I was in no hurry to read Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age when it was new, because I had barely managed to finish his breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, which sounded right up my alley, but which really, really rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like it was written by a clever 15-year-old who wasn’t half as clever as he thought he was. For instance:
The protagonist is the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, whose business card reads “Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world.” When Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, he meets a streetwise fifteen-year old girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard Kourier (courier), and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business (selling data to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA after the U.S. government’s loss of power).
The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug called “Snow Crash” that is both a computer virus capable of infecting the machines of unwise hackers in the Metaverse and a crippling CNS virus in Reality. It is distributed by a network of Pentecostal churches via its infrastructure and belief system. As Hiro and Y.T. dig deeper (or are drawn in) they discover more about Snow Crash and its connection to ancient Sumerian culture, the fiber-optics monopolist L. Bob Rife, and his aircraft carrier of refugee boat people who speak in tongues. Also, both in the Metaverse and in Reality, they confront one of Rife’s minions, an Aleut harpoon master named Raven whose motorcycle’s sidecar packs a nuke wired to go off should Raven ever be killed. Raven has never forgiven the U.S. for the way they handled the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands (see Aleutian Islands Campaign in World War II) or for the nuclear testing on Amchitka.
Everything is dialed up to 11. Years later, I heard good things about Cryptonomicon. Then I read about his Baroque Cycle, and it sounded even more up my alley — but reading a few pages drove me up the wall. Phant’sy that.
So, when I started noticing more and more references to The Diamond Age, it took a while before I decided to read even the first few pages of the free preview online — and I found nothing that made me want to throw my monitor at the wall.
The near-future Stephenson presents follows the fall of modern nation-states, as cryptography makes taxation and regulation impractical. Instead, individuals belong to phyles of the likeminded and live in city-state-like claves reflecting their values. The hard-working neo-Victorians buy hand-made artisanal goods while designing complex nanotech systems. The thetes, on the other hand, live a Jersey Shore-like existence. Surprisingly — that’s saying something — the book comes down squarely on the side of traditional values over modern non-values:
Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once again he was struck by the national media coverage — reporters from the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some bewilderment, that there had been no looting. … Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.
Unsurprisingly, the book comes down squarely against any hint of human biological diversity — although that description of Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw’s childhood as a Korean orphan adopted by white, Midwestern parents would seem rather ambiguous without the explicit disclaimers.
Stephenson drops pro-Victorian thoughts throughout the book. For instance, he defends them against accusations of hypocrisy:
“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,“ Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception — he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”
It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, Stephenson notes:
“It’s a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way. But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few billion other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost — swallowed up in the ocean — unless you are doing it along with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward. That is why the world is divided into tribes.”
More on such tribes:
“Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.
“New Atlantis, like many tribes, propagates itself largely through education. That is the raison d’être of this Academy.”
“The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code — but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”
“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”
“Yes. Some of them never challenge it — they grow up to be small minded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel — as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”
“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”
“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded — they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”
Nell is the thete protagonist effectively raised by her neo-Victorian LeapPad, the so-called Young Ladies’ Illustrated Primer — which must have seemed much more futuristic in 1995. I’m having trouble remembering life before iPads.