January 28, 2007

Stephenson -- The Diamond Age

Stephenson, Neal, The Diamond Age Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, Bantam, (Originally published 1995)

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

[Spoiler Alert!]

With the recent announcement of a new science fiction TV series based on author screenplays from this ten year old book, it seems like a good time to take a second look at Stephenson's vision of the next century. Diamond Age contained the first use of the term "Anglosphere," a neologism which Jim Bennett put to more specific use in 2000.


The story, in all its Rabelaisian glory, revolves around an interactive book created out of nanotechnological substances drawn from The Feed (a nanotechnological substrate carefully controlled by a handful of cultural groups). The setting is a time in the not-too-distant future ... perhaps 70 to 100 years ... and events occur over the space of just over a decade. The place is a high-tech enclave, a manufactured island called Source Victoria off the coast of Shanghai, maintained by a society of neo-Victorian "Equity Lords" as a entrepot of trade and manufacture. These meritocratic folk create a safe, idyllic enclave high on this island, and recreate the cultural milieu and material style of the Victorian era, based however upon very advanced nanotechnology. Transportation is now by airship, and various mechanical de*vices travel the ground bearing no resemblance to automobiles. The "Vickies" have economic ties with a vast array of different ethnic and sociological tribes or "phyles" around the world under the terms of a Common Economic Protocol -- which manages their civil and criminal legal relationships. They are dominant amongst a wider set of high-tech tribes (including the Nipponese), who are in turn are surrounded by a vast swarm of less fortunate peoples under authoritarian rule of various kinds or bound by ethnic and racial ties.

Nanotech has solved the problem of providing for the basic needs of humankind, but hasn't solved any of its social appetites.

The book in question (The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer) is designed and constructed for a leading Equity Lord who has become worried about the close-mindedness of his offspring. Unlike his own entrepreneurial past, and his whole-hearted adoption of Victorian mores as a solution to cultural drift, his children (and now his grandchildren), are simply following instructions, rather than actively contributing to a dynamic, if emotionally restrained and hierarchical, culture. The Primer is meant to be his gift to his five year-old grand-daughter. It will be her gateway out of the rut and a controlled experiment, for the grandfather, in creating a risk-taker.

In a series of twists and turns, a copy of the book is stolen before it can "imprint" on its intended young owner. That copy finds its way into the hands of a thete, or lower class girl, in the midst of a slum. From that point on, we see the book begin the education of the young five-year old, giving her the physical, mental and cultural coaching necessary to escape her dire circumstances and find an educational opportunity in the high-tech enclave of the neo-Victorians, high up on Source Victoria.

In the meantime, conditions on the Chinese mainland's Celestial Kingdom (and the rampantly corrupt Coastal Republic commercial zones) are getting increasingly desperate. The different Chinese Confucian and authoritarian cultural systems are struggling unsuccessfully to keep up with their high-tech competitors. The Diamond Age (reflecting the widespread nanotechnological use of diamond as an inexpensive construction material) is placing them further and further behind. To leap-frog the high-tech tribes, the Chinese are in search of an alternative technological approach to matter conversion -- a decentralized "Seed" or agricultural manufacturing process that would be suitable for top-down, authoritarian agrarian culture. Discovering the keys to the Seed will require them to blackmail the designer of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, sending him off on a decade-long espionage assignment through the most secretive of the hacker communities that have found a way to use human bodies (and sexual intercourse) as a method of elaborate computation and encryption. Perhaps the secret of the Seed will be found there. Her Majesty's Joint Intelligence Services make an appearance to assure that the Seed is nipped in the bud, as it were.

Along the way, a Confucian judge from the Coastal Republic has managed to coerce the Primer's designer to build multiple inexpensive copies of the Illustrated Primer for thousands of abandoned Chinese female infants. These thousands will play a role in the denouement of the book when the Celestial Kingdom re-establishes control over the corrupt Coastal Republic and expels all non-Chinese tribes from the mainland.

Anglosphere Musings

Stephenson's book has been a favorite focus for discussion and reflection by a handful of contributors to this blog. The author's insights into a future era where the tribalism of geopolitics, universal commercial law, and the lethality and potential of nanotechnology hold sway, seems prescient. Unlike many of his colleagues in science fiction, Stephenson seems comfortable with the nuts-and-bolts of human culture, and actually writes about human beings in a way that seems credible for those of us who live in a mature, functioning, economically productive society.

