Stephenson — The Diamond Age

Stephenson, Neal, The Diamond Age Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, Bantam, (Originally published 1995)

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

[Spoiler Alert!]

With the recent announcement of a new science fiction TV series based on author screenplays from this ten year old book, it seems like a good time to take a second look at Stephenson’s vision of the next century. Diamond Age contained the first use of the term “Anglosphere,” a neologism which Jim Bennett put to more specific use in 2000.


The story, in all its Rabelaisian glory, revolves around an interactive book created out of nanotechnological substances drawn from The Feed (a nanotechnological substrate carefully controlled by a handful of cultural groups). The setting is a time in the not-too-distant future … perhaps 70 to 100 years … and events occur over the space of just over a decade. The place is a high-tech enclave, a manufactured island called Source Victoria off the coast of Shanghai, maintained by a society of neo-Victorian “Equity Lords” as a entrepot of trade and manufacture. These meritocratic folk create a safe, idyllic enclave high on this island, and recreate the cultural milieu and material style of the Victorian era, based however upon very advanced nanotechnology. Transportation is now by airship, and various mechanical devices travel the ground bearing no resemblance to automobiles. The “Vickies” have economic ties with a vast array of different ethnic and sociological tribes or “phyles” around the world under the terms of a Common Economic Protocol — which manages their civil and criminal legal relationships. They are dominant amongst a wider set of high-tech tribes (including the Nipponese), who are in turn surrounded by a vast swarm of less fortunate peoples under authoritarian rule of various kinds or bound by ethnic and racial ties.

Nanotech has solved the problem of providing for the basic needs of humankind, but hasn’t solved any of its social appetites.

The book in question (The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer) is designed and constructed for a leading Equity Lord who has become worried about the close-mindedness of his offspring. Unlike his own entrepreneurial past, and his whole-hearted adoption of Victorian mores as a solution to cultural drift, his children (and now his grandchildren), are simply following instructions, rather than actively contributing to a dynamic, if emotionally restrained and hierarchical, culture. The Primer is meant to be his gift to his five-year-old grand-daughter. It will be her gateway out of the rut and a controlled experiment, for the grandfather, in creating a risk-taker.

In a series of twists and turns, a copy of the book is stolen before it can “imprint” on its intended young owner. That copy finds its way into the hands of a thete, or lower class girl, in the midst of a slum. From that point on, we see the book begin the education of the young five-year old, giving her the physical, mental and cultural coaching necessary to escape her dire circumstances and find an educational opportunity in the high-tech enclave of the neo-Victorians, high up on Source Victoria.

In the meantime, conditions on the Chinese mainland’s Celestial Kingdom (and the rampantly corrupt Coastal Republic commercial zones) are getting increasingly desperate. The different Chinese Confucian and authoritarian cultural systems are struggling unsuccessfully to keep up with their high-tech competitors. The Diamond Age (reflecting the widespread nanotechnological use of diamond as an inexpensive construction material) is placing them further and further behind. To leap-frog the high-tech tribes, the Chinese are in search of an alternative technological approach to matter conversion — a decentralized “Seed” or agricultural manufacturing process that would be suitable for top-down, authoritarian agrarian culture. Discovering the keys to the Seed will require them to blackmail the designer of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, sending him off on a decade-long espionage assignment through the most secretive of the hacker communities that have found a way to use human bodies (and sexual intercourse) as a method of elaborate computation and encryption. Perhaps the secret of the Seed will be found there. Her Majesty’s Joint Intelligence Services make an appearance to assure that the Seed is nipped in the bud, as it were.

Along the way, a Confucian judge from the Coastal Republic has managed to coerce the Primer’s designer to build multiple inexpensive copies of the Illustrated Primer for thousands of abandoned Chinese female infants. These thousands will play a role in the denouement of the book when the Celestial Kingdom re-establishes control over the corrupt Coastal Republic and expels all non-Chinese tribes from the mainland.

