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Literature / The Diamond Age

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The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a novel by Neal Stephenson about a world where nanotechnology has become ubiquitous and society has fractured along subcultural lines. Wait, no: it's about the role of human interaction in childrearing, as seen through the lens of an advanced educational simulation — something like an infinitely more sophisticated Oregon Trail game. No, that's not it either: it's about the influence of culture upon psychological development. Or is it about the breakdown of hierarchical social structures in the face of technological empowerment, or about that certain je ne sais quoi that separates souls from simulations?

Needless to say, it's got layers.

Nano-engineer John Percival Hackworth creates "The Young Ladies' Illustrated Primer", an interactive, educational storybook of incredible sophistication, for a high-ranking child of the neo-Victorian aristocracy he belongs to. Hackworth is also a father, however, and temptation on behalf of his own daughter eventually gets the better of him; his attempt to divert a copy sparks a series of crimes and misadventures that eventually place the book into the hands of Nell, an abused child in the neighboring slums of Shanghai. The remainder of the novel is largely a Coming of Age Story surrounding Nell's childhood and adolescence, both in the virtual world of the Primer and amid the unstable real-world network of competing subcultural "phyles"; many episodes from neo-Confucian justice, neo-Victorian high society, and Hackworth's increasingly strange career find their way into the labyrinthine plot as well. It's all bound to come to a head eventually... and it does, after some typically Stephensonian digressions into Turing completeness, packet-switched network routing, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

This book provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Nell grows into a multidisciplinary warrior, engineer, and princess thanks to the Primer's influence.
  • Almighty Janitor: Constable Moore is more than your average border guard.
  • Badass Longcoat: Carl Hollywood wears them, as fitting his cowboy imagery.
  • Badass Israeli: Carl joins up with two Israelis who help him fight through the Fists. They just happen to have cybernetic guns in their heads.
  • Badass and Child Duo: As children, Harv and Nell. After he discovers the Parental Incest (see below), Harv and his gang buddies attack and brutally beat the man responsible. Later on, Constable Moore and Nell. Though they are never in combat together he acts as her mentor for combat skills and empathises with her over shared experiences of PTSD.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Harv is a thug, a gang member, and a thief, but he will do anything to help his sister Nell.
  • Blazing Inferno Hellfire Sauce: Hackworth tastes a sandwich seasoned with "McWhirter's Original Condiment", and attempts to describe its flavour by imagining its ingredients, which include but are not limited to "blackstrap molasses, butts of clove cigarettes, uranium mill tailings, red fuming nitric acid, blue chrysotile asbestos and natural flavourings".
  • Book Ends: The story begins and ends with the the ringing of changes from bells on New Chusan.
  • Captain Ersatz: Judge Fang for Judge Dee.
  • The Chess Master: Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw vs Dr. X.
  • Continuity Nod: A lot of them in regards to Stephenson's other novel Snow Crash, most of them being based around the character Miss Matheson (making it heavily implied that she's Y.T.). When asked whether she was Y.T. or not, he said, "I refuse to give a definitive answer to that question." Twice.
  • Cooldown Hug: Nell gives one to both Elizabeth and Fiona when they suffer separate nervous breakdowns in detention.
  • Cultured Badass: The Constable who looks after Nell while she stays at Dovetail is implied to be a former general who is still working as a mercenary. Nell herself racks up quite a body count, as do the Mouse Army, all of whom are noted for having very proper neo-Victorian accents to their english.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In the beginning of the book, Hackworth prints a secret copy of the Illustrated Primer to give to his daughter. For this offense he is sentenced to ten strokes of the cane and ten years in prison. However this sentence is "mitigated" to one stroke of the cane and ten years in a secret mind-controlling cult during which he lives in a semi-dreamlike state performing tantric sex rituals, being buggered by men, and committing acts of pseudo-cannibalism in order to propagate and exchange nanomachines which live in his brain and are transmitted through bodily fluids.
