The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson was one of the most insightful an original books I've read in a long time. After a brief absence from the world of science fiction, I picked this book up, almost entirely because of my love for his earlier novel, Snow Crash. In Snow Crash, Stephenson gave us a view of a future not all that far away. The technology of the Diamond Age takes us into the very distant future.
On the Earth of the Diamond Age, mankind has developed and perfected the concept of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is based around the concept of using microscopic computers to allow people to literally make anything possible. Often times, the tricky part of designing an object is making it heavier than air so it won't float away. Matter compilers can create any object with the proper program, and a pair of wooden chopsticks has flashing advertisements running up and down their sides. As backlash to this technological heaven, the elite members of society borrow their culture from the British during the Victorian era. These Victorians -or Vicky's, as some derogatorily refer to them- place value in items that are hand made, and pay exorbitant amounts of money for such items.
This novel varies from many typical science fiction novels, in that its focus is not on the technology or the rich, but rather on a single girl from a dysfunctional family in one of the poorest parts of the world. Nell, comes across one of three copies of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a book of sorts intended to educate a young girl. This book, while itself not a technological marvel, displays a true ingenuity in its content, as any good book. Through the use of this book, Nell is taught the lessons that one misses in school, the lessons that truly allow one to become successful in life. Through the characters and the primer, the reader gets many insights on what makes a person special.
Reading through other people's reviews of this novel, I see that I am not unanimously supported in my opinion of this novel. Many people cited its length and lengthy description as the book's downfalls. I can understand these comments, although in all honesty, to eliminate the details would eliminate any science fiction this book had and reduce it to merely a trashy sci-fi pulp novel. Clearly, Stephensons' goal is to accomplish far more than a simple adventure. In my eyes at least, the best of science fiction is to envision brave new worlds and use the different setting to critique our own society. Those who want a book they don't have to think about, will not enjoy this book. For them, there are summer movies and Dean Koontz.
One person felt the characters were dull and two-dimensional, which I found to be an entirely bogus comment. Each character is full of his or her own quirks and agendas. From the exceptionally rich Victorian technology tycoon to the Neil's thug-like yet compassionate older brother, the characters all manage to be completely original and completely realistic. Most importantly, each character inspires a bit of emotion in the reader. One is disgusted with Neil's mother and sympathetic for Nell. So, while some readers found the characters to be a fault, I found them to help draw the readers into the novel and provide the reader a familiar point so they don't get lost in the futuristic world. After all, unlike technology and trends, people for the most part do not change.
In his first novel, Snow Crash, Stephenson proved that he is perfectly capable of crafting an exciting adventure story. However, Snow Crash had nowhere near the insight or vision that he achieves in the Diamond Age. In the Diamond Age, Stephenson holds nothing back, and refuses to dumb down his book to make it an easy read. It is definitely difficult for anyone not into pure science fiction. However, anyone who makes it through the book, will find an entirely elaborate world and many insights to our own world, ranging from critiques of modern education to the depressing lack of subversiveness in our culture. Those that enjoy the true science fiction genre, will find this book to be nothing short of brilliant.