The Diamond Age

By Neal Stephenson

Reviewed Jun 27, 2017 on The Litt Review.

The Diamond Age was a book that took me twice as long to get into as most books, and then lasted half as long as I wanted. If it was any other author I would have been satisfied, but I listened to the entirety of the ridiculous tome that is REAMDE, and I frankly expected that this book would go on further. Instead, it took a week of good, intense reading, and then it was over.

Out of oblique sadness, I went and spent the next few weeks brushing up on my neo-Victorian parlance and dress. I bought a dinner jacket at a used clothing shop in Edinburgh, and spent around hours (multiple) looking for enchiridions in the stacks of used bookstores. I did eventually find one, which I gave to a friend of mine who runs a Victorian advice blog. But it wasn’t as good as this book, sadly.

In short, Diamond Age was a delightful gallimaufry of a book. It combined futurist hacker culture with steampunk delight, and managed to somehow get East Asian martial arts and culture embedded with Kentucky Fried Chicken’s in Brooklyn. No, really. I mean that.

“The hour of noon has passed,” said Judge Fang. “Let us go and get some Kentucky Fried Chicken.” “As you wish, Judge Fang”, said Chang. “As you wish, Judge Fang”, said Miss Pao. Judge Fang switched back to English. “Your case is very serious,” he said to the boy. “We will go and consult the ancient authorities. You will remain here until we return.” … The House of the Venerable and Inscrutable Colonel was what they called it when they were speaking Chinese. Venerable because of his goatee, white as the dogwood blossom, a badge of unimpeachable credibility in Confucian eyes. Inscrutable because he had gone to his grave without divulging the Secret of the Eleven Herbs and Spices. It had been the first fast-food franchise established on the Bund, many decades earlier. Judge Fang had what amounted to a private table in the corner. He had once reduced Chang to a state of catalepsis by describing an avenue in Brooklyn that was lined with fried chicken establishments for miles, all of them ripoffs of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Miss Pao, who had grown up in Austin, Texas, was less easily impressed by these legends.

I didn’t even know what to do with myself when I read that. I wrote “wat” in the margins and went for a walk.

I don’t want to give away the plot, but the book is full of interesting passages like this. It revolves around a smart book - something like the Game in Ender’s Game - which is involved in teaching a younger generation how to live better, more successful lives. For someone who espouses the San Francisco-laden bullshit about productivity and improving yourself (sadly, I fall into this category), it is as addictive as cataleptic chicken.

Starting your own company and making it successful was the only way. Hackworth had thought about it from time to time, but he hadn’t done it. He wasn’t sure why not; he had plenty of good ideas. Then he’d noticed that Bespoke was full of people with good ideas who never got around to starting their own companies. And he’d met a few big lords, spent considerable time with Lord Finkle-McGraw developing Runcible, and seen that they weren’t really smarter than he. The difference lay in personality, not in native intelligence.

This could have been written by Tim Ferris, or Tony Robbins, or anyone in between. Of course, it’s not just about the West:

He reviewed for the thousandth time the Great Learning, the kernel of the Master’s thought: _The ancients who wished to demonstrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things…. From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

That’s about as philosophical as the book gets, sadly. It is not The Book of the New Sun (my favorite book), and could not be, no matter how many odd words Stephenson uses (I counted around 250 which I either didn’t know, or didn’t recognize enough to use commonly). The closest it got, that I could tell, was this small passage:

We ignore the blackness of outer space and pay attention to the stars, especially if they seem to order themselves into constellations. “Common as the air” meant something worthless, but Hackworth knew that every breath of air that Fiona drew, lying in her little bed at night, just a silver flow in the moonlight, was used by her body to make skin and hair and bones. The air became Fiona, and deserving-no demanding- of love. Ordering matter was the sole endeavor of Life, whether it was a jumble of self-replicating molecules in the primordial ocean, or a steam-powered English mill turning weeds into clothing, or Fiona lying in her bed turning air into Fiona.

Another passage I particularly liked, for no obvious reason whatsoever, was this one:

Hackworth was alone and separate from all humanity, a feeling he had grown up with, like a childhood friend living next door. He had found Gwen by some miracle and lost touch with that old friend for a few years, but now he and solitude were back together, out for a stroll, familiar and comfortable. A makeshift bar amidships had drawn a dozen or so congregants, but Hackworth knew that he could not join in with them. He had been born without the ability to blend and socialize as some are born without hands.

Occasionally, there were also good one liners here and there.

Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it.


In an era when everything can be surveilled, all we have left is politeness.

Of course, there are also passages where drugged out swingers drink the liquid ashen remains of a woman they just had sex with to the point of her spontaneous combustion, out of a University of Michigan mug. I don’t know how to classify those, at all.

But, on the whole, the story itself was simply a lovely, gripping read. The characters were believable, even interesting. The future, where nanotech rules everything, where most everyone’s basic needs are met by something akin to 3D printers and where the world’s states have devolved into large, global clans, is a place where Stephenson has had free rein to create and grow. It’s a fascinating take on what nanotech might mean, although he doesn’t end up with the inevitable ‘grey matter’ philosophical debate which one expects - mites, flying or otherwise, die soon after they are born, and there’s always an antiviral mite flying around somewhere else.

I wish that the ending was a bit more cohesive - I found it to be rushed. But, by that point, I think I was simply enjoying the world too much, and I didn’t want it to end as soon as it did.

A good book. For now, I am going to honor it by continuing with my Francis Bacon & Eggs YouTube cooking show, and hoping that I finish the essays soon so that I can move on to Bacon’s next book, New Atlantis. Somehow, it seems relevant.

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