  • Decoy Protagonist: As the book begins, we're introduced to a thuggish Cyberpunk protagonist straight out of the low-rent sci-fi movies of the late Eighties, complete with spiffy black leather clothes, skull-mounted nanotech weapons, and life of petty crime. Within a hundred pages he's been gruesomely executed for armed robbery, and his neglected four-year-old daughter turns out to be the book's real heroine.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything? The non-Chinese settlements in Shanghai are menaced by a society called "The Fists" whose signature attack is setting fire to transportation mechanisms.
  • Due to the Dead: Princess Nell digs her brother Harv's grave herself with a shovel, despite having magic and an army at her disposal.
  • Edutainment Game: The Primer. Best edutainment ever.
  • Either/Or Title: Every chapter has an alternate title in this manner.
  • Every Proper Lady Should Curtsy: Nell does so when introduced to her prospective new boss, Madame Ping.
    "Yes, madam," Nell said, turning toward her interlocutor with a little curtsy. Rather than trying to do Chinese etiquette and making a hash of it, she was taking the Victorian route, which worked just as well.
  • Everything's Better with Sparkles: this is how Nano Machines network.
  • Explosive Leash: Cookie Cutters: cell-sized explosives capable of taking a small chunk out of a person, and usually injected into them in quantity. They can be detonated after a period of time (known as the Seven Minute Special), by remote control, or by passing a radio barrier. Used for execution and prisoner restraint (in large quantities) or for pacifying criminals (usually one is enough).
  • Fan Disservice:
    • There is a long, heavily detailed description of an orgy centered around an attractive young woman. The orgy ends in the woman dying by the nanomachines passed into her overheating, burning her alive, and her ashes being made into a drink to be consumed by the crowd.
    • Nell is captured by The Fist and held naked in a cupboard while they abuse her physically.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: The Mouse Army means business.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Covers a vast range of subjects, including Etiquette, Elocution and the Design and Manufacture of Nanomechanical Weaponry.
  • Hanging Judge: The judge in neo-Confucianist Shanghai has a hint of this, despite his very casual manner. The plaintiffs say, about the defendant, "That is the guilty party." The judge says to the defendant, "You're guilty." (Which he is—of deliberately crippling the plaintiff—but still.) The defendant says something like, "Don't I get to defend myself?" "Don't be an asshole," says the judge. He then tells the defendant to go to the pier and wait for instructions. While the defendant is waiting, lots of nanomachines kill him in a few minutes. (However, the judge isn't sadistic, but following the legal system and values of his society. And sometimes, when judging people, he takes mitigating factors—like the defendant acting responsibly towards his family—into account and gives a lighter sentence.)
  • Intimate Healing: Nell shares healing nanomachines via a kiss, and an unnamed female operative shared some with John via something considerably more intimate.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: The format used for all of the chapter titles.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: The neo-Confucian Judge Fang, who has the powers (and the robes and beard) of a judge from when China was an empire. He himself says that he combines the roles of detective, judge, jury and executioner. The accused is not allowed to speak in his own defense. (The author has been accused of making errors in his portrayal of Confucianism, although a strong case could be made for the characters being the ones in error, probably deliberately.)
  • Kangaroo Court: The Confucian courts of the Coastal Republic are a downplayed example, in that there are no procedural protections for the accused; the judge is detective, Judge, Jury, and Executioner. In the first trial we witness, the judge declares the defendant guilty before he hears anything out of him, and when the defendant asks if he gets to defend himself, he's told, "Don't be an asshole." That said, the court is actually rather honest, though that may be a function of the judge in question being a good and honest man; he just doesn't care much to waste time with formalities, and the defendant in question really is guilty as sin.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: Locking Nell in a closet with a working matter compiler.
  • Matter Replicator: A major application of nanotechnology, which underlies much of what happens in the book.
  • Mechanical Horse: The chevalines.
  • Mooks: The average Fist is a poorly trained zealot who dies quickly at the hands of a more experienced soldier. Averted with the Mouse Army.
