Book review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

08Oct10

I finished reading Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age nearly a month ago, and had always planned to write a review. Three-quarters of the way into the book I thought that review would be fairly easy — tons of praise for the mostly well-limned characters, especially John Hackworth and Miranda, minus a few murmurs about how weird it is that everything seemed to take place in Future 1895 China, and puzzlement about how this could possibly come about. But then the ending — systematically and with malice aforethought — ruined some of my more charitable ideas about the book, forced me to reevaluate the whole thing, and even made me wonder whether Stephenson was just straight out a racist. Having given the book some further thought, I’m inclined to walk that thought back. But I will say that The Diamond Age, while very good as a work of fiction, is at the least racially and culturally problematic. I would blame no one either for loving Stephenson’s book obsessively or for setting it on fire, and personally feel inclined to do both at once.

Normally quick sketches of the plot might start by naming the protagonist, but it’s about as hard to do this as in Final Fantasy XII. And since most of the book consists of Dickensian efforts to draw these protagonists closer together, I can’t really describe their relationships without largely spoiling the plot. I will do so regardless. There’s a surface protagonist: a Mary Sue archetype, hilariously named “Nell” after the author1, who escapes from domestic abuse thanks to the sacrifice of her brother, which allows her to get her hands on a “magic book” that is actually engineered from phlebotinum, and teaches life lessons via moderately harrowing interactive storytelling. This entity, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, is named in the subtitle and is almost a protagonist itself; designed by wizardly engineer/”Artifex”2 John Pervical3 Hackworth (who may also be the protagonist) for Elizabeth, the granddaughter of the very rich “Equity Lord” Alexander Chung-Sik4 Finkle-McGraw. Hackworth “steals” a copy of the Primer (which he more or less designed in toto but doesn’t have the rights to) for his own daughter Fiona. That copy is physically stolen and winds up in Nell’s hands, so now Hackworth has to finagle a third copy.

That’s when things start getting weird. Via a ludicrously complicated series of events flowing from this bizarre dilemma, a shadowy figure in one of several rump Chinese states acquires several hundred thousand additional copies of the primer to educate young girls smuggled onto boats who are supposedly being saved from infanticide. The reader has no way of knowing if this is true, but widespread Chinese female infanticide does fit into the general milieu of the book, in which educating girls in science is still revolutionary, the powerful people are still mostly old white guys, and Japan and white people are fighting over China until menaced by a Boxer Rebellion revival — in the late 21st century. Not to mention the rarity of “synthetic phyles” (groupings not based on traditional nationality, even in a post-national setting) and the centrality of the “Neo-Victorian Revival” to the story (a combination of Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic” and a bizarre concomitant belief that the racism and funny hats didn’t hurt the British Empire either.) By the way, due to Hackworth via the Primer teaching her Victorian manners, Nell gets adopted by the Victorians around this point and starts going to school with them. And, yeah, my hair did stand on end at some of what the Victorians were teaching Nell, well before the ending:

They studied the most ghastly parts of Dickens, which Miss Bowlware carefully explained was called Victorian literature because it was written during the reign of Victoria I, but was actually about pre-Victorian times, and that the mores of the original Victorians — the ones who built the old British Empire — were actually a reaction against the sort of bad behavior engaged in by their parents and grandparents and so convincingly detailed by Dickens, their most popular novelist.

The girls actually got to sit at their desks and play a few ractives showing what it was like to live during this time: generally not very nice, even if you selected all the diseases. At this point, Mrs. Disher stepped in to say, if you thought that was scary, look at how poor people lived in the late twentieth century. Indeed, after ractives told them about the life of an inner-city Washington, D.C., child during the 1990s, most students had to agree they’d take a workhouse in pre-Victorian England over that any day.

I am reluctant even to explain all the error herein, as I don’t think even Stephenson accepts it as the unvarnished truth.5 Rather, I think he has come to value stability in a limited sense. A few pages later, the “good cop” teacher, Miss Matheson, defends this sort of “education” (along with the school system’s attempt to link decorum and morality) because it builds this sort of cultural stability, and everyone’s out to get us so we have to be strong in defense. (Or, in practice, get everyone else first.)6 Nell claims she can’t quite bring herself to believe this, which seems strange, because she believes everything else she’s told throughout the book, and this seems to work out for her. This might be because much of her success — and her escape into the Victorian territory in China in the first place — was due, not to the Primer itself or the Victorians, but to the plebeian (if prim and trained as a Victorian governess) Primer voice actress who essentially serves as Nell’s mother, as various characters ultimately acknowledge.

