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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.
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on 12 March 2005
Various comments for this run as 'good but not Snow Crash' 'great but flawed' 'good but not Cryptonomicon'. This book is simply superb. I thoroughly enjoyed all of his other books, but for me this is the pinnacle. A world struggling to get to grips with the differences that seperate us, uses a tribal approach to create regions for people to live their chosen lives. This politcal world is imbued with Stephenson's usual array of amazing technology, and extraordinary concepts. The most powerful of these is a book with the ability to adapts its lessons instantaneously to its reader's needs, and a little girl with power to reshape everything. I loved the (for me very real) possiblities D/A opens up, and I want one of those books!!
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on 20 February 2008
First and foremost, 'The Diamond Age' is a fantastic novel and a yardstick of Post-Cyberpunk fiction. The writing is superb, the characters are compelling, and the universe that Stephenson describes is a fascinating extrapolation of our own. It starts off promisingly with the cheeky demise of an archetypal Cyberpunk protagonist, setting the scene for the emotional and intellectual development of his child Nell via an interactive, nanotechnological book - the 'Primer'. The Primer acts as an electronic tutor, storyteller and protector that guides and oversees Nell's education and entry into adolescence.

The scope of the text is astounding, painting a portrait of a world where the ubiquity of nanotechnology has irreversibly altered human society from entertainment to warfare to economic worth. Stephenson's future is a world where nation states have collapsed to be replaced by 'phyles', socio-economic groups that partition cities into the differing communities and which cooperate under a global economic law. Foremost among these are the Neo-Victorians, an atavistic and economically advantaged phyle with a rigid social structure by whom the Primer is developed. After the engineer who covertly created it loses a copy, warfare begins to brew while little Nell is caught in the middle with her illicit Primer.

If the novel suffers from anything it is an overabundance of ideas that leaves the overall image somewhat muddled and susceptible to Occam's razor. The different storylines, gripping as they are, never weave together in a satisfactory conclusion and some characters seem to vanish along the way. Of all the fascinating topics covered, from Confucian justice to the importance of human interaction in childrearing, Stephenson gets rather too sidetracked with a phyle called the 'Drummers', an addition that will leave many readers alternating between scratching their heads and shaking them.

Despite its flaws and disappointingly rushed finale 'The Diamond Age' is a well-paced and highly intelligent read. There is more imagination contained in a chapter than most authors can muster in a whole book. The writing is sophisticated but never florid, the dialogue flawlessly alternating between being thought-provoking and hilarious. Stephenson must be commended for a novel of ambitious scope and astounding creativity, though it may have worked better as a series than as a single volume.
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VINE VOICEon 28 July 2005
An excellent plot-driven, action-packed story. He creates a wonderful world where nanotech has all but destroyed the value of 'things' and increased the value of high-quality knowledge and split the world into a utopia-dystopia. All good SF stuff and references aplenty for those who like to play those games. One of the nice things is that he doesn't bother to over-explain or moralise or erect a big sign saying "dangers of nanotechnology".
What it isn't is a hard-sf book on nanotechnology nor is it a book with a point; if you want the characters problems to be resolved and everything to be tied up neatly at the end then brace yourself, this book sets up more questions than it answers and rather abandons the reader before things have reached a truly satisfying conclusion. Only a writer with the creative depth of Neal Stephenson could afford to throw ideas of this quality away.
Excellent, but falls a little short of genuine read-it-fifty-times perfection.
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on 1 July 1999
Following up his epochal 'Snow Crash', Stephenson here investigates the godlike possibilities of nanotechnology, while at the same time exploring issues of society, class, education, the meaning of growing up and so much more.
It all rolls along brilliantly - slowly drawing together its 3 main protaganists who meet each other very late on, and then, suddenly - it just ends.
I have never read a book with such a disappointingly abrupt ending - its as if Stephenson was forced to compress the last two chapters into 2 paragraphs. i don't know what the man was thinking. Hence 4, not 5 crowns.
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on 10 March 2011
This is one of the best of Neal Stephenson's books - long enough to be interesting but not excessively so as later books become.