  • Mythology Gag: One of the elderly neo-Victorians used to be an Action Girl who owned a skateboard and had a number of interesting adventures. The similarities of the setting could push this into Continuity Nod territory.
  • Nano Machines: Explored in dizzying depth.
  • Nightmare Fuel Coloring Book: The way that Nell's abuse is told from the perspective of a young child.
  • Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: This is how the Dovetail phyle supports itself, as due to the omnipresence of free-access matter compilers, the distinguishing marker of luxury goods is whether it is handmade or not. In this world, a flawless diamond window pane is cheap as dirt (as that's what diamond is—a carbon lattice structure—and is the easiest thing for a matter compiler to make), whereas hand blown glass (with a few obvious flaws added in so that everyone will know that it is hand made) costs a fortune.
  • Parental Incest: There is something chilling about describing pedophilia from the perspective of a child being sexually abused:
    Part 1: Sometimes he would have Nell come into the bathroom with him and help scrub his back, because he couldn't quite reach one spot in the middle. Sometimes he would look at Nell's hair and tell her that she needed a bath, and then she would take off her clothes and climb into the shower with him and he would help wash her.
    Part 2: She knew from the way Harv had reacted that the showers were a bad thing, and in a way it felt good to know this because it explained why it felt wrong. She did not know how to stop Mark from making her take the shower this evening.
  • Planet of Hats: Each of the phyles is this, albeit on a comparatively smaller and subcultural scale. Stereotypes are not only common, but socially enforced in a cultural cold war.
  • Power Armor: Huge-ass suits of powered armor are worn for military engagements - one is described as dwarfing a house. One of Nell's caretakers rides into battle on chevaline-back in powered armor.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: The story of Princess Nell is eerily prescient, even in its simplest form. Justified in that there's a human intelligence and insanely smart onboard computer examining Nell's life as she lives it, but seriously...
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Zulus that join Carl's group fighting the Fists are armed with spears. When another man joins the group, he notes, "Good, you have Zulus." The man is a Boer, so his approval is a nice piece of historical irony.
  • Rape as Drama: Nell is abused by one of her mother's boyfriends, is almost raped once more as a child. She is also raped twice by the Fists, but there is a plot reason for that. The Fists pass Drummer nanosites to her through their bodily fluids that, when examined, reveal that Hackworth is the Architect of the Seed and enable Nell to design counternanosites.
  • Screw Destiny: Nell kills the nanites in Miranda's blood, stopping the ritual that will create the Seed, but kill Miranda. The result of this is left uncertain.
  • Serious Business: Every culture in the novel is a hat based around some theme. Being the ideal embodiment of your culture's theme is Serious Freaking Business.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Fang calls KFC "The House of the Venerable and Inscrutable Colonel."
  • Show Within a Show: Or book within a book, in the case of the Primer.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: The British officer Carl meets while fighting through the Fists. They keep up a nonchalant patter by unspoken agreement to keep their morale up.
  • The Unpronounceable: Invoked explicitly with Dr. X. His real name never appears in the book. We are just told that it's unpronounceable to most Westerners.
  • Turing Test:
    • Used by the protagonist, using poetry to determine if the interlocutor was human or not. Which she does. Easily.
    • The ractives are a much subtler example. It's explained that the ractive market vastly prefers scenarios where the non-user characters are played by other people rather than A.I.s, so much so that AI actors are now extremely rare. The implication is that even in this technologically advanced future, it's still quite easy to tell a human from an AI, and the ractives are essentially one big, unintentional Turing Test, one that the A.I.s consistently fail.
  • Tyke Bomb: Or rather a Tyke nuclear arsenal.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Stephenson was already deconstructing the hell out of Steampunk before most people even knew Steampunk was a thing.
  • Unusual Weapon Mounting: The voice-activated skull-guns, nano-mechanical firearms inserted into a hole drilled into the forehead. They can be installed within an hour, tops.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Judge Fang is implied to have disappeared into the Middle Kingdom, but his ultimate fate is uncertain.
    • Also Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw, who is rumored to have joined CryptNet after leaving school but who is never seen again.