The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson.

The Diamond Age

Read March to April 2016
Recommended for hard core Stephenson fans
 ★     ★

Initially, I wasn’t tempted by The Diamond Age, but the subtitle drew me in. A book advising young women? Interesting. However, given a choice between this book and the classic young women’s thinly veiled moralistic story, Little Women, I think I’ll go with Little Women. At least none of the girls are raped.

The Diamond Age, Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was an interesting, convoluted, frustrating book packed with ideas, characters and too little plot. I suspect Stephenson of being in love with his ideas and would suggest a firmer hand on the editorial wheel. Far too many details on nanobots, too few details on characters. Hard to put down when I was reading, and equally hard to pick up later. It was eligible for a re-read–or at least a re-listen, as I’m told the narrated version is enjoyable–until the rape and the narrative mish-mash at the end.

The story revolves around Nell, a young girl living with an older brother, her mother and her mother’s series of boyfriends, and John  Percival Hackworth, creator of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. There’s a story-within-a-story plot of Nell reading the interactive Primer and experiencing the fairy-tale like story within. A host of other characters are involved, including a minor thug who briefly dates Nell’s mom; her brother Harv; Hackworth’s patron, Lord Finkle-McGraw; Miranda, the actress who reads the Primer; Constable Moore, war veteran and her guardian of sorts; Dr. X, a mysterious character who wants the Primer for unknown reasons; Miranda’s boss, Carl Hollywood; Hackworth’s daughter and a few others. It’s also worth noting that despite being A Young Lady’s Primer, it almost completely fails the Bechdel test. Because, you know. It’s not really about the Young Lady; it is also about the creator of the book and Stephenson’s technology.

When it comes to characters, Stephenson quickly creates a feeling of depth. One of my favorites was Judge Fang, with his New York accent, his adherence to Confucian principles, and his willingness to follow the path of ethics over the path of law. It reminded me very strongly of Master Li in Bridge of Birds. Sadly, we lose track of the Judge. Likewise, while the Miranda story was engaging and we get a glimpse of her emotions at a particular time of life, she disappears for the last third of the book. While both characters tied in quite nicely with the story of the Primer and Nell, the story of other parts of the Primer took precedence.

Spoilers below, naturally, because how else can I talk about this mess?

Narrative. Sigh, what can I say? The story-within-story technique is interesting and often enjoyable for me. In this case, it gives insight into just how special this book is and how it interacts with the child and the environment to shape response. However, as Nell ages, it could have done a better job with parallels to her real life, particularly in the last half when it was teaching her about the ’12 keys,’ which I think meant learning coding techniques. I found myself raising an eyebrow once or twice. Would a Victorian primer really have encouraged a child to stab someone? Sure, it may have been a sign of the book not quite working–or it may have been a sign of Stephenson taking the story where he needed it to go. I’m betting the latter.

It was a relatively coherent story up until about page 250 when the plot loses any sense of caring about characterization and moves characters around to get to where Stephenson needs them to make his ultimate thematic point. Hackforth ends up in a Drummer society, where much like entering Fairyland, he has aged ten years by the time he emerges around page 293… and then things really turn bizarre and dreamlike. Miranda decides to look for Nell and disappears from the narrative after accepting an engagement with two shady characters. Hackforth’s daughter appears for a bizarre live-action ractive performed on a ship. Nell suddenly decides to leave the Victorian society and set off for China, although we aren’t sure why, and ends up in a sado-maochism brothel. It was a mess and only sheer stubbornness kept me reading. When Nell is captured and raped by the Fists of Righteous Harmony it catapulted me out of bored confusion into rage. What. The. Hell. Unacceptable, but thanks, Stephenson, for making sure the A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer reinforces women as rape targets, because we wouldn’t want to think we’ve moved beyond it as a plot device. Oh–and then he provided a capstone with a potential rape, saved for the last two pages.

I have an entire ranty post about the use of rape in stories and believe it was completely unnecessary here. To then call this book “A Young Lady’s Primer” is insulting and makes any empowerment themes hollow. You know what else I realized? Nell has very few interactions with women in this book. With the exception of Nell, women are pawns or dependents. Except for  the Vicky classroom, there no scenes of females interacting with females. Because apparently the message of “A Young Lady’s Primer” is it’s a man’s world and women get to live in it.

You know what this book most reminded me of? That mildly drunk guy at a party who seems kind of interesting and charismatic, even though he can’t keep his chain of thought straight, but who turns out to be a total asshole as he gets drunker and realizes he’s not getting laid.

Three and a half stars for the first 250 pages, two stars for the rest and negative forty stars for the end. Stick with Little Women.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson.

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Love your drunk guy line. That’s perfect. I kind of like novels that don’t cohere, or unravel toward the end, but this one lost me toward the end, too. I was already contesting parts of it from the beginning, the rape was disappointing, and what was with Nell leading the “Mouse Army” at the end? White savior moment? That whole set up in China was questionable, as were the economics.

    • thebookgator says:

      Thank you! It started off so well, and I was very intrigued when we learned Dr. X. was trying to provide education for the rescued girl-children. Sadly haywire at the end with some weird societal commentary. Glad I wasn’t the only one.

  2. Megan Baxter says:

    God, sounds like we’ve been having the same problems with rape in SF recently. I had that whole lovely rant about Stephen Baxter’s Proxima, and enjoyed reading your one here!

    • thebookgator says:

      I’ll have to check out your post! I’m so tired of the trope–it becomes such a shortcut for evil/character growth/etc. Since it remains a real-world, horribly common occurrence, authors should use it with specific intent.

  3. NeoTiamat says:

    Just re-read this after many, many years (like, 10+), and ‘Interest –> Bored Confusion –> Rage’ kinda summarizes my emotional arc. I really enjoyed the entire first half of the book! Interesting characters, a narrative that was definitely going places, good world-building…

    Then it loses the thread. We lose Harv, Judge Fang, and Miranda, and the other characters just lose the plot entirely. I ended up skimming increasingly, especially through the random theatrical performances.

    Aaaaand then rape. And also Yellow Peril, can’t forget that.

    Just left a sour taste in my mouth all around.

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