial, could be made from diamonds drawn from molecular feeds. This will be the era in which humanity masters nanotechnology. On the one hand, this is a time of plenty and technological progress, but it is also a time of great illiteracy as well. With the rise of universal access to the molecular feed, the governments and nations that we know today will lose their purpose and become supplanted by culture-based societies that have territory around the world.
John Percival Hackworth, for example, is a Neo-Victorian engineer based in Shanghai. He has been commissioned to build a primer that will teach the Neo-Victorians’ children to think independently. More than a book, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is interactive and adapts its storyline for the young lady it bonds with. When Hackworth attempts to smuggle a copy of the primer to his daughter, he loses it to a band of teenage thugs.
The primer makes its way to Nell, a young girl being raised in an abusive household. Her mother is largely absent and her mother’s boyfriends offer Nell little guidance about how to live. However, the primer quickly constructs a fairytale world with Princess Nell at its center. Under the tutelage of the martial artist and mouse Dojo, Princess Nell learns about self-defense. These initial interactions between the child Nell and her primer are often as charming as they are intriguing. As Nell grows up, she learns new things, including how to program Turing machines.
Simply put, the premise, characters, and world building of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age are fantastic. It is a joy to read about Nell’s journeys in her primer, which are always built around archetypal fairytales, as well as her attempts to escape poverty and to find her fortune in the larger world. Her first job is writing plots at a sort of interactive sex clinic. It may not sound like much of a job, but in this society, there are very few things that are worth paying for. Stephenson maintains a light balance of sci-fi exploration, adventure, and humor throughout the text, and he throws in a few intrigues between the Neo-Victorians and the Han Chinese for good measure.
The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is most often criticized for its abrupt ending, and even die-hard Stephenson fans have struggled to explain why the text ends so suddenly. Perhaps the problem is that while Stephenson does not finish telling the story of The Diamond Age, he does reach a sense of resolution with A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. In other words, the coming of age story is concluded, but we can’t help wondering what happens next. Perhaps it’s ironic that Stephenson’s control over setting and character at once makes The Diamond Age a fantastic read while also crippling its conclusion.
Regardless, this flaw did not prevent Stephenson from winning both a Hugo and a Locus Award for The Diamond Age, and it should not prevent anyone from reading about A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The two storylines add up to an excellent novel from one of speculative fiction’s finest authors.