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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Diamond Age

by
Neal Stephenson


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Diamond Age



Title: The Diamond Age
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 499 pages
Availability: The Diamond Age - US
The Diamond Age - UK
The Diamond Age - Canada
The Diamond Age - India
L'Âge de diamant - France
Diamond Age. Die Grenzwelt. - Deutschland
La era del diamante - España
  • Winner of the 1996 Hugo Award

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Our Assessment:

B- : ambitious story with interesting ideas, but never really takes off.

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Scientist . 20/4/1996 John Gribbin
Newsweek . 30/1/1995 .
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 12/3/1995 Gerald Jonas
San Francisco Chronicle B+ 8/1/1995 Michael Berry
San Francisco Chronicle A- 10/5/1996 Jon Carroll
USA Today A- 28/2/1995 Steve Jones
The Village Voice A 31/1/1995 Richard Gehr

  Review Consensus:

  No strong negatives. Everyone liked the combination of old values and new technology, most approve of his literary style -- though some think he carries it to excess on occasion.


  From the Reviews:
  • "While the final chapters of the novel veer toward the stylistic excesses that marred Snowcrash, Mr. Stephenson mostly holds to his theme." - Gerald Jonas, The New York Times

  • "Stephenson writes with real wit, and the book has the tumbling energy of any really good adventure story. Perhaps the loose ends are not all tied up, but then he's very profligate in the creation of string." - Jon Carroll, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Stephenson's world-building skills are extraordinary, and while he sometimes lets his narrative ramble or grow complicated, he can be depended upon to serve up plenty of clever extrapolations." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Diamond Age is at once whimsical, satirical and cautionary." - Steve Jones, USA Today

  • "Stephenson churns through possible subcultures, cutting-edge technologies, and political speculations like a ferret in a blender." - Richard Gehr, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Diamond Age is an ambitious, Dickensian work of science fiction. Dickens immediately surfaces as a point of comparison, not only because of the size of the book but because the future Stephenson presents his readers with is, in many respects, a skewed reflection and imitation of the Victorian age. There are also Dickens-like descriptive headings for each chapter (though these are surprisingly ineffective and not at all done well). Oh yes, and our little heroine's name is Nell.
       Highlights of the world in the relatively near future as Stephenson imagines it here include the Feed, which allows most anything to be created at any outlet (think Star Trek replicators), making for a minimum standard of living for all mankind, and the spread of nanotechnology. This technology at the smallest imaginable scale makes for many fun clouds of mites -- engineered nano-probes that fly (swarm !) about, gathering information or doing nasty (or nice) things. The mites can examine people from the inside and do all sorts of fancy things. Viruses affecting humans have also now become, in a sense, technological ones as people can be infected by these mites.
       The novel centers largely around Shanghai, near and in Chinese territories. Another major group -- small but wealthy and the one all want to imitate, are the Vickys -- a people that live like the old Victorians, upholding the same values (or pseudo-values), placing the same emphasis on proper form and etiquette and good breeding. Well, it makes for abundant material to joke about.
       Lord Finkle-McGraw, a "duke-level Equity Lord", is one of the most prominent Victorians. Born in Korea, he was adopted as a baby and raised in Iowa, growing up rather unconventionally. Convinced that people are not genetically different, he believes the significant determinant of human success is culture -- and that some cultures are simply superior to others. Victorian culture seems to be the optimum, but he realizes that what is marvelous for the adult world is in fact stifling and limiting for children, who thus will not grow up to be ideal members of Victorian society. He wants his daughter to be more adventurous and creative -- intellectually and otherwise -- and so he commissions an interactive book that should serve as a teacher and as an alternate world to that she actually lives in. It should prod her imagination.
       A scientist, a neo-Victorian himself, John Percival Hackworth is assigned the task, and he creates a unique copy of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Except that he goes to the Chinese territories to make a second copy for his own daughter -- a copy that then makes its way into the hands of our poor little Nell, abused daughter of a neglectful mother whose only protection previously was her brother Harv.
       A popular form of entertainment in this brave new world are so-called ractives (interactives). There is little live theatre in this world any longer, but there are still many ractors -- actors who play along in these interactive scenes. The audience can choose what to see, whether (and how) to participate, and so on. This is also part of the secret of the interactive Primer: a ractor narrates the story, which itself adapts to how the reader reacts to the material.
       Nell's Primer hooks up with one specific ractor, Miranda, who in effect becomes a surrogate mother to the child who fairly soon runs away from home with her brother. A major strand of the story follows Nell, maturing under the wise tutelage of the Primer. Other strands include Hackworth's story -- he gets in a great deal of trouble for losing the Primer and makes several deals to extricate himself from this mess -- and a Chinese Judge, Fang, Dr. X, and the search for the Alchemist.
       Stephenson relates a fair number of tales told by the Primer to Nell, but though these are meant to be tied to the narrative, they are not very successful and certainly the most tiresome aspect of the novel. The nanotechnology is also fairly irritating, never quite as scintillatingly developed as, for example, the technology in Snow Crash was. Nell's adventures are fairly interesting, though years are skipped over with arbitrary ease and descriptions and explanations unnecessarily omitted or delayed. (So, for example, Nell is sent to school, but she is there for ages before we are given any inkling as to how she passes her days there -- only then to be presented with the whole complex school programme.)
       Three girls wind up with the original version of the Primer, and it is interesting to see the varied results (though we thought Stephenson wound up being both too didactic and moralistic here). The culmination of the novel is a bit messier than need be. In large part fairly predictable, Stephenson then finally does try to move (too far) beyond expectations.
       Stephenson writes fairly well, hindered on occasion by the prim Victorian atmosphere he wants to conjure up, as well as the damn Primer fairy tales (not his forte). There is less of the slam-bang action found in Snow Crash -- and less of the humour -- and that is what he does best, so the book does not read nearly as well as his previous work. There are occasional touches we liked. A standout line, showing that he can write, if and when he wants to:

(...) he liked his transcendence out in plain sight where he could keep an eye on it -- say, in a nice stained-glass window -- not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.
       But there is far too little of this sort of thing.

       It is a good idea Stephenson had here, and we applaud the ambition. We like the pieces of the novel (with the glaring exception of the Primer's trite tales), but the whole it adds up to does fall short. The book entertains, most of the time, but it is not gripping as the better-paced Snow Crash. (Not that this book had to move faster, but there should have been more to it.) It makes a decent, occasionally interesting read, but we cannot wholeheartedly endorse it.

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Links:

The Diamond Age: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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