Political Theory from the Future

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

Neal Stephenson may eventually be remembered as the most subversive Sci-Fi author of his generation:

His technological extrapolations are fun, but Stephenson’s most interesting and subversive contributions lie in his sociological and political thinking.


I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the America of Snow Crash referred to in the media as a libertarian dystopia, and I think calling it a dystopia entirely misses Stephenson’s point. After all, a typical dystopian science fiction tale will (or should) unambiguously take whatever ideology it’s trying to address to the mat and demonstrate its horrors through object lessons. Snow Crash doesn’t do that at all. Rather, it depicts a very well functioning world which just happens to seem terrifying to late-20th-century readers.


We move on to The Diamond Age. The world of this story is dominated by the presence of nanotechnology. Every material object is absurdly cheap, bordering on free. Yet there is still an enormous underclass of stateless individuals (“thetes”), including our protagonist Nell. Why? Well, turns out you naturally end up with haves and have-nots even in a post-scarcity world. To hammer home this lesson, Stephenson sets atop the hierarchy of this world a group known as the Neo-Victorians. The Neo-Victorians have lords and knights; ladies are expected to stay home and raise the children; despite the ability to build anything they could want, they choose to wear old-fashioned, handmade dresses and shoes and bowler hats. My favorite Stephenson term of all time is “equity lord,” meaning somebody who has the title of Lord because they are an equity holder in the corporation which constitutes the economic footprint of Neo-Victorian society.

Where Snow Crash seemed at first blush to be an anarcho-libertarian dystopia, The Diamond Age seems almost like some kind of Reactionary dystopia, except where exactly are the dystopian elements? Yes, there’s a huge underclass — there’s an equally huge underclass today, and factory workers in the modern Third World are materially worse off than the poor of The Diamond Age. At least the thetes of the story have their bread and circuses and free housing.


Locked in economic (and eventually military) contest with the Neo-Victorians are the Chinese Confucian phyle. While the Neo-Victorians are largely Anglo-Saxon technologists who embrace a Victorian social and material aesthetic, the Confucians are a largely ethnic Han Chinese group who embrace the principles of Confucian hierarchy as it existed before the British made China a de facto colony, complete with Mandarins and corporal punishment and strict patriarchy. So the two dominant social and economic powerhouses in the story adhere to extremely rigid, patriarchal, Reactionary social codes. The story doesn’t leave us wondering why this is, either — we’re told through the conversations of the characters that when nation-states and traditional economic models fail, people fall back on ethnic homogeneity, conservative and traditional gender roles, and harshly regressive penal codes in order to establish the unity, cohesiveness, and strength needed to compete in a chaotic world.

Okay — so The Diamond Age looks like a Reactionary vision of the future and Snow Crash looks like a Libertarian vision of the future. Neither are particularly dystopian, at least not compared to reality, but nor are they sugar-coated utopian fantasies. They are more like semi-serious extrapolations, evenhanded simulations of what those socio-political systems might turn into.

He goes on to look at Seveneves and Anathem, too.

(I’ve discussed The Diamond Age before.)

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