The Diamond Age - Neal Stephenson - New
The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a postcyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson. It is a bildungsroman focused on a young girl named Nell, and set in a world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. Some main motifs include: education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence. The Diamond Age was first published in 1995 by Bantam Books, as a Bantam Spectra hardcover edition. In 1996, it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Nebula and other awards, placing it among the most-honored works of science fiction in recent history.
The primary protagonist in the story is Nell, a thete (or person without a tribe; equivalent to today's lowest working class) who illicitly receives a copy of an interactive book (with the quaint title Young Lady's Illustrated Primer; a teaching tool in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, &c.) originally intended for an aristocrat's child in the Neo-Victorian phyle. The story follows Nell (and, to a lesser degree, two other girls named Elizabeth and Fiona, who receive similar books) as she uses the Primer. The Primer is intended to teach Nell how to become a master engineer; it also teaches her to gain confidence in her ability to defend herself from harm and teaches her survival and leadership skills which become essential in Part II. The Diamond Age is characterized by two intersecting, almost equally developed story lines: Nell's education through her independent work with the primer, and the social downfall of engineer and designer of the Primer, John Percival Hackworth. The text includes fully narrated educational tales from the primer that map Nell's individual experience (e.g. her four toy friends) onto archetypal folk tales stored in the primer's database. Although The Diamond Age explores the role of technology and personal relationships in child development, its deeper and darker themes also probe the relative values of cultures and shortcomings in communication between them.
"Diamond Age" is an extension of labels for archeological time periods that take central technological materials to define an entire era of human history, such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. Technological visionaries such as Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle, both of whom receive an honorary mention in The Diamond Age, have argued that if nanotechnology develops the ability to manipulate individual atoms at will, it will become possible to simply assemble diamond structures from carbon atoms, materials also known as diamondoids . Merkle argues enthusiastically: "In diamond, then, a dense network of strong bonds creates a strong, light, and stiff material. Indeed, just as we named the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Steel Age after the materials that humans could make, we might call the new technological epoch we are entering the Diamond Age". In the novel, a near future vision of our world, nanotechnology has developed precisely to this point, which enables the cheap production of diamond structures.
The title can also be seen as a reference to the Gilded Age, a time of economic expansion roughly coinciding with the first Victorian era. Likewise it can be seen as consistent with Queen Victoria's regime, the apex of which is often seen as her Diamond Jubilee. Like Greg Bear's Queen of Angels, The Diamond Age depicts a world completely changed by the full development of nanotechnology, much as Eric Drexler envisioned it in Engines of Creation (1986). Nanotechnology is omni-present, generally in the form of Matter Compilers and the products that come out of them. The book explicitly recognizes achievements of several existing nanotechnology researchers: Feynman, Drexler and Merkle are seen among characters of the fresco in Merkle-Hall, where new nanotechnological items are designed and constructed.
Exotic technology such as the chevaline (a mechanical horse that can fold up and is light enough to be carried one-handed) and forecasts of technologies that are in development today, such as smart paper that can show personalized news headlines, are personal-use products, while major cities have immune systems made up of aerostatic defensive micromachines, and public matter compilers provide basic food, blankets, and water for free to anyone who requests them. Matter compilers receive raw materials from the Feed, a system analogous to the electrical grid of modern society. Rather than just electricity, it also carries streams of basic molecules, and matter compilers assemble those molecules into whatever goods the compiler's user wishes. The Source, where the Feed's stream of matter originates, is controlled by the Victorian phyle, though smaller, independent Feeds are possible. The hierarchic nature of the Feed and an alternative, anarchic developing technology known as the Seed mirror the cultural conflict between East and West that is depicted in the book. This conflict has an economic element as well, with the Feed representing a centrally-controlled distribution mechanism while the Seed represents a more open-ended emergent behavior method of creation and organization.
The world is divided into many phyles, also known as tribes. There are three Great Phyles; the Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorians (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans, and others who identify with the culture), and Nippon (consisting of Japanese). The novel deliberately makes it ambiguous whether Hindustan (consisting of Hindu Indians) is a fourth Great Phyle or an association of microphyles. In addition to these larger phyles, there are countless smaller phyles. Membership in some phyles, such as the Han and Nipponese, has an ethnic requirement, but the Neo-Victorian phyle and many lesser phyles accept anyone who aspires to live according to the phyle's mores.
