As a big fan of Anathem (one of my favorite SF novels) and Snow Crash, I had high expectations for this book. Although The Diamond Age, or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer has its merits, and is often entertaining, ultimately, I was disappointed.
The problem with this book is that it tries so hard. It’s so obviously textbook postmodern (mingling of genres, of high & low, of the Victorian age & cyberpunk, etc.; there are abrupt switches in point of view, storylines cut short, odd jumps ahead in time, etc., etc.) that it all becomes a bit tiresome after a while. In the same postmodern vein, some of the ideas are so obviously, outrageously over the top (nanocomputing via mass orgies, anyone?) that they ultimately fall flat on their faces.
There’s the obligatory postmodern meta-ness too, since, well, this is a science fiction book about a fictional high-tech book. That part works rather well though, and is truly clever.
So, I’m not saying there’s nothing to like in this book. The first 400 pages of my 500 page edition had me gripped. There’s a sense of wonder and mystery, and some interesting characters. The stories that Nell, the young girl, reads in the primer, are original and sometimes hauntingly beautiful – this mixture of fantasy-ish fairytale material and SF is echoed in books like House of Suns and The Three-Body Problem. So, yes, it’s a good read for quite some time, but near the end, I couldn’t really care for what happened to the characters anymore, in part because it was becoming predictable and repetitive. The ending felt a bit rushed & haphazard, and too much of an actionflick pastiche.
Aside from the climax that maybe was too climactic, my other main problem with this book is the fact that Stephenson’s prose is often so dense it becomes a chore. There’s heaps of detailed descriptions, larded with Stephenson’s favorite technique: the enumeration.
The Diamond Age usually follows the same pattern: character enters new setting, which is described in detail for some pages, and then something happens to the character, such as dialogue, for about half a page. The descriptions are wild, Stephenson’s imagination vivid, but at the same time there’s hardly any variation in the writing, which makes for boring reading after some time.
This book simply is also a lot more pretentious than Snow Crash, and because of that, less fun.
By all means, if you liked other Stephensons, give The Diamond Age a chance. It’s not bad. But, be prepared for tons of sentences like:
“The Coastal Republic checkpoints at the intersections of the roads were gray and fuzzy, like house-size clots of bread mold, so dense was the fractal defense grid, and staring through the cloud of macro- and microscopic aerostats, Hackworth could barely make out the hoplites in the center, heat waves rising from the radiators on their backs and stirring the airborne soup.“
I cannot stress the brilliance of Anathem though!
originally written on the 6th of October, 2015