The Diamond Age

Engines of Creation

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’ is a 1995 science fiction novel by American writer Neal Stephenson. It is to some extent a Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story, focused on a young girl named Nell, set in a future world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

The book contains descriptions of various exotic technologies, such as the chevaline (a mechanical horse that can fold up and is light enough to be carried one-handed), and forecasts the use of technologies that are in development today, such as smart paper that can show personalized news headlines. 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.

‘The Diamond Age’ depicts a near-future world revolutionized by advances in nanotechnology, much as engineer Eric Drexler envisioned it in his 1986 nonfiction book ‘Engines of Creation.’ Molecular nanotechnology is omnipresent in the novel’s world, generally in the form of Matter Compilers and the products that come out of them. The book explicitly recognizes the achievements of several existing nanotechnology researchers: Feynman, Drexler, and Ralph Merkle are seen among characters of the fresco in Merkle-Hall, where new nanotechnological items are designed and constructed.

Matter compilers receive their raw materials from the Feed, a system analogous to the electrical grid of modern society. The Feed carries streams of both energy and basic molecules, which are rapidly assembled into usable goods by matter compilers. 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 flexible, open-ended, decentralized method of creation and organization.

Society in The Diamond Age is dominated by a number of phyles, also sometimes called tribes, which are groups of people often distinguished by shared values, similar ethnic heritage, a common religion, or other cultural similarities. In the extremely globalized future depicted in the novel, these cultural divisions have largely supplanted the system of nation-states that divides the world today. Cities appear divided into sovereign enclaves affiliated or belonging to different phyles within a single metropolis. Most phyles depicted in the novel have a global scope of sovereignty, and maintain segregated enclaves in or near many cities throughout the world.

The phyles coexist much like historical nation-states under a system of justice and mutual protection, known as the Common Economic Protocol (CEP). The rules of the CEP are intended to provide for the co-existence of, and peaceful economic activity between, phyles with potentially very different values. The CEP is concerned particularly with upholding rights to personal property, being shown to provide particularly harsh punishment for harming the economic capability of another person. The role of the CEP in the world of the novel could be seen in comparison with the roles of real-life international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

‘Thetes’ are individuals who are not members of any phyle and are often socially disadvantaged and economically poor, being similar to second-class citizens under the CEP. In the novel, the material needs of nearly all thetes are satisfied by freely-available food and clothing, albeit of low quality; thetes without the political connections of a phyle are entitled to similarly low-quality ‘free justice.’

The book distinguishes three Great Phyles: the Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans, and other members of the Anglosphere who identify with the culture) and Nippon (consisting of Japanese). The novel raises the question as to whether Hindustan (consisting of Hindu Indians) is a fourth Great Phyle, or a ‘riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don’t get.’

Internally, the New Atlantis phyle is a corporate oligarchy whose ‘equity lords’ rule the organization and its bylaws under allegiance to the vestigial British monarchy. Other phyles are less defined – some intentionally, as with the CryptNet group or the mysterious hive-mind Drummers. Over the course of the story, the Common Economic Protocol sponsors the investigation of clandestine Seed technologies in order to preserve the established order from subversion, using the justification that unrestricted access to Sources would lead to the proliferation of high tech weapons and result in anarchy. It is also hinted that property rights are so expansive that the Protocol recognizes children as the economic assets of their parents.

The protagonist in the story is Nell, a thete (or person without a tribe; equivalent to the lowest working class) living in the Leased Territories, a lowland slum built on the artificial, diamondoid island of New Chusan, located offshore from the mouth of the Yangtze River, northwest of Shanghai. When she is four, Nell’s older brother Harv gives her a stolen copy of a highly sophisticated interactive book, ‘Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion,’ in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, etc., commissioned by the wealthy Neo-Victorian ‘Equity Lord’ Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw for his granddaughter, Elizabeth.

The story follows Nell’s development under the tutelage of the Primer, and to a lesser degree, the lives of Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw and Fiona Hackworth, Neo-Victorian girls who receive other copies. The Primer is intended to steer its reader intellectually toward a more interesting life, as defined by Lord Finkle-McGraw, and growing up to be an effective member of society. The most important quality to achieving an interesting life is deemed to be a subversive attitude towards the status quo. The Primer reacts to its owner’s environment and teaches them what it determines they need to know to survive and develop.

‘The Diamond Age’ is characterized by two intersecting, almost equally-developed story lines: the social downfall of the nanotech engineer designer of the Primer, John Percival Hackworth, who makes an illegal copy of the Primer for his own young daughter, Fiona, and Nell’s education through her independent work with the Primer after her brother Harv steals it from Hackworth. Hackworth’s crime becomes known to Lord Finkle-McGraw and Dr. X, the black market engineer whose compiler Hackworth used to create the copy of the Primer, and each man attempts to exploit Hackworth to advance their opposing goals. A third storyline follows interactive actress (‘ractor’) Miranda Redpath, who voices most of the Primer characters who interact with Nell and essentially becomes Nell’s surrogate mother. Later Miranda’s storyline is taken over by her boss, Carl Hollywood, after Miranda disappears in her quest to find Nell.

‘The Diamond Age’ also 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 novel explores the role of technology and personal relationships in child development, its deeper and darker themes also probe the relative values of cultures (which Stephenson explores in his other novels as well) and the 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 states: ‘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 novel’s neo-Victorian setting, as well as its narrative form, particularly the chapter headings, suggest a relation to the work of Charles Dickens. The protagonist’s name points directly to Little Nell from Dickens’ 1840 novel ‘The Old Curiosity Shop.’ The novel’s character Judge Fang, A New York-born Chinese Confucian judge, is based on a creative extension of Robert van Gulik’s ‘Judge Dee’ mystery series, which is based around a Confucian judge in ancient China who usually solves three cases simultaneously. The ‘Judge Dee’ stories are based on the tradition of Chinese mysteries, transposing key elements into Western detective fiction.

There is also an allusion in the novel to ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ When Nell enters the castle of King Coyote in the Primer’s final challenge for her, she encounters an enormous computer apparently designed to think and placed in charge of the kingdom. The computer is named ‘Wizard 0.2’ and creates an impressive light show as it apparently processes data, but it is then revealed that the computer’s decisions are in fact made by King Coyote himself.

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