Neal Stephenson,
The Diamond Age
or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
(Bantam, 1996)

Into a society characterized by incredible nanotechnology and tribes formed by ideologies such as the Neo-Victorians, there enters a book. An incredible, marvelous, thinking, teaching and completely interactive book created by nanotechnology and intended for a wealthy man's granddaughter. Instead, it bonds to a poor little girl named Nell.

Nell's mother goes through a succession of new boyfriends, leaving Nell on her own, with occasional gifts "found" by her brother, Harv. The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is one of these gifts. With it, Nell learns to read, exercise and reason as she follows the story of the Princess Nell on her quests to gain the twelve keys. As Nell learns and grows, the primer likewise grows more complex, and Nell's life gets more complicated. Harv and Nell escape from one of their mother's abusive boyfriends, and Nell ends up as part of the Neo-Victorian enclave. As she and the interactive primer grow, she becomes more and more deeply involved with the social and political upheavals about her.

This is no simple story. Nell's story entwines with the book-within-a-book, as well as with the journeys of the Neo-Victorian creators of the primer, a judge and his associates, and thousands of abandoned children. Nell, heroine with a heart and vibrancy beyond that of many storybook heroines, discovers far more than herself within the pages of her primer.

Stephenson creates a richly textured future world, based around the city of Shanghai. The social setup of this world, with its various tribes, enclaves and phyles, proves just as compelling as Princess Nell's story. His tech is believable and completely in keeping with other aspects of technology explored within the book. This is more of a "social" rather than a "hard" science story, because the science contributes to the character story, as opposed to the technology being the entire plot.

Stephenson is often classed as cyberpunk, and though I would not put this book in that subgenre, there are enough elements of it to warrant interest from those who enjoy cyberpunk. However, The Diamond Age is not a book to be limited in any way -- it's too well done and too much fun.

[ by Beth Derochea ]

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