Anglosphere Musings

Stephenson’s book has been a favorite focus for discussion and reflection by a handful of contributors to this blog. The author’s insights into a future era where the tribalism of geopolitics, universal commercial law, and the lethality and potential of nanotechnology hold sway, seems prescient. Unlike many of his colleagues in science fiction, Stephenson seems comfortable with the nuts-and-bolts of human culture, and actually writes about human beings in a way that seems credible for those of us who live in a mature, functioning, economically productive society.

There’s much that is attractive in his writing. His characters and scenes are vivid. His use of technology and plot are excellent. His writing is laced with small pop-culture references that create a sense of fun but don’t intrude on the story if you miss them. Like earlier and later books by the author, the social environments are compelling, and though he might be considered in the same cyberpunk genre as William Gibson, Stephenson successfully applies common sense to his social groups, far better than the overweening and morbid “man against machine” dystopic style of Gibson.

I have noted a repeated pattern in Stephenson’s book. Inevitably some kind of “emergent phenomena” appears to wrap up disparate story lines but most people will find that less irritating than I do. Resolving a problem with the unforeseen or the super-natural seems like a pretty cheap gimmick when tacked on to a fully realized social fiction. Stephenson is selling you a book, however, not a food supplement, diet, or government program. He can be forgiven for getting himself stuck in a corner that he can only resolve with a magic wand or mcguffin. A bit.

Now it is telling that the 19th century neo-Victoriana of Diamond Age was replaced when Stephenson wrote his recent massive Baroque trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World). Here he turns to the truly dynamic period in English history at the end of the 18th century and ironically it is here we see some of the cultural and economic attributes that make their reappearance in Jim Bennett’s historical analysis underlying the Anglosphere. Certainly his Baroque trilogy is a far better match with our current era’s openness to social change than the Victorian period — which evidenced a lot of cultural rigidity and weakened economic dynamism when compared with the Americans and other European states. After 1850, the British were on the decline and were not to see an economic resurgence for a century. A great summary of the economic and social climate from the time of publication of Newton’s Principia through til the Crystal Palace Exhibiition of 1851 is reviewed here.

As outlined in historian David Hackett-Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, America’s cultural foundation owes little to the High Church Victorians imagined for the Diamond Age, but can find many similarities with the various cultural groups in Britain between 1650 and 1750. As a result, Diamond Age loses a bit of its utility as social commentary. It is a serious misunderstanding of the conservative and/or libertarian strains of American (and Anglosphere) culture. The Victorians, we can say with some certainty, lost World War Zero to the US and paid a substantial economic and social price for it through the twentieth century. We don’t see this reality or weakness effectively foreshadowed (or realistically compensated for) in Diamond Age. But Stephenson is certainly on the right historical track. Ten years ago, he just landed a bit too late in English history. He needed to look to Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the US for how the Victorians inadvertently overcame the narrowness of their social milieu.

What to make of Diamond Age as a potential TV series?

A simple mirroring of the neo-Victorian nanotechnologists onto an American or Anglosphere cultural template (which is what TV science-fiction is all about) would be a historical mistake, I think. After all, political power across the English-speaking world is largely shared between political parties with patchwork quilts of constituencies that don’t resemble the elite imperial bureaucracies of 19th century Britain.

And finding a compelling story about neo-Victorians in an pseudo-American context might require stereotyping the cultural right wing in ways that are historically nonsensical. The established church Episcopalians of early America have long since left the scene on the American Right. The Methodism and Presbyterianism of the 18th century have morphed into Baptist and Pentacostal denominations … and entirely new 19th century manifestations like the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have appeared. The suburban mega-churches of the American South, satellite broadcasting in multi-ethnic glory on the Trinity Broadcasting Network seem a long, long way from stodgy Victorian drawing rooms, neo- or otherwise. The cultural and moral conservatism of these substantial portions of American society, at least, have *nothing* whatsoever to do with the class-based society of late 19th century urban Britain. Nothing.

