First of all, a bit of context-setting: I am not quite yet a father of a daughter, but I am four months out from becoming one, and I suspect my reading and emotional attachment to this book — and to Nell, as charming and plucky of a slightly-unbelievable-but-still-winning bildungsroman protagonist as one could hope for — are so heavily tempered by this book that quibbles I might have had even a year or two ago are sanded down into oblivion.

The reason for this is that in much the same way that Snow Crash purports to be a cyberpunk book but is actually a book about communication and language, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer purports to be cyberpunk but is chiefly interested in education and parentage. Stephenson's book contains two parts (a decade-long lacuna separating the two), and each part is concerned with a single question:

  1. What social ills might exist in a post-scarcity world?
  2. How do we raise children to be interesting, happy, and virtuous?

I did not find either either side of Stephenson's first question to be particularly revelatory: the yadda-yaddaing of nanotechnology and its impacts felt thin and post-hoc to me, even if there were some flashes of brilliance in isolated asides. But where Stephenson was both clearly more interested and more persuasive was when he began to shift the narrative to focus on the triad of young girls who had received the primer, and their varying divergences.

Moreover, the device of the Primer carries with it a level of stylistic flourish difficult to find in other pieces of his work. Princess Nell's escapades served well to shepherd us through the obvious paces of character development while offering something relatively novel; the Turing Castle chapter in particular (and thereafter) was a legitimately fun (albeit, of course, campy) way to deliver what could have been dreadfully boring material.

This book suffers from the classic Stephenson tropes:

  1. As much as I think Stephenson lovingly writes Nell's character, I can't escape the feeling — much like in Snow Crash — that her sexual assault feels oddly transactional, as a heavy-handed way to weave villainy into a narrative that is in general pleasantly bereft of cartoonish intentions;
  2. The book ends with a beautiful visual metaphor that occludes but does not fully disguise its incoherence.

But — this book gave me so much to digest and ponder and enjoy, and it has not fully left my head since reading it. There are two types of science fiction: the ones that get better with age and the ones that get worse. This is the former.



“Yet how am I to cultivate the persons of the barbarians for whom I have perversely been given responsibility?" … "The Master stated in his Great Learning that the extension of knowledge was the root of all other virtues."

Hackworth was a forger, Dr. X was a honer. The distinction was at least as old as the digital computer. Forgers created a new technology and then forged on to the next project, having explored only the outlines of its potential. Honers got less respect because they appeared to sit still technologically, playing around with systems that were no longer start, hacking them for all they were worth, getting them to do things the forgers had never envisioned.

“There's only zero of you,” said the Queen of the Ants. In ant arithmetic, there are only two numbers: Zero, which means anything less than a million, and Some. “You can't cooperate, so even if you were King, the title would be meaningless.”

But as many first-time fathers had realized in the delivery room, there was something about the sight of an actual baby that focused the mind. In a world of abstractions, nothing was more concrete than a baby.

He nodded in the direction of China. "Been doing a bit of consulting work for a gentleman there. Complicated fellow. Dead now. Had many facets, but now he'll go down in history as just another damn Chinese warlord who didn't make the grade. It is remarkable, love," he said, looking at Nell for the first time, "how much money you can make shoveling back the tide. In the end you need to get out while the getting is good. Not very honourable, I suppose, but then, there is no honour among consultants.

Lightning bolt
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