This actress, Miranda (whose race, unless I missed something, is unclear) may, in fact, also be the protagonist, at least of the middle part of the novel. She, along with the underdeveloped Hackworth-Fiona subplot, could have served to illustrate the importance of personal relationships and individuality as a counterpoint to the Victorian obsession with testudo-formation ultra-defensive society and the Orientalist ultra-conformist China. In fact, however, she is forced by the plot to join what is essentially a hive-brain, knows as the Drummers, in order to find Nell. Stephenson suggests that individuality is a force that societies have to somehow take advantage of yet remain untouched by. In several places a period of exploration in the world (somewhat similar to the popularized version of Rumspringa) is advocated for certain young people, with the expectation that they will eventually return to the fold. Obviously, not everyone will sign up, and there’s brief attention given to synthetic phyles with voluntary membership, like CryptNet and the Reformed Distributed Republic. These groups are mostly seen from a Victorian perspective as bad and leading to instability, due to the prospect of the Seed which informs the last third of the novel. (These are the groups that I wanted to spend more time with — there should have been more of the dynamic Fiona and less of moderately repellent “heroes” like Hackworth, Carl Hollywood, and to some extent Nell.)

In The Diamond Age, societies get resources via matter compilers, which are needlessly expensive and produce strictly regulated output, but have yet modestly improved people’s lives. Various individualist groups want to replace matter compilers with Seeds, which basically allow anyone to make anything. In a conversation with Fiona (a CryptNet member), Hackworth explains that his opposition to the Seed lies in the danger that ordinary people would be able to construct the equivalent of nuclear weapons (“nanoweapons”), thus obviating any hope of stability.7 This is a fairly compelling argument, but there are reasonable counterarguments not explicitly given in the book: first, that nuclear weapons have decreased the likelihood of crazy behavior on a macro scale; second, that the Boxers are, by the end of the book, fucking things up with nanoweapons in a highly unstable way; third, that with widespread distribution of the Seed, more people would be interested in countering these weapons than in creating them. Hackworth’s argument reduces to a standard gun control argument, except without the democratic government that makes gun control seem compelling.8

At the end it comes out that Hackworth — who had helped design the Seed while in captivity with the Drummers due to the Chinese — had somehow subconsciously been in favor of the Seed all along, and had designed the Primer to teach Nell to complete it; as complicated as Hackworth is, this still doesn’t begin to make sense. Also, back on page 179, Hackworth had

almost without thinking about it and without appreciating the ramifications of what he was doing, devised a trick and slipped it in under the radar of the Judge and Dr. X and all of the other people in the theatre, who were better at noticing tricks than most other people in the world. “While I’m at it, if it pleases the court, I can also,” Hackworth said, most obsequiously, “make changes in the content so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership. But it will take some time.

Three hundred pages and eight years later, this aside — I think — winds up meaning that the several hundred thousand Chinese girls mentioned above become the preteen “Mouse Army,” organize their own phyle, defeat the Boxers, and crown Nell as their queen, even though she had done no more, as far as the reader knows, to deserve this honor than any of the girls. Whether this last act was personally orchestrated by Hackworth (who barely knew Nell) or not, it is what it is — a whole bunch of Chinese people voluntarily submitting to rule by a white person they don’t know, and then the book ends.

That struck me as pretty screwy, so I started thinking about the role of Chinese people in the book (which is, after all, 90% set in geographical China.) The most prominent character goes by Dr. X (because Westerners allegedly can’t pronounce his name) and is really quite inscrutable. There’s the minor character Judge Fang, who is from New York but according to TVTropes is inspired by a Western take on an 18th century novel set in the 7th century — and only white people seem to consider him or his very 7th century court in any way odd. Everyone else is pretty much faceless, including the Boxers, who rape Nell just in case you might be getting sympathetic.

When I went to search for Neal Stephenson’s ideas about China, I found this article, from 1994, in which he notes that the technology available in 1994 had not fundamentally changed that society. He notes several times that he hadn’t seen any Chinese people playing computer games (again, in 1994), notes how it’s difficult to type in hanzi, then launches into a this full-fledged Orientalist fantasy:

If you look a decade or two down the road, it’s possible to imagine a future in which non-Westernized Chinese finally have the opportunity to use computers for the highest and best purpose we have ever found for them: goofing off. This is terribly important, because goofing off with computers leads to hackers, which leads to the hacker mentality, which takes us to other interesting places.

