For people who were huge fans of Stephenson’s seminal cyberpunk work, Snow Crash, then you’ll want to move right onto The Diamond Age because it’s essentially the same world, with new people and a bit of a weirder plot to engender a sense of wonder and terror about where the world might be headed. Furthermore, the protagonist, Nell, is an awesome, female character with her own inner strengths, human flaws, and a brilliant foil to Hiro Protagonist from Snow Crash to describe her world.
The second name of the book, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, is reflected in a specialized type of AI book that updates itself with the development of a child it’s been paired with as a sort of educational guide. Imagine a cyberpunk version of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) bringing a young child up to speed with their literacy and other aptitudes. The Primer itself becomes the MacGuffin that ties Nell to every other major player across the plot, and also enables the story to frame itself in a fashion that highlights her moral and intellectual development from a young child to a wise young woman.
The world of Diamond Age is described as postcyberpunk, but really it’s just a cyberpunk dystopia that enmeshes the moral and social issues of massively high tech systems and the development of civilizations. Much like any other cyberpunk might describe a world cyberformed under the technology of the age, not all technology and social development brings about overarching utopias. The places and things that Nell experiences run the gamut of human experience form her own terrible abuse at the hands of her caretaker to the love she has for her brother.
One of the ways the Primer ties together the many cords of the plot is that it’s central to making Nell the focal point of how everything is leveraged. Also, the Primer is voiced by paid actors—one of whom, Miranda, slowly finds herself falling in love with Nell (although she cannot possibly know her) as she voices the stories for the book through an automated system told to Nell through the interface. In a way, this gives her a connection to Nell that is both emotional and thorough even without either of them ever meeting one another.
The second protagonist of the novel is John Percival Hakworth, a nanotech programmer rand inventor who designed the Primer; he’s pulled into a strange world of intrigue and corporate espionage after he steals a Primer for his own daughter, Fiona Hackworth. His contribution to the plot is more one of a descriptive nature that aligns and limns the political strangeness of the postcyberpunk world and the different movers and actors—and his place in it also outlines where Nell is going and how she’s going to get there.
Nell’s interaction with the Primer is an allegory for growing up from a child into a young woman. Through the story it teaches her not just how to read, how to interact socially, but also diplomacy, warfare, logic, reasoning, critical thinking, and a myriad of other life skills that one might not expect from even an AI book. It tells stories mostly set in fantasy themes with strange moral implications and barriers that she must overcome by thinking her way through them and it fashions itself by gauging what sort of thinking she’s capable of.
As the story progresses, so does her interaction with the book.
Also, for those who’ve read Snow Crash, one or two of the characters from that novel do make an appearance. See if you can identify them.
For those who read the book, and have seen the 1998 Penguin edition cover, you’ll understand this after you’ve finished reading:
I want my mouse army.