The Diamond Age deals extensively with the notion of cultural relativism and seems to postulate its failure. The neo-Victorians are clearly represented as technologically, culturally and economically superior to other "phyles" , with the Confucians as close rivals. Although membership to the phyles in most cases is voluntary and not determined by an individual's ancestry or race, the cultural and class hierarchies established in the novel create a clear distinction between the "haves" and the "have-nots." The novel is also notable for a number of incidental descriptions of other cults or groups, such as the Reformed Distributed Republic, which in contrast to the more elaborate "phyles" impose a minimal social protocol. In some cases this protocol only tests the willingness of members to risk their lives, and come to each other's aid by following instructions, with little or no capacity to understand the importance of tasks they undertake in doing so, but a full understanding of the risks.
These cultural differences manifest themselves in the very different effect the copies of the primer have on the girls who use them. The original copies of the primer, created for a young girl of the Victorian phyle, provide for human interaction, even if it is mediated through the "ractive" technology. The Victorian girls who are raised with these copies become fully realized and independent individuals, while an army of Han Chinese girls raised with modified, fully automated clones of the primer with no "parental" human contact become efficient, devoted, but incomplete followers. An allusion early in the book suggests that the cloned primers were intentionally disabled by the Victorian engineer who designed them, perhaps to foster a propensity for the Chinese children who use the clones to follow the leadership of the Victorian girls who use the original copies. When asked to make copies of the Primer,
"John Percival Hackworth, 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 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.'"However, this difference can also be interpreted as a desirable feature from the point of view of the Confucians, who emphasize duty, honesty and obedience in their training of women. The limits of the authority of officers, more than the degree of visible tactical control, is an emphasis of Confucianism. The text is ambivalent about whether the "Mouse Army" of girls is merely efficient and devoted or also usefully creative.
Many have recognized that a major theme of The Diamond Age involves a distinction between artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence, with AI being depicted in the novel as having failed in its goal of creating software capable of passing the Turing Test. In the novel, "Artificial Intelligence" has been renamed "Pseudo-Intelligence" (Hackworth declares the older term to have been "cheeky", meaning presumptuous). That this "pseudo-intelligence" is lacking compared to human intelligence is demonstrated by the fact that humans are able to earn a living as "ractors", interacting with customers in virtual reality entertainments. Since ractors are more expensive than AI, the only reason to use them would be that the customers could tell the difference, implying that in the world of the novel, the marketplace of virtual reality entertainment has become one ongoing Turing Test, and software is continuously failing it.
This theme is woven throughout the story of Nell and her primer. Nell's situation is that a single ractor, Miranda, devotes herself full time to racting the various roles of Nell's primer. Nell somehow senses that there is a real person behind the virtual reality, and desires to meet that person. This longing drives Nell to conduct a Turing Test on a central character in her primer's story, who conveniently is named the Duke of Turing. The test proves the Duke to be a mere automaton. She continues to be obsessed with the question of what in her primer is not merely a Turing machine, her quest eventually centering on the enigmatic King Coyote. One paragraph sums up the novel's viewpoint on AI (emphasis added):
Her study of the Cipherers' Market, and particularly of the rule-books used by the cipherers to respond to messages, had taught her that for all its complexity, it too was nothing more than another Turing machine. She had come here to the Castle of King Coyote to see whether the King answered his messages according to Turing-like rules. For if he did, then the entire system — the entire kingdom — the entire Land Beyond — was nothing more than a vast Turing machine. And as she had established when she'd been locked up in the dungeon at Castle Turing, communicating with the mysterious Duke by sending messages on a chain, a Turing machine, no matter how complex, was not human. It had no soul. It could not do what a human did.
When Nell finally meets King Coyote and defeats him by crashing his systems with malicious coding, he reveals to her that the primer is not entirely a Turing machine, but that there are some real people behind it, such as himself. In fact, King Coyote reveals himself to be none other than John Hackworth. And when Nell asks whether there has always been another real person with her from the beginning of her days with the primer, the foster mother she has never met but senses is there, her emotions with regard to the question are evident:
"And is there..."
