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Particularly interesting SF, with some flaws
on 17 June 2001
I'm not a Sci-Fi fan but, after reading Drexler's fascinating Engines of Creation: the coming era of nanotechnology, I was curious to see what future Stephenson had imagined with this revolutionary technology. The author envisions an impressive number of interesting applications, some fairly predictable (e.g. matter compilers fed by water and air purifying stations, "smart" multimedia paper), some a lot less so (e.g. skull guns, lighter-than-air shields, nanotech-enhanced actors). But it becomes clearer and clearer that what the author is most interested in is computer science in general, and artificial intelligence in particular. Given the fact that Stephenson has also written In the beginning... was the command line, this shouldn't be such a surprise, and, far from being regrettable, it is in fact what gives the book its true dimension.
As the subtitle (A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer) suggests, this book is about a very special kind of book, for the Primer is so "intelligent" that it can adapt its fully interactive on-going didactic narrative to the needs and wishes of its owner, gradually developing his or her own ability to adapt and solve problems to the maximum. I found this to be a brilliant theme, because it depicts future technology as a means of improving the minds of people, eventually allowing them to reach their greatest potential. Stephenson appears a little narrow-minded, however, when it turns out that the Primer's tutorial only culminates with lessons on computer science and nanotechology. Although this is instrumental in bringing about the novel's partial dénouement (enough is left open-ended for a possible sequel), I would have liked to see the Primer's narrative branching out into more diversified subjects (possible examples: explaining why we breathe, or why there are seasons).
Nevertheless, the author's imagination can be quite astonishing when applied to his favorite themes, and I would argue that the bizarre society of the Drummers - which first seems incongruous and irrelevant, but gradually comes to the foreground as the plot unfolds - is Stephenson's most impressive invention/extrapolation in The Diamond Age. Just to give you some idea of what the Drummers are about without giving it all away, this secluded society uses nanotechnology to turn its members into ever-satisfied physical components of a huge computing network. You'll have to read the book in order to decide for yourself whether this is a desirable form of existence...
I said in the "title" of my review that the novel has flaws, and it does, as a number of things struck me as odd and unsuccessful in the book. Fortunately, these weak points remain minor, and The Diamond Age is still a great read for anyone interested in its themes.