Whether the Chinese are interested in goofing off is another story. I saw a lot of computers in China, but I didn’t see a single computer game. The idea of sitting by yourself in front of a machine doesn’t seem to do much for them; it does not gibe with their concept of having fun. It’s not a culture that encourages idiosyncratic loners.

There are plenty of historical examples to back up the proposition that we won’t see any Hacker Ethic in China. The country has a long history of coming up with technologies before anyone else and then not doing a lot with them; a culture 5,000 years old prefers to bend new technologies to its own ways.

It’s easy to laugh at this speculation now that Chinese hackers are famous and young Chinese people are coming up with brilliant strategies for gold-farming (which may be closer to what Stephenson means by the “hacker mentality” than breaking into stuff.) But even the history is wrong. Stephenson argues throughout The Diamond Age that conformity encourages stability, and stability leads to military success.9 But when China had the ability to colonize on a mass scale — after the fall of Rome and, most notably, in the 15th century, when Zheng He was making the rounds collecting tribute in Africa — Chinese expansion was done in by an internal political fight. Chinese society is “stable” to the extent that it hasn’t suffered many outside invaders, which is due largely to geographical luck; but it’s no more internally stable at the top or the bottom than any other society, and has in fact suffered so much internal convulsion and dynastic upheaval that it would likely no longer exist today if not for its geographical advantages. And you can say the same thing about Britain, the US and Japan, for all the play they get in the novel.

In short, I don’t think Stephenson was a full-on racist when he wrote The Diamond Age, although his culturalism and determinism leads him to some pretty hairy places. And I think it’s an interesting book that, as I’ve tried to point out, is multivocal enough to contain its own deconstruction (although it doesn’t go intentionally as far in this dimension as, say, a Shaw play.) But I do wish Stephenson had gotten to chat with a certain other Diamond, or perhaps seen some sort of advance draft of the latter’s most famous book, before he started typing. And I wish that, in general, he had as much imagination for future history as he does for future tech. But it’s a hell of a book, and worth reading even for its flaws, as such viewpoints are seldom expressed with as much depth as here. 4/5

1. And/or the Dickensian Nell Trent. Probably and.
2. Latin: n. artist, actor; craftsman; master of an art; author, maker; mastermind; schemer; adj. skilled, artistic; expert, practiced; cunning, artful; creative, productive. Every last one of these dictionary meanings proves to be important, and I guarantee you Neal Stephenson knew what he was doing.
3. Here too.
4. And here, I thought, no way, he’s just reaching for a cool Asian name, but actually some of this is relevant. Even though “EL”AC-SF-M is not, ultimately, that important, and certainly isn’t the protagonist.
5. I can’t resist noting, though, that race plays a central role in the unfairness of the second paragraph’s comparison. Where were the non-whites living in the late 19th century’s British Empire? Not in England, but in India and increasingly Africa. What is the status of “inner city” neighborhoods in contemporary America, from the perspective of the power structure? Largely as cannon fodder for the military and, conversely, as a place where scary things come from. The vast majority of Neo-Victorians have rollicking Dickensian names, and all but one is clearly white; I had taken “Miss Ramanujan” to be a descendant of a mixed family under the British Raj who sympathized with Britain,but her cameo reveals nothing about her.
Regardless, somehow Britain has reinvaded America, while the POC who used to live there have all, apparently, joined other, “minor” phyles — which are, judging from the cameos that such phyles make, just as equally racist as the Victorians but less powerful. 100 years in the future, in fact, the list of the “great” phyles reflects, in order, the list of largest economies in the world as of 1995. That ordering has already changed, with China moving past Japan for second place. Neal Stephenson, prognostication genius.
6. Fans of Snow Crash will be saddened to discover that Miss Matheson hints at having possibly been, in her youth, that book’s Y.T. Please don’t break your keyboard in rage.
7. The antagonist of Snow Crash is an ordinary person who rides around with a nuclear weapon.
8. Naturally the Victorians control all weapons. This is a foreign policy issue for them; they don’t so much care about what happens to the rest of the world as fear for their own phyle’s stability.
9. I presume this is what “not doing a lot with them” is referring to — it’s typical code-speak in the standard Orientalist argument, as, much like the Neo-Victorians, no one wants to come out and say that taking over other people’s stuff is the ultimate goal.