Nell stopped reading the Primer for a moment. Her eyes had filled with tears. "Is there what?" said John's voice from the book. "Is there another? Another who has been with me during my quest?" "Yes, there is," John said quietly, after a short pause. "At least I have always sensed that she is here."
The same theme is reinforced somewhat by the reactions to the primer of the other girls, Fiona, Elizabeth, and the Chinese orphans:
* Fiona, like Nell, develops a strong emotional bond with her primer's main ractor, which in her case is her father, Hackworth. Despite her beliefs being discouraged by her mother, she never doubts that the entity she communicates with via the primer is her real father, not merely a software facsimile.
* Elizabeth's case is different. Since the default functioning of ractor contracts is that they are assigned on an as-needed basis, and the novel never shows us that someone does for Elizabeth what Miranda does for Nell and Hackworth does for Fiona, we can conclude that Elizabeth's primer has no central ractor working for it throughout the years. Elizabeth is unique in that she does not establish a deep relationship with her primer; she is indifferent to it.
* The primers used by the Chinese orphans have no human ractors supplementing them. Instead, since all of the primers are networked in some way, Hackworth has altered them to teach them teamwork and group organization while taking advantage of individual skills in the form of the "mouse army", eventually pledged to the service of Nell. The Chinese girls manage to become aware of the existence of Nell just as she does through hints in their narratives. Through the modifications Hackworth programmed into the Chinese girls' primers, Nell becomes the object of their devotion, their Queen. Is this devotion supposed to be akin to Nell's love for Miranda, an expression of longing among the Chinese girls for a conscious entity in a virtual world which for them was otherwise populated only with pseudo-intelligent agents?
About the Author Neal Stephenson
Neal Town Stephenson is an American writer, known primarily for his science fiction works in the postcyberpunk genre with a penchant for explorations of society, mathematics, cryptography, currency, and the history of science. He also writes non-fiction articles about technology in publications such as Wired Magazine, and has worked part-time as an advisor for Blue Origin, a company (funded by Jeff Bezos) developing a manned sub-orbital launch system. Born in Fort Meade, Maryland (home of the NSA and the National Cryptologic Museum) Stephenson came from a family comprising engineers and hard scientists he dubs "propeller heads". His father is a professor of electrical engineering whose father was a physics professor; his mother worked in a biochemistry laboratory, while her father was a biochemistry professor. Neal Stephenson's family moved to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1960 and then to Ames, Iowa in 1966 where he graduated from Ames High School in 1977. Neal Stephenson furthered his studies at Boston University. He first specialized in physics, then switched to geography after he found that it would allow him to spend more time on the university mainframe. He graduated in 1981 with a B.A. in Geography and a minor in physics. Since 1984, Neal Stephenson has lived mostly in the Pacific Northwest and currently resides in Seattle with his family.
His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984. The Big U received very little attention when it first came out, and was subsequently out of print until Neal Stephenson allowed it to be reprinted in 2001. After The Big U, Stephenson published the eco-thriller Zodiac before rising to prominence in the early 1990s with the novel Snow Crash (1992), which fuses memetics, computer viruses, and other high-tech themes with Sumerian mythology, along with an analysis of the differences between ideologies such as libertarianism, laissez-faire capitalism, and communism. Averaging one novel every four years, he has written several subsequent novels:
* The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995), which deals with a future with extensive nanotechnology and dynabooks. The SciFi Channel and George Clooney will be producing a miniseries adaptation of The Diamond Age, to be penned by Neal Stephenson.
* Cryptonomicon (1999), a novel concerned with concepts ranging from computing and Alan Turing's research into codebreaking and cryptography during the Second World War at Bletchley Park, to a modern attempt to set up a data haven. It has subsequently been reissued in three separate volumes in some countries, including in French and Spanish translations.
* The Baroque Cycle is a series of historical novels and is in some respects a prequel to Cryptonomicon. It was originally published in three volumes:
o Quicksilver (2003) (containing the books Quicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque);
o The Confusion (2004) (containing the books Bonanza and Juncto);
o The System of the World (2004) (containing the books Solomon's Gold, Currency, and System of the World).
* The Baroque Cycle has subsequently been republished as eight separate books (both in English and in Spanish translation).
The Diamond Age - Neal Stephenson - New Book
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