BUT the e-book seems to have been scanned and OCR'd rather than taken from the original copy. The subsequent proof-reading is very sketchy and possibly done by someone less literate than NS (or his fans) who does not know all the words. At all events there is a wholly unacceptable number of silly mis-readings that are sometimes hard to guess (so one has to consult the paper copy!).

The publishers should be ashamed of themselves!
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on 4 March 2002
At first I found The Diamond Age a much more mature and thought-provoking book than Snow Crash. The author addresses some interesting and difficult questions about the structure of neo-Victorian society versus Chinese society versus our own society. There is also the fascinating matter of the upbringing of the different girls who have copies of the Primer; how does it affect each them? How successful is it as a piece of social engineering?
Mixed among these questions there are the adventures of Nell, Hackworth and the other characters in the book. Their stories are told with plenty of plot-twists and intrigue, never revealing much about the big picture, always forcing the reader to try to guess what is going on.
Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way through the book, the author is unable to resist returning to the slam-bam action-filled style of Snow Crash. Thought-provoking questions are ditched, the big picture is summarised in a few paragraphs just in case the reader hasn't got it yet, everyone apart from the central characters is sidelined, and lots of easily-identifiable bad guys appear (and yes, they can't shoot straight).
I think Neal Stephenson has it in him to produce a seminal work of science fiction which will be able to stand alongside "serious" conventional literature, but The Diamond Age is not quite there yet.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 November 2014
This is probably not exactly steam-punk, but it shares a fondness for the victorian era, a hefty length and esoteric vocabulary. Once it gets going it spins a telling yarn about nano-technology and the educational power of fiction. I can struggle with a cluttered or over-busy narrative, but this managed to juggle all the various balls with aplomb.

If I had to criticise, the chinese characters are often quite stereotypical, and typos do start to creep in towards the end of the book. There also seems some ambiguity as to whether the reader of the Primer can effectively go back a few moves, or is committed to any decision she makes.

You have to enjoy luxuriating in a book like this, and certainly there is a huge amount here to savour. It could have been a third of the length, but then you would miss so much good stuff. The narrative picks up the pace towards the conclusion, and I was thinking about a five star marking. But for me, the actual ending felt a little too abrupt, with a few too many loose ends.

Well worth reading and re-reading.
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on 31 December 2004
From the other reviews on this site, much has obviously been made of the fact that this book contains 'racist' themes. I've now read this book three times, and have never got the impression that the author's intent was to cause any offence to any country, race or culture.
In fact, Stephenson pokes as much fun at the 'Neo-Victorians', and their overly pompous pastiche of 19th century British life, as he does at the other 'philes' featured in the book. What he creates is a rich cast of futuristic characters which, to my mind at least, represent caricatures, rather than indictments, of various regional personalities and their inherent traditions. In doing so he fashions something far more feasible among the fantasy genre than many other, more extreme utopian/dystopian, visions.
The range of ideas explored is fantastic, ranging from the moral to the philosophical to the scientific. Although the ending is indeed disappointing and somewhat unbelievable - even for a science fiction book - in the context of the rest of the story, the main body of the tale should keep you more than a little hooked.
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on 14 April 2014
Coming to Neal from the giant that is (sadly was) Iain M Banks, I was both pleased and slightly (but only slightly) disappointed in this book. The story line, research, and subject knowledge, as always, were most impressive: I loved the steampunk idea of nanotech becoming pistons and rods; I thoroughly enjoyed the development of the disintegration of national governments and cultures into more cultural explicit phyles, something I think he explored and developed more fully in the excellent Snow Crash.

The characters, as always, were highly enjoyable, both in their motivations and in their individuality. His trademark black humour also caused me to smile on many occasions.

So why slightly disappointed? At several points I thought that his passage of time was questionable: examples being Nell's years at the Miss Matheson's and Hackworth's ten year disappearance. Whilst the story still developed well, I fancied following the indvidual developments in slightly more detail.

Still, only a small gripe against an excellent and most enjoyable read. With Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and this work under my belt, I will be reading more of Neal's books. Recommended!
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