Book review: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson


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.