I spent some time listening to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer over the last month or so. Apparently Stephenson wanted to write a novel that dealt both with culture and technology without penning another cyberpunk fiction, and I think he succeeded. Much of the book was fairytale prose translucent to a grim reality near Shanghai. Ostensibly set in the same world as Snow Crash, Stephenson brilliantly hints at how cultures have progressed and morphed with new nano-technology. Essentially, the fragmented national landscape developed in such a way that ethnic groups and synthetic ethnic groups very deliberately create or adopt value structures in the wake of the balkanization of the previous centuries. Confucianism makes a comeback, victorians subscribe to absolute values (religion is only indirectly addressed), some groups use self-devised rituals to foment solidarity. There are times when it feels like Stephenson is being a bit didactic, teaching us through the fairytales how computers (turing machines) work and hints at the vast difference between the best artificial intelligence, deemed “pseudo-intelligence,” and human capabilities. There’s even some speculative ideas about semantic data processing in a clever illustration of how a bot net works using human beings as processors, kind of like the original Matrix concept.
Besides the illustrations of how computers work, there’s also a background story involving one Judge Fang and the rise of Confucianism in this future China. Essentially, people without any real system of jurisprudence adopt Confucianism as a way to order both the law and the people, and Fang himself “rebuilt his own life after his career as a hoodlum” on Confucian principles. Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Confucian China is growing stronger all the time and starting to absorb and eradicate it’s neighbors with no cohesive governing principles. Just like Stephenson’s efforts to make the interactions with technology post-cyberpunk, where Snow Crash reveled in postmodern corporate and fragmented society Diamond Age hints at what might come next: a return to value structures.
Overall, I think the book was a success. The fairytale elements are good storytelling, and the real thought experiments being done were new experiences for me as a reader. The few actual action scenes were violent and panicked, but the book really rests on understanding how deliberate design and social engineering affects human cultures. The conclusion felt a bit abrupt and left some lingering insolubles, but overall the story ended on a trajectory that you could imagine more complete endings to.