The Diamond Age

Oh boy, The Diamond Age was a veritable chore to get through. The forced isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic has pushed me into depression and I needed something that would allow me to regain a more positive outlook on life. Neal Stephenson has always managed to entertain me, so I elected to finally give The Diamond Age a shot. It had been sitting on my shelf for years and it felt like the perfect opportunity to read it.

Alas, after a fun and interesting start, the author loses control of his story and the second half of this novel is an awful mess. So much so that it took everything I had to simply finish the book. This works weighs in at 499 pages and it took me six weeks to read it. You do the math. . .

Here's the blurb:

Vividly imagined, stunningly prophetic, and epic in scope, The Diamond Age is a major novel from one of the most visionary writers of our time.

Decades into our future, a stone’s throw from the ancient city of Shanghai, a brilliant nanotechnologist named John Percival Hackworth has just broken the rigorous moral code of his tribe, the powerful neo-Victorians. He’s made an illicit copy of a state-of-the-art interactive device called A Young Ladys Illustrated Primer Commissioned by an eccentric duke for his grandchild, stolen for Hackworth’s own daughter, the Primer’s purpose is to educate and raise a girl capable of thinking for herself. It performs its function superbly. Unfortunately for Hackworth, his smuggled copy has fallen into the wrong hands.

Young Nell and her brother Harv are thetes—members of the poor, tribeless class. Neglected by their mother, Harv looks after Nell. When he and his gang waylay a certain neo-Victorian—John Percival Hackworth—in the seamy streets of their neighborhood, Harv brings Nell something special: the Primer.

Following the discovery of his crime, Hackworth begins an odyssey of his own. Expelled from the neo-Victorian paradise, squeezed by agents of Protocol Enforcement on one side and a Mandarin underworld crime lord on the other, he searches for an elusive figure known as the Alchemist. His quest and Nell’s will ultimately lead them to another seeker whose fate is bound up with the Primer—a woman who holds the key to a vast, subversive information network that is destined to decode and reprogram the future of humanity.

As is usually his wont, Neal Stephenson came up with another innovative book, whose backdrop is a meticulously researched premise on the potential utilizations of nanotechnology and the eventual social ramifications they would have on the world as we know it. How would society at large react and evolve if the economic and political underpinnings holding our countries together began to unravel and governments became obsolete? The author also explores themes such as education, sexism, social standing, and ethnicity. All of which made for a somewhat grand and fascinating beginning.

Unfortunately, for some reason everything goes down the crapper around the midway point and the author is never able to bring the train back on track. Never tries, really, if truth be told.

The characterization is quite uneven. Some protagonists are fleshed out and genuine, while others are cardboard cutouts that could have used a bit more work. John Percival Hackworth, the creator of the primer, was an interesting man to follow until his quest brought him in contact with the Drummers. Everything that followed that plotline was quite ridiculous and killed the novel to a certain extent. Miranda, the ractive actress who narrates most of the primer's stories, was by far the most compelling character, but she disappears at some point on a quest of her own and her reappearance does nothing to improve the tale. Nell, the little girl at the heart of this book, was also interesting in the first half, but the narratives within the narratives used to recount the stories from the primer gradually become a bit redundant and I lost interest. The same goes for Judge Fang and Dr. X. It's a major disappointment, because this cast had great potential.

The Diamond Age suffers from pacing issues, especially in the second half of the novel. While Stephenson kept things moving at a very good clip in the first part, the rest of the book gets bogged down by weird and often boring scenes featuring the Drummers, the many stories from the primer, the Fists of Righteous Harmony's revolt, and that over-the-top and ludicrous interactive boat theater play.

The second portion is such a chore to go through that whatever resolution results from the endgame and the finale is almost completely lost on the reader. Basically, I was just happy it was finally over. Everything about the ending was forgettable.

Very disappointing.

The final verdict: 5/10

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6 commentaires:

Anrake said...

I sadly agree. A very disappointing outcome for this Stephenson. I've liked all the other books I read but this one felt like 899 pages not 499 pages. it took months to finish.

DontDriveAngry said...

I had a very similar experience with my read of this a year or so ago. I saw a lot of high-regards (Hugo & Lpcus Awards!) and discussion that it was a bit of a companion piece to Snow Crash, which I loved, so I was rather surprised when I was finished at how much of an effort it took to read it. There was enough of Stephenson's brilliance throughout that kept me reading, but it just felt like wading through molasses at times. I don't know if I'd go as low as a 5 on my rating scale, but I definitely understand why anyone would be disappointed.

Fred said...

I read it a few months ago and I still don't get why this book was seen with so much regard. Maybe I'm spoiled by more recent books.

Anonymous said...

You've always been a crude person, that only seems to have increased over the years. Liked this, and not "sad" about it.

Joshua said...

I got into Stephenson with Cryptonomicon, followed his releases for a few years, and then went back to pre-Crypt stuff this year. After the mess that is Snow Crash, I'm not sure I can bring myself to try reading this, which sounds like a similar more-enthusiasm-than-talent disaster.

Unknown said...

I read this book over 20 years ago and loved it. This was my first book I ever read by Stephenson. I have since gone back and listened to the audio book and continue to love this story.