Thanks to Gene Wolfe, I know by now that any book about a book might be the actual book. From a writer like Wolfe, that means some hardcore forehead knuckling and a few rereads. (And maybe some supplemental analysis, and maybe some research on Jungian archetypal symbolism, and maybe a look at biblical allegories—nope not gonna do that last one.) In those cases, The Book will likely invite inquiry, controversy, morphing interpretations. In those cases, the story is not the actual story.
With that kind of training in mind, one might approach a book called The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995) expecting a similar kind of authorial shade, a narrative fogginess to prod the reader into dissonance and eventual interaction with commentary about women heroes and raising young girls. However, while the commentary is there, it’s neither veiled nor fogged, it’s hardly interactive, and from a writer like Stephenson, it means you’ll get it in the time it takes to make a sandwich, though it takes 500 pages for Stephenson to articulate it amidst some tech exposition. While there is some intertextual feedback, including a kind of mirrored moral guidance that oversees the main characters, it’s really just a long book of stitched-together narratives contrived to belong between the covers of the same book, in order to further the author’s argument, and whatever else interests him at that very moment.
In the age of the diamondoid, when cheap materials can be produced through nano-technological replicators, four-year-old Nell is given a stolen interactive primer book. As she grows up, the primer is involved in much of her education and decision-making, teaching her everything from reading to martial arts to Turing computing. Meanwhile, John Percival Hackworth, the creator of the primer, is punished for illegally copying the primer for his own daughter, and follows a strange path of adversity and enlightenment that mirrors Nell’s.
A likely predecessor to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), with its Eastern setting, tech-punk gadgets, aesthetic throwbacks, and culture-gaze of White appropriation. Think late-21st-Century-Asian-dystopia-with-airships. In The Diamond Age, the fashion is Victorian, the tech is nano, and society is a tribal division of English aristocracy, Chinese Confucianism, and poor white trash. And everything in between. It’s a big cultural salad bowl that is yet to be tossed, and the acidic neo-Victorian nano-tomatoes are wilting everything they touch.
Much like ‘90s white-driven cultural diversity efforts, Stephenson envisions a future headed toward erased race, where people enlist in tribes based on shared values, rather than unstable nation-states based on racial likenesses and cultural affinities. In Nell’s time, tribes remain mostly race-based, but part of the purpose of Nell’s primer education is to live a more interesting life (24), encouraging future tribal affiliations based on personal values and questioning the status quo. An interesting and logical extrapolation, but Stephenson’s gameboard comes pre-set, contrived for the mixing, considering the many Anglos who inexplicably populate mainland China and its surrounding artificial islands. Presumably, the idea of the nation-state has collapsed at this point, and something has forced neo-Victorian emigration from the old U.S. and U.K.— nanotech profit in Asia, perhaps— although today’s problems of overpopulation and pollution make China an unlikely welcoming host, especially to poor non-stakeholding families like Nell’s. (It’s possible the answer is in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, which appears to be semi-related.) Race isn’t always directly assigned by the narrative, but with last names like Finkle-McGraw and Hackworth, and little girls with red hair and fair skin, it’s a noticeable juxtaposition to Judge Fang and his rescued Chinese girls. How did all these white people end up in China in the first place?
More interesting, and less of a logical leap, is the idea of the interactive book. A reader’s fantasy (or is it?), I think as I swipe highlights, search words, publicize my status, and file it under ‘Hugo noms’, ‘90s,’ and ‘jumbled tech post-um ish-punk society,’ while the story sometimes reads itself to me. Like any protagonista, defined by her differences, Nell’s book is not like the other girls’. Nell’s primer is special, unlike the inflexible, state-endorsed AI programming of the Chinese Mouse Army primers (is that name racist? It sounds kinda racist), or the paternal guidance of Fiona’s primer, with its cognitive link to her estranged father. Ohhh… this is an allegory about raising and educating children, i.e. shaping society.
Nell’s primer is, in narrative judgment, the Goldilocks zone of nano-heurism: a highly interactive, self-reconfiguring AI, often steered by a paid ractor (interactive actor). Miranda is the ractor of Nell’s program, yet Stephenson plays coy as to which stimulus, the AI or Miranda, most influences Nell’s development. By the end, Miranda sees herself as Nell’s mother, but did she merely witness the girl’s growth throughout her interactions with the adaptive AI programming? Does the AI or Miranda write the script? The question is left open.
But the logic of Stephenson’s AI-supported e-reading stops there as basic fundamentals of accounting and plotting go pretendy-no-seey. Early on, it’s explained that the AI system requires a ractor in order to facilitate believable voice patterns (107), however Miranda can’t possibly be available every time Nell operates the book (which seems like always). It’s easy to assume that the primer’s AI programming kicks in with autobot text-to-speech during Miranda’s absences, yet toward the end, adult Nell is barely suspicious of the possibility of a human intelligence behind the page, which suggests that voicing incongruities never happen. Furthermore, it’s not clear how Miranda gets paid for her racting, despite being almost constantly in the ractor booth. We see Finkle-McGraw authorize standing payment for the ractor involvement for his granddaughter’s primer (108), but he never again addresses the constant expense, which is especially odd considering he’s unknowingly paying for two primers, including the stolen prototype (Nell’s) that he and the authorities can’t manage to track… despite its constant use, and as it, presumably, deducts a salary for a full-time elite ractor from his account regularly. Finkle-McGraw should fire his accountant. And hire one of those superhackers to find that damn stolen primer.
In addition to the logic issues, there are cultural concerns that might rankle new-millennium readers. Besides the aforementioned questions about the geo-sociological landscape, and the ‘Mouse Army’ of Chinese girls— which trills as a thoughtlessly reinforcing stereotype— the end of the story takes on a White savior motif, as Nell, the Dickensian poor [presumably] white girl rules over China, supported by her loyal army of single-minded, abandoned Han girls. (It doesn’t last long, and I wonder if this is Stephenson commenting on Western involvement in China. But still.) Most disappointing, however, is the realization that Nell very nearly almost made it to the end of the novel without getting raped. Again, like The Windup Girl, and a heap of other novels like it, the author can’t depict an unstable society without rape, and a female character can’t achieve self-actualization without the sexual humiliation.
Moreover, a large chunk of the story, Hackworth’s arc, despite being a deliberately perverted mirror of Nell’s own journey, adds little to tale or authorial agenda, and serves more as a rickety platform for MOAR nifty tech ideas and social extrapolations that don’t quite fit.
Oddly enough, after 1217 words of valid complaints, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable story about nested stories. It’s likely that the textual experience is less gratifying, but the audio version heightens the experience, given narrator Jennifer Wiltsie’s adroit, elastic voice. Much as I wanted to roll my eyes during the childish stories and expository paragraphs of extraneous, but imaginative, tech, I was interested. (Though, maybe the Hard sci-fi writers should do their narratives and page-counts a favor and publish their wildest tech ideas into a consolidated mock technology shop catalog. Nano Shack? Quantum Buy? That way, readers can get on with the tale and refer to the catalog when need be.)
So, back to the original question: Is The Diamond Age: or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer the actual Primer? Well, I am 502 pages of book, 11 hours and 44 minutes of audio, and 1360 words of review older than when I started, so I suppose I am more grown up.