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7 Responses to “Book review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson”

  1. We both agree it is an interesting read though for me, N. Stephenson has never been particularly good at endings, even in Snow Crash (and IS there an ending to his current soap opera cycle of revision history?). The antagonist in Snow Crash is Babel, or the deconstruction of language in a meta sense, a brilliant idea poorly finished, the Alute (sic.) who has a nuclear bomb is ironically not representative at ALL of Inuit on either side of that particular arctic region but more of a ‘do what I wanna do’ american style hero, or anti-hero. (note 7).

    I read the article, thank you for the reference, and it is clear that going in zone 2 is pretty much described exactly as the section in which the ‘primer’ is lost – the seperation of those with and those without. The book is interesting in that it actually fortells what you reference, particularly the Hacker Army, in that appropriation and re-creation overcome the individualism held so high by the west (it is interesting that he uses cell phones in the article as no company can sell in China because the chinese are able to copy the most popular parts and remarket it out as a chinese brand in less than six months).

    Yes, the use of Little Nell, the tragic Heroine, which embodied all of Dicken’s morality against the middle class in London mostly (since the lower class had no real interest in the work of dickens, but did make satires of other parts of his other books, just not that one), is so deliberate, that it is difficult not to laugh as Stephenson shoves the American Independance ideals of Washington DC into the face such as Dickens’ did with Little Nell (whose death is one of the great laugh fests in literature…..sadly the person I told that too loved Dickens and thought me a monster).

    I agree that Stephenson is not as pure as Sterling, and does try to introduce race ideas, which often fall into Stereotype, or alter-stereotype, since this is alterworld – much as Hong Kong made itself into a Franchise in Snow Crash.

    I am curious at which Shaw playwright and which play you could be referring. I think Neil is amazing at his meta-construction which, when it it suppose to dovetail all together, doesn’t. The bringing back of Nell, besides a plot point, is simple cypher, she is literally the ‘key’ to the primer, and thus the one which can under the meta use of it best (not that I agree with that arguement, but he continues in Cryponomicon). His fortelling falls short when he looks to China, not India as the meta collective, the near collected organism which will overcome the individuals of the empire (the west).

    I guess what interests me the most is the reactions or interpretations of what is in the book (what did you make of the corporal punishment of adults?), as it is supposed to be a ‘mirror book’ in which the one, is reflected in the many. Or submerged and must fight to re-emerge. Not quite as well done as Snow Crash, but then, we all can’t be pizza delivery protagonists, and delivery girl heroines.

    • Thanks for a dense and informative comment. I could try to reply to it for days, but here are some major points.

      Re: Snow Crash. I remember thinking the magic Sumerian was a good idea, but being disturbed by the distinct sense that the author actually thought it was plausible. I’m not inherently disturbed by mixing realistic future science with out-and-out magic — he did the same thing with the Drummers and it was fine — but the magic language and concomitant “explanation” played such huge role in the story as to render the entire plot of Snow Crash fundamentally implausible. On a scale where an Aleut vrooming around with a nuke in his sidecar counts as plausible.

      Snow Crash is basically a book about America, coming from a culturally libertarian position. Both corporations and government get viciously mocked and criticized; the individual ultimately triumphs. There isn’t much room for race in that sort of milieu except as decoration, and to make the point that racism is bad — I think Hiro fights some skinheads at some point, in a fight so eerily the reverse of Carl Hollywood vs. Boxers that you’d think it parody. (I’m more certain that the scene where Nell skateboards into China wearing a “skin-tight coverall emblazoned with SHIT HAPPENS in pulsating orange letters” is parodying Snow Crash, as she does nothing like this before or after. How Stephenson got so stodgy so fast, or whether it was all just an impossibly skilled act in the first place, I can’t answer.)

      The Diamond Age is also a book about America but from a different cultural perspective, one closer to traditional conservatism: strength lies in social cohesion and in the preservation of tradition, even down to restoring the British. I find this a much more disturbing ideal because of its moral consequences — while an individualist outlook erases no one, a phyletic outlook erases everyone outside your own group. If all phyles were synthetic this would be problematic enough, but the (unfortunate) degree to which culture is tied to race compounds the problem and leads to the racist outcomes I discussed in the post. Unfortunately, it’s the Diamond Age America that has been and remains historically dominant — e.g. the Tea Party claimed to be a Snow Crash movement but is really a Diamond Age movement.

