I am not–strictly speaking–a sci-fi reader. I had never heard of The Diamond Age until my sister recommended it to me. My sister is an awesome person. She has read so many books that I have recommended to her, including ones for my dissertation, that I thought it was long past time I returned the favor. So I picked up The Diamond Age.
It starts with a man named Bud who buys an illegal skullgun, beats a man, and is then sentenced to death. The novel then takes us to his baby daughter Nell, who grows up in a volatile home environment. Her mother, Tequila, finds boyfriend after boyfriend, many of whom are drunk, abusive, or perverted. Or all three. Her only protector is her brother Harv, a street urchin who one day filches a book for Nell off a man he and his gang rob. But it’s not just any book. Unbeknownst to Nell and Harv, scientist John Percival Hackworth has developed A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive text with multiple acting options, adventure, and information. Nell, of course, is the unintended reader of this copy. And this book will change her life, and those of all the others around her.
Nell is a fantastic character, and Stephenson does right by her. She is intriguing, complex and very human, which makes her coming-of-age an act of triumph. I liked the idea of reading being a powerful and interactive experience, and becoming a creator as you read. I liked that part a lot.
Stephenson is also a proficient worldbuilder. He develops a postmodern, cyberpunk, steampunk, neo-Victorian world and uses key terms (but not too many) to paint a world very different from our own.
So why does this book get three stars? I felt that that the story of Hackworth was not nearly as interesting. He’s a rather stagnant character, and I found myself wishing to read more Nell (or Miranda, the ractor who voices the Primer for Nell) when his parts came on. But what really irritated me was a certain orgy scene involving him. It just felt sort of cliched and lazy and didn’t really add to the parts that drove the plot home. I rolled my eyes for a long time (this sentiment is not limited to Stephenson, by the way. Somewhere in A Clash of Kings, I started yelling at GRRM and didn’t stop. I still have not cracked open A Dance with Dragons).
It’s overall a worthy book to read, and that scene might not bother you at all. I just got annoyed, is what I’m saying. But that does not denigrate the awesome character created in Nell.