There's much that is attractive in his writing. His characters and scenes are vivid. His use of technology and plot are excellent. His writing is laced with small pop-culture references that create a sense of fun but don't intrude on the story if you miss them. Like earlier and later books by the author, the social environments are compelling, and though he might be considered in the same cyberpunk genre as William Gibson, Stephenson successfully applies common sense to his social groups, far better than the overweening and morbid "man against machine" dystopic style of Gibson.

I have noted a repeated pattern in Stephenson's book. Inevitably some kind of "emergent phenomena" appears to wrap up disparate story lines but most people will find that less irritating than I do. Resolving a problem with the unforeseen or the super-natural seems like a pretty cheap gimmick when tacked on to a fully realized social fiction. Stephenson is selling you a book, however, not a food supplement, diet, or government program. He can be forgiven for getting himself stuck in a corner that he can only resolve with a magic wand or mcguffin. A bit.

Now it is telling that the 19th century neo-Victoriana of Diamond Age was replaced when Stephenson wrote his recent massive Baroque trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Here he turns to the truly dynamic period in English history at the end of the 18th century and ironically it is here we see some of the cultural and economic attributes that make their reappearance in Jim Bennett's historical analysis underlying the Anglosphere. Certainly his Baroque trilogy is a far better match with our current era's openness to social change than the Victorian period -- which evidenced a lot of cultural rigidity and weakened economic dynamism when compared with the Americans and other European states. After 1850, the British were on the decline and were not to see an economic resurgence for a century. A great summary of the economic and social climate from the time of publication of Newton's Principia through til the Crystal Palace Exhibiition of 1851 is reviewed here.

As outlined in historian David Hackett-Fischer's Albion's Seed, America's cultural foundation owes little to the High Church Victorians imagined for the Diamond Age, but can find many similarities with the various cultural groups in Britain between 1650 and 1750. As a result, Diamond Age loses a bit of its utility as social commentary. It is a serious misunderstanding of the conservative and/or libertarian strains of American (and Anglosphere) culture. The Victorians, we can say with some certainty, lost World War Zero to the US and paid a substantial economic and social price for it through the twentieth century. We don't see this reality or weakness effectively foreshadowed (or realistically compensated for) in Diamond Age. But Stephenson is certainly on the right historical track. Ten years ago, he just landed a bit too late in English history. He needed to look to Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the US for how the Victorians inadvertently overcame the narrowness of their social milieu.

What to make of Diamond Age as a potential TV series?

A simple mirroring of the neo-Victorian nanotechnologists onto an American or Anglosphere cultural template (which is what TV science fiction is all about) would be a historical mistake, I think. After all, political power across the English-speaking world is largely shared between political parties with patchwork quilts of constituencies that don't resemble the elite imperial bureaucracies of 19th century Britain.

And finding a compelling story about neo-Victorians in an pseudo-American context might require stereotyping the cultural right wing in ways that are historically nonsensical. The established church Episcopalians of early America have long since left the scene on the American Right. The Methodism and Presbyterianism of the 18th century have morphed into Baptist and Pentacostal denominations ... and entirely new 19th century manifestations like the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah's Witnesses have appeared. The suburban mega-churches of the American South, satellite broadcasting in multi-ethnic glory on the Trinity Broadcasting Network seem a long, long way from stodgy Victorian drawing rooms, neo- or otherwise. The cultural and moral conservatism of these substantial portions of American society, at least, have *nothing* whatsoever to do with the class-based society of late 19th century urban Britain. Nothing.

The grim nature of China's imagined future in Diamond Age seems a little less likely than when Stephenson was writing his book during the early 90s. His prediction about Chinese nativism and collapse however may ultimately ring true if books such as The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China's Crisis and China's Trapped Transition turn out to be accurate.

But let's face it ... there'll be no overt theme in a TV series based on the Diamond Age that translates as impending Yellow Peril. Too politically incorrect. And too worrisome. Regrettably, it may be easier to morph the neo-Victorians of the book into straight-laced Republicans with fancy CGI (computer-generated image) gizmos, and elaborate art direction, glossing over the ahistorical assumptions that must be made. That would be very unfortunate.

If the insights Stephenson drew in his Baroque trilogy do not outline the particular weaknesses of the Victorians, an opportunity will be lost. There are Anglosphere solutions to cultural stagnation, even if the Victorians did not find them. Without a fundamental appreciation into the deep historical roots of Anglosphere decentralization, implied but not illustrated in the Diamond Age, then any TV presentation will become an excuse for fancy props (nanotech special effects and some elaborated interactive media in the "illustrated primer") without making any contribution to a toolkit of coping with the modern world, with its attendant social and technological change. There's an opening for the author to add to the public policy argument. Hopefully he'll take it, otherwise ...