      I actually do not at all agree that “appropriation and re-creation overcome the individualism held so high by the west.” Just the opposite — appropriation is when an individual takes something claimed by a group and makes it hir own (and may then spread it windward.) There’s nothing inherently collectivist about the phenomenon; it was prevalent in Snow Crash — everything about Hiro Protagonist is appropriation but simultaneously very individual. And as I said in the post, it’s Hackworth “stealing” something he created from a corporation that owns its rights that sets the whole plot in motion. Indeed, the equalist/legitimate collectivists (like CryptNet and the Drummers, in very different ways) get sort of slagged by the book; it’s the authoritarian “collectivists” (the Chinese and Victorian stereotypes) who come off well. Even the hero, Nell, is defined by her ability to learn systems and work within them.

      I fell in love with the plays of G. B. Shaw beginning in high school, despite disagreeing with the moral “conclusions” many of them proposed to draw. That’s because there was so much legitimate conflict and disagreement worked out as the plays unfolded that it didn’t really matter what happened in the final act. (I’m thinking especially of “Major Barbara” and “Man and Superman.”) I’ve come to assume that all works of fiction have an agenda (Shaw’s prefaces were enough evidence that he had one) — but since reading Shaw, I’ve come to judge works based on whether that agenda gets a reasonable challenge from within the work. (It’s not the only criterion I use, of course. I think Orwell does better at this than Atwood, but still prefer Atwood overall.)

      • Actually re-reading, please read some Judge Dee. The translations (and cases which are by the way mirrored somewhat in Diamond age) is a bit like saying L. Hearne translations are ‘western ideas of Japan’. Van Guilk took some heavy centure for translating accurately, as Chinese ‘Judge’ mysteries include all punishments and only end after the death, or torture and then death of the guilty, thus showing the great system at work. NOT exactly what Edwardian Readers were expecting. Though coming from the country famous for ‘third sight’ detectives (including a Bhuddist street detective in Amsterdam), well worth reading.

  2. Thank you for the time taken in your reply. I think we may be approaching this from two different knowledge bases as for example, I don’t have TV, or News, I am not aware of the connection between the Amercian Symbolic act of the revolutionary war and Diamond Age – if the reference to the Tea Party is about some group or fad, it hasn’t shown up in ways I can detect globally, nor part of the 1998 scope of when the book was published (though the facinating article about the Hong Kong and technology is).

    Quinne: “Re: Snow Crash. I remember thinking the magic Sumerian was a good idea, but being disturbed by the distinct sense that the author actually thought it was plausible. I’m not inherently disturbed by mixing realistic future science with out-and-out magic — he did the same thing with the Drummers and it was fine — but the magic language and concomitant “explanation” played such huge role in the story as to render the entire plot of Snow Crash fundamentally implausible. On a scale where an Aleut vrooming around with a nuke in his sidecar counts as plausible.”

    I am not sure what to say except: it is all about ‘the hack’ – and what blew the minds of people who read the book was the application of chomsky’s theory on core brain language structure and biblical literary history about Babel – that Neal had come up with a completely concievable ‘hack’ or ‘crash’ to a human’s root language system based on Chomsky’s liquisticly accepted theories (which I didn’t agree with, but nor did I with Derride, but more Borges). So suddenly, there appears a brilliant idea of the uber-hack, digital core hacking wet world core. What happened after that was less well constructed but what made it such a core book is that it followed exactly what WAS plausable, not magic, magic realism but an abandonment of mind control for simple viral breakdown, transmitted past consciousness.

    The same with the Drummers, who sometimes stay where I live, and whose grouping at Luminara two years ago I videoed, and was washed in. So, when they drift past my apartment it is kind of odd reading how they are fundamentally implausable. It is the extrapolation and projection of ideas seen in potential which makes cyber-punk so interesting, that a decade BEFORE the cyber army you cite, Stephenson could see, in how they would working ‘the Hack’ on pagers, what possibilities occurred.

    Personally I prefer Bruce Sterling who combines the human and ‘the hack’ in a way that his 1993 book on Crackers and Hackers inspired a multi-award winning book on how to use your X-box 360 nets to create a sub-network for connecting and organizing civil unrest demonstration events under the strictest radar.

    There are also some good lesbian cyber-punk writers, who are under the radar but not as tapped into the hack culture as Sterling was.

    Maybe we could choose another book, both read it and see what we think?

