The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson was released in 1995 and is already considered a classic science fiction novel. It even sits alongside Stephenson’s debut novel Snow Crash on our best-of Cyberpunk list.
Summary of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
The Diamond Age follows the rise of Nell, a young girl from a futuristic slum who receives a stolen copy of an interactive book designed to help mould her into a woman capable of changing the world. This coming-of-age story takes place in a fractured society that has split into countless tribes (called phyles) that cling to different values and social structures.
Like much of Stephenson’s work, The Diamond Age defies easy summation. There is simply so much going on that reducing it to a few lines does it a disservice. The novel is full of side plots that interweave cleverly through the main narrative.
Themes in the Diamond Age
Stephenson is not an author to examine one theme in a novel when he could examine fifty. The Diamond Age is no exception. For the sake of brevity, here are three of the main themes for you to watch out for when reading The Diamond Age.
Human interaction in education
Nell is not the only girl in the novel that receives an Illustrated Primer. She is the only one, however, who builds a connection with another human through her Primer. The Primer is what is termed, in the novel, a ‘ractive’.
The ractive reacts to the reader and adjusts its story accordingly. The ‘story’ is acted out by an actor sitting anywhere around the world. The emphasis on the human element in a novel full of technical wonders is telling. It suggests that, whatever advancements humanity makes, the key element in education will always be human interaction. This is a comforting thought in the age of AI.
AI will only take us so far
In a similar vein, the boundaries of artificial intelligence are also discussed in the novel. In fact, artificial intelligence is referred to as pseudo-intelligence. Pseudo as in sham, or fake.
This is just the first of many indications that AI in The Diamond Age is unable to mimic human intelligence. Later it’s mentioned that AI actors are poor imitations of their human counterparts. Throughout the novel, different AIs also fail the Turing Test.
Again, we hear Stephenson’s voice telling us that AI can never replicate, or even, equal the rich complexities of human interaction. This is an idea that we should perhaps keep in mind with every advance AI makes. This is made clear by Nell when she states:
“a Turing machine, no matter how complex, was not human. It had no soul. It could not do what a human did.”
Whether you still believe that given current developments in AI is up to you. But for me, I still believe there is truth to that. But, ask me in a year and you may get a different answer.
Old systems failing the face of the future
On one level, the overarching tension in the novel is between a phyle of Neo-Victorians and one that holds to Confucian values. The irony is, that for all their posturing in front of each other, they are fighting a battle with each other when they are both losing a battle with the future. While there are many differences between these two main phyles, their similarities are more important. They are both formal modes of living, relying heavily on form and structure.
A subtle, but key, tension in the novel is how these phyles try to adapt to the world in which they live. It’s telling how prevalent the sea is in the novel, and is often associated with new subversive technologies and ways of thinking. Perhaps Stephenson is hinting that societies that cling to outmoded and overly structured models will struggle to adapt to advancements in technology.
This idea has clear parallels to the world we live in today, as governments struggle to adapt to the digital revolution and what it means for the flow of information.
The Ending of The Diamond Age
Be warned, the ending of this book is somewhat abrupt. Indeed, it will only work if you have been paying attention throughout the novel. For many people, this reviewer included, it is only really possible to fully appreciate how well-constructed the ending is after a re-read. It is only then that you will notice how artfully Stephenson has weaved together disparate strands of the novel into a coherent finale.
Should you read The Diamond Age?
The Diamond Age is a complex novel that develops and builds upon some of the ideas present in Stephenson’s first novel Snow Crash. It’s also a cyberpunk novel that manages to deconstruct Steampunk despite being written before Steampunk was an established genre. If you like either of these genres or simply like intelligent science fiction, then you will probably find reading the Diamond Age rewarding.