Monday, June 13, 2022

First thoughts on Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age

This is science fiction? Yes, of course, I know it is. But where are the rockets? Where’s the space travel? I know that there’s more to science fiction than those things, some of my favorite science fiction has little to do with those things, e.g. New York 2140. And yet somehow that’s a reaction I had to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. I don’t know why. It’s not as though it needed to jet off to other worlds. Not at all.

Maybe it’s a reflex to the story within the story, Young Lady's Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion. It was intended for the grand-daughter of a rich and powerful man but ended up, through uncomprehending theft, in the possession of four-year-old Nell, daughter of a marginalized woman, and brother of Harv, who came upon the book in the course of a theft. The Primer is concocted of sophisticated nano-technology with embedded computing and is interactive, its contents becoming suited to the reader in the course of reading. Thus it is about the adventures of one Princess Nell because it is being read by four-year-old Nell. As Nell matures, so does the story.

As it happens, Nell’s copy of the book was illegal. The man who made the book, John Percival Hackworth, had been commissioned by Lord Finkle-McGraw for his grand-daughter Elizabeth. Hackworth had made an illegal copy for his daughter, Fiona, and that’s the copy that was stolen and ended up with Nell. Eventually the three girls, Nell, Elizabeth, and Fiona, meet and become schoolmates. But that takes a bit of doing. And that process, in turn, is intertwined with a political drama as Han, one of three major polities, along with Nippon and New Atlantis, deal with a rebellion led by the Fists of the Celestial Kingdom. Yes, it is a bit complicated, but unfolds in a coherent way and leads to a smashing ending.

Everything revolves around the Primer, which takes up much of the text, set in a different typeface. It reads as a fairy tale that becomes ever more complicated, ending up as something of an allegory of computing, including a Duke of Turing complete with obligatory test, performed time and again by Nell. It’s her key to the story, and her own life.

The story is mostly set in Shanghai, which is no longer exclusively Chinese. The date is uncertain, but the 20th century is not far behind. But the nanotechnology, which dominates the technology landscape, is very advanced. Everything is manufactured by nanotech, clothing, housing, transportation, food. And the Primer.

The Primer is interactive and ‘ractives of various kinds are a major source of entertainment, in contrast to old-style passives. While some of the interactivity is pure tech – I’d imagine that’s the source of the story elements, characters and plots – the characters in the book talk to Miranda. And while that can be done artificially, in the very best ‘ractives it’s done by human actors, who make use of voice alteration tech so they can voice various characters. Those gigs are contracted out behind the scenes so that neither the reader/viewer or the ractor know one another.

When Nell first starts reading her Primer a ractor named Miranda, Miranda Redpath, takes the first gig. She takes a liking to this story and the young girl, she deduces, who is reading it. And so she makes sure to take other contracts with this particular client and, in time, becomes something of a mother to Nell. They will eventually meet in real life, though it takes extensive plotting to get there.

And that, at first pass, is the book. Yes, there’s the politics, the Han playing technological catch up to the New Atlantan’s (Hackworth and Lord Finkle-McGraw and others), copies of the book being pirated by Dr. X for the purpose of raising 100s of thousands of young Chinese girls, there’s all that. But really, in the end, it’s the story of a book and the people informed by it and who, in turn, inform it.

Perhaps some more later.

P.S. For my own performance as ractor in a story for two you Japanese-American girls, see How me, 2 young girls, their father, and our imaginary friends discovered the Metaverse and thereby saved the world, a True Story.

No comments:

Post a Comment