    • Re: Judge Dee, by saying “Western take” I didn’t necessarily mean that there was inaccuracy in translation. I have very little Chinese and have no basis for rendering a judgment about that. I’m also well aware that Chinese people still read him. But I think they’re aware that Judge Dee’s character is from the 7th century. A lot of Chinese people are nostalgic about a “traditional” legal system because they can see how poorly the new one is working up close. But some of the 19th century reformers like Lin Zexu are still revered, so I don’t think even the conservatives would just straight up go back to the 7th century. Even if you could make an argument for cutting and pasting Judge Dee into a courtroom c. 2100, Stephenson doesn’t really make the argument. I don’t get any sense he’s aware on a basic level that China in fact has a dynamic history, has changed, and will continue to change. For him China adopts new physical technology but rejects new ideas. He fits into a traditionally Orientalist paradigm in that sense.

      The Tea Party movement is an attempted rebranding of the American Republican Party starting in early 2009, largely orchestrated by Fox News and other major players, but originated by grassroots protesters. They have been known to dress up in goofy colonial attire but usually don’t. One of the first protests was against actual tax hikes proposed by the New York state government, but given that Obama has not actually raised taxes on the average person, the Tea Party has gradually begun emphasizing the generalized expansion of government and cultural issues in its protests. Tea Party-backed candidates have unseated some traditional Republican primary nominees in this political cycle, despite having few practical policy differences from traditional Republicans, because of perceived enthusiasm and purity. The movement pretends to be libertarian but would not in practice welcome social libertarians
      any more than Rand Paul (Ron Paul’s son, running for Senate in Kentucky) would be welcomed by the same. Many make the argument that Bush was insufficiently conservative and failed for that reason, but will still criticize Obama more harshly, even when he’s just continuing Bush policies (especially re: bailouts.)

      I think Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is pretty good (though it may go too far), but even if UG is right I don’t think it’s a license for mind control via language. Chomsky just says that some of the clear similarities between languages’ ways of expressing things are based on innate traits. It’s a theory about commensurability of language, sort of a reaction to Sapir-Whorf. If anything the magic Sumerian plot device is closer to Sapir-Whorf in that it involves “language” influencing thought/behavior (while UG is, very simplistically put, the other way around) but there are still logical steps missing. And Sapir-Whorf never seemed plausible to me (perhaps because I grew up reading Language Log and Geoff Pullum’s legendary rants.)

      I didn’t realize the Drummers were a real group, but I wasn’t referring to anything in their actual lived society when I called them implausible. I was more thinking of their alleged ability to violate the laws of physics via magical unexplained powers of the human brain, because “maybe it’s possible to beat probability, when the heart as well as the mind is involved.” Which is logic roughly on the level of bad localizations of Japanese children’s shows. I admit I wasn’t being clear with that reference though.

      If you have recommendations in the field of lesbian cyberpunk please do feel free to share them; I sort of know that’s a field that exists, but have no idea what’s good.

  3. Thank you for the response.

    I enjoy that you note that though the Tea Party considers Bush not done enough it is libertarian. One difficulty I had in writing in the UK/Germany on internet forums was the strong presence of American commentors who would great really upset at the use of referring to the Republic as Liberal, since all parties are so far Liberal. And would go on about how I was ‘a tool of left wing’ – and when I asked for clarification (as for example from some of the German left groups, the communist? Green? Or Italian minority coalitions? Or some Conservative Government, for instance, sending out the troops and annexing a 1/4 of the USA under special martial law and killing people because, well, the leader decided it so. That is Right, (as in Conservative, and practiced quite frequently – though as one said to a judge or investigator, you know what we whigs did when you were eating the dogs, and cats and skins of humans? We waited. – now, having analogies going back to Cromwell made personal is hard to explain when people go on about ‘media brainwashing of the left’ and the same person owning 55% of papers is in the UK getting Knighted). Hence, my appreciation of your allude to the great Liberal experiment.

    Oh, I think Chomsky’s theory is a great crock of shite, but then I think Sapir-Whorf is also, except that Chomsky has the sort of base you can start from and ties in with 19th century studies of myth, legend and language. I really only have worked on English in all forms simultaneously, sort of as Murray did with the OED. Myself, I have found Piaget’s work on schema useful particulary as it does work quite well with dementia in access working brain parts. But, that has to be tapered through the effects of both hormones and original mapping in visual/verbal/language – and or 2 not three of those. So I have that at the ‘Boots on the Ground’ end and the Golden Bough and the other meta studies of the late 19th century on the other. How one gets to another, I know not, but hoped I would find in a non-linear form (another reason Snow Crash appealed to me – and my surprise at Stephenson’s Biblical knowledge, which is sort of a must for any pre 1980’s lit).