It'll just be more "genuine [historical] junk food for juveniles" to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

Posted by jmccormick at January 28, 2007 07:07 PM

U tried to continue reading this post but the link was broken.

Posted by: John H. Costello at January 31, 2007 06:24 PM

A more interesting question about "Diamond Age" is how present world civilisation changed into that particular assembly of societies in such a short time. And why did the world's societies "self-assemble" into those particular forms? Because there is no easy transition between this today and that tomorrow.

Instabilities and discontinuities caused by the adoption of nanotechnology might be enough to bridge the gap, but I doubt it.

Posted by: Al Fin at February 3, 2007 10:25 AM

"...there is no easy transition ..."

Of course not "easy". There was a catastrophic transition. Stephenson describes it. All existing governments collapsed. Whole societies fell into anarchy. Remember Carl Hollywood's boyhood, with people coming up into the hills to try to rob his community, and being shot and their corpses staked out to warn other looters? Those looters were fleeing starvation in a totally collapses civilization. Only robust communities that could mobilize for cooperation and self-defense survived: Jews, Boers, other ethnic groups, as well as some self-selecting groups like the Atlanteans and the Heartlanders and the distributed republics. Presumably many millions of people died in the process. We have no mention whatever in the book of European or Arabs or South Americans, for example. They are just big aggregations of starving thetes, maybe. But they are off the map politically and economically. There is still London, but that is part of the Anglosphere and the capital of the Neo-Victorians, the most powerful phyle of all. Cities last while nation states (and other state forms) go away, as has always been true.

I don't see how you read the book and missed all this.

Posted by: Lexington Green at February 3, 2007 07:35 PM

I agree that Stephenson did a horrible job of describing how the diamond age got to be that way. Some people must be too gullible for their own good, or too gullible to be good critical readers of SF.

Posted by: Bellows at February 10, 2007 01:52 PM

Read "Snow Crash", which was published in 1991 (or thereabouts). It is set in the same universe as Diamond Age and tackles many of the same themes but is set before DA.

Posted by: Jacknut at March 19, 2007 01:41 PM

Cascade of spoilers: *Cryptonomicon* involves allowing completely anonymous communication and money transfer, which means an end to taxes, so social units condense into the forms seen in *Snow Crash*. After a while, people realize that some social ties can scale up -- hence *The Diamond Age*.

Posted by: Byrne at March 19, 2007 02:29 PM

Funny, I just listened to the unabridged audio book of Snow Crash and Diamond Age. I highly recommend these as a way of re-reading these classics to get more nuance and subtle themes.

Diamond Age became a completely different book while listening to it. I now view it as a "war" between Finkle-McGraw and Dr. X, or more like a war between their methods of passing culture. Finkle-McGraw gets the book developed, but it does not work the way he expected, unless his grad-daughter comes back to Neo-Victoria. Dr. X steals the book, again to show that it does not work as expected, due to Hackworth's hack. The only person it "works" for is Nell, and that is because of Miranda's singular influence.

The seed vs. feed theme was interesting, but I think that the abrupt ending didn't answer it - did the CK get the seed later, and did it make Confucianism work? One more scene with Hackworth or Dr. X or even Judge Feng would have been great....

Posted by: Donut at March 19, 2007 07:11 PM

Please. Actual objective current reality standards, if anything?

The only way this works as a modern teledrama is as yet another example of femelitist propaganda, due to how the major monosource broadcast programming corporations sell viewers to advertisers, and the continuing vast majority of VIEWING discretionary income disbursers in the Anglosphere are femelitists.

The televised "Diamond Age" will occur, if at all, to tell the story of the plucky young FEMALE protagonist's success in thwarting the existing phallocracy's dominance.

Posted by: Acksiom at March 19, 2007 11:47 PM

To Donut: Did NS read Snow Crash and Diamond Age? it would be interesting to hear how he would read it.

To Acksiom: Uh... this is on the SciFi channel, not lifetime.

Anyone know when this airs? I have to admit that I find it interesting that someone like Clooney would be involved.

Posted by: Jacknut at March 20, 2007 05:50 AM

Jacknut: And the Lifetime channel's status as a particularly, or better yet *blatantly* focused niche memetic source invalidates my far - more - generally - applicable - to - average - society points because of. . .

. . .what, exactly?

Dude. Seriously. What on earth makes you think that the geek audience target for the SciFi channel isn't any meaningfully less subject to the *culturally general* femelitist memetic programming involved?

Posted by: Acksiom at April 4, 2007 01:39 AM
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