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 – mixing genres, high & low, the Victorian & cyberpunk, etc.; abrupt switches in point of view, storylines cut short, odd jumps ahead in time, etc. – that it becomes tiresome after a while. In the same postmodern vein, some of the ideas are so obviously, outrageously over the top that they ultimately fall flat on their faces. Nanocomputing via mass orgies, anyone?
There’s the obligatory postmodern meta-ness too, as this is a science fiction book about a fictional high-tech book. That part works rather well though, and is truly clever.
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 her primer are original and sometimes hauntingly beautiful – such a mixture of fantasy-ish fairy tale material and SF is echoed in books like House of Suns and The Three-Body Problem. So, yes, it’s a good read for the bulk of the time. Yet 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 rushed & haphazard, and too much of an action flick pastiche.
Aside from the climax that simply 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 for about half a page – often just dialogue. 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.
This book is also a lot more pretentious than Snow Crash, and because of that, less fun.
By all means, if you liked other Stephenson books, give The Diamond Age a chance. It’s not bad. Just 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