    Diamond Age was still written in the 20th century, and published there, during a enlongated period when the idea of a floating Chinese currency would have made you billions in simple Las Vegas bet (even if it is based primarily on the Canadian dollar and EU). So, I can’t help but see this influence of current (a mere decade or so) politics in onel country of more than 200 countries to be influencing your view of Stephenson? His view of China is a bit head tilt, but not, I have found racist in the way that common perceptions of any other country or ethnicity from a selection of 100 Americans chosen randomly would be so much more. Because there is an entire country which FORGOT why it HATES France (which the Tea Party should love, right, historical accuracy and all?) – a single UN vote. France never forgets why it hates both the ‘flic’ and the US politico (which is sort of ‘super flic’).

    THank you for the reference to the Language Log. And Geoff Pullum, whose name had eluded me. I dropped in, may again, dunno, the things they debated seemed very… Well, for example, the use of slang in Stephenson’s book, the creation of words which within a few pages hold value for us, grow in value until more and more is written in this style is particularly interesting to me, but then it is also ‘the Hack’

    Also, I rate Snow Crash only at a 3 at best, but the linguistic hack is, for a debut novel, an idea of such monument, and then, well, he blows it entirely. Bummer. As he does with his characters, who simply flail about sort of trying to get together. Sadly this was even WORSE with Diamond Age.

    I have been reading juvenile cyber punk of late, not the craptastic apocolypse style works like ‘Forest of Hands and Teeth’ and all other types of forests where protagonists (female) are the pure embodiment of the Handmaid from Atwood, only without the brain or sense of irony. Literally standing in some cases, while zombies run towards them, or they are trapped in a 16 mile bubble, waiting for Alpha Male to tell them what to do. (BARF!) I can’t tell if teen females in the US want to be vacuous or if that is just what publishers want them to be (while they are all buying Manga, Yaoi and reading slash on line)? And the addition of a Auspie younger brother for handmaid female to guard/comfort (who has special gift!), over 9 books just so far this release year into the times best seller list, induces a double vomit.

    Will have to get back to you on names as I have some limitations on limb use, and many books in many places, several thousand out, the ‘core’ I think.

    Oh, the Drummers actually DO believe that – I mean, here in Canada we had as a National Party a guy who was going to ‘harmonize’ the world once elected through yoga flying. Seriously. So when I took my US citizen test and they asked if I knew a communist, and Canada has a communist party, my bookshop in the UK was a block from the communist press, and the German delegates (communists) are elected, and I go there, what do I say…I lie!

    Also, since I am a believer in Plato’s theory (with some significant modification) of the universal shadow, it makes it quite easy to get along with all sorts of different sub-groups for sociological/anthropological study, since from ‘the mac brigade’ of the UK, to US nomadic groups, to hippie second generation draft dodgers of Canada, a belief in the great meaning than the single devolving to power in almost universal (I am not sure Train spotters would like to be titled that way but ask them WHY trains are so interesting and they NEED to write down all the numbers and then see if they don’t believe in the idea greater and more physical than the singular physical – if that makes any sense).

    Cheers

  4. Actually, I find the Mouse Army’s allegiance to Nell reasonable and pragmatic, if not optimal in terms of human development.

    In fact, the Mouse Army does know Nell through the linked primers, and at least one of them (the mouse spy “Clover”) has talked to her. Even for those who haven’t, they probably learned of her adventures in the fairy tale, which is a reflection of Nell’s experience in the real world to some extent. It is reasonable for them to believe that Nell will do all she can to take care of them, and more capable to do so than any of the Mouse Army given her age, training, and connection to New Atlantans. Because of their exclusive interactions with each other and primers, these orphans ended up very collectivistic with ways of thinking more neo-Victorian than Chinese. As a result, it would be very difficult for them to integrate into either: the only option left is to extend their fantasy quest for their lost queen all the way to the real world.

    Also, Nell’s race isn’t specified either, unless I missed something. Although Bud is white, Tequila might well be latino, and Nell herself is only described as “hair between blond and brown, brown eyes”.

    Sorry for the blast from the past…


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