The grim nature of China’s imagined future in Diamond Age seems a little less likely than when Stephenson was writing his book during the early 90s. His prediction about Chinese nativism and collapse however may ultimately ring true if books such as The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis and China’s Trapped Transition turn out to be accurate.

But let’s face it … there’ll be no overt theme in a TV series based on the Diamond Age that translates as impending Yellow Peril. Too politically incorrect. And too worrisome. Regrettably, it may be easier to morph the neo-Victorians of the book into straight-laced Republicans with fancy CGI (computer-generated image) gizmos, and elaborate art direction, glossing over the ahistorical assumptions that must be made. That would be very unfortunate.

If the insights Stephenson drew in his Baroque trilogy do not outline the particular weaknesses of the Victorians, an opportunity will be lost. There are Anglosphere solutions to cultural stagnation, even if the Victorians did not find them. Without a fundamental appreciation into the deep historical roots of Anglosphere decentralization, implied but not illustrated in the Diamond Age, then any TV presentation will become an excuse for fancy props (nanotech special effects and some elaborated interactive media in the “illustrated primer”) without making any contribution to a toolkit of coping with the modern world, with its attendant social and technological change. There’s an opening for the author to add to the public policy argument. Hopefully he’ll take it, otherwise …

It’ll just be more “genuine [historical] junk food for juveniles”, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

4 thoughts on “Stephenson — The Diamond Age”

  1. One of my favorite books of all time.

    I am cautiously optimistic about the TV show. Stephenson is writing the screenplay. So, there is hope it will be good.

    The Neo-Victorians are depicted pretty favorably overall by Stephenson — repressed, but productive and orderly and hardworking and brave. I think the TV show could simply show them as they are in the book and let the viewer make his own decision about how to judge them.

    I note that the way the Vicky architecture is described, it fits in perfectly with Veliz’s idea of English (or Anglospheric) culture as asymmetrically gothic. I wonder if Stephenson read Veliz.

    Also, is it really a yellow peril book? The Celestial Kingdom is not so much on the march as pushing out the foreigners. Those scenes reminded me of Charleton Heston in 55 Days at Peking, probably intentionally.

    (I don’t see why the seed technology is necessarily going to support an authoritarian culture. The idea is that it is going to support an agrarian culture.)

  2. One can date the era in The Diamond Age within a decade or two. The childhood incident related by the character Finkle-McGraw, in which an airliner makes a forced landing in Iowa and local civil society, including the Boy Scouts, turns up at the airport spontaneously to assist, was a real incident which took place (I seem to remember) in the mid-1980s. Finkle-McGraw, in the story, was somewhere between 80 and 100, and we can assume that 10 is a reasonable meidan age for a Boy Scout. So that would put the beginning of the story somewhere between 2060 and 2080.

    The Victorian ethos is not entirely irrelevant to America. Many late-Victorian institutions and attitudes crossed the Atlantic and influenced American “WASP” culture, that is to say upper-middle-class Northeastern US culture, heavily; it took advantage of similarities that were already there. New England town academies, whose roots were in the dissenter academies of midlands and northern England, were transformed into English-style boarding schools with an Eton- or Rugby-style curriculum. The Boy Scouts themselves, a quintessentially Second Empire institution, helped spread this ethos throughout middle-class America. (One of the reasons “Boy Scout” is often used by Americans as a decription for Canadian attitudes is that Anglo-Canada had an even heavier infusion of Second Empire culture — so there is a common source.) So, although America’s roots are found primarily in the English Seventeenth Century, there was a substantial graft of Second Empire influence. The Neo-Victorians would probably have felt at home in the Metropolitan Club in Washington or the Union League in Philadelphia.

  3. In American, “Victorian sensibilities” were overlain on a robust social-framework we inherited from England Protectorate to Recency-period…whereas the British adopted them as a coping mechanism to their imperial social-pressures where their social and economic-values were in conflict. In American, these same pressures were co-parallel; and seen not as a “control on progress”, but as progress itself. Rather than the British “keeping people in their place”, it provided the “empty places” for Americans (native-born and immigrant)to “fill-in”.

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