Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. His 1992 novel Snow Crash, a hyperbolic, hyperactive cyberpunk novel set in a future where the state has crumbled, is probably his most famous work, but it didn’t win any of the awards I’m covering. This is probably for the best, since I don’t think it’s a great novel. It’s funny, exciting, fun, and interesting, but it’s also silly, ridiculous and swerves erratically between over-the-top action scenes and infodumps about Sumerian religion. Every novel since has won an award though (apparently, Locus readers adore Neal Stephenson), so I get to talk about him a lot.
The Diamond Age is Stephenson’s one Hugo win. The novel is an homage to Charles Dickens’ class-oriented Victorian fiction, but it takes place in a future world dominated by nanotechnology. Matter compilers can create just about anything a person could need or want, but it’s an expensive and potentially deadly technology – sentinels have to protect people from deadly nano-viruses and the majority of the world’s population still have to toil to afford their basic necessities. Meanwhile, a select few live with immense wealth, but to protect that wealth they congregate in “tribes” that enforce social order. The action in this novel takes place in Hong Kong where the Han tribe dominate, though there is also an enclave of Neo-Victorians. The Neo-Victorians have retreated to the strict social mores and class deference of 19th century Britain to bring order to the modern world.
The leader of the Neo-Victorians, Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, commissions an amazing educational text that combines nano-technology, sophisticated interactive software, and live remote actors to give his granddaughter a well-rounded understanding of the world, morality, and her own emotions. When its creator is mugged, the book accidentally ends up in the hands of a very young, abused working-class girl named Nell. The rest of the novel follows Nell’s education and mimics the style of enlightenment novels (which obsessed over the idea of education and what we would call “nature or nurture”). As always with Stephenson, there’s a variety of entertaining side stories, including my favorite involving a Neo-Confucian judge. There’s also a secret society of hackers trying to bring down the hierarchical social order that has evolved.
The ending is the one point where the novel seems to fall down a bit (a common problem for Stephenson), but this is a fantastic and original novel, especially the portions involving Nell or Judge Dee. Highly recommended.