Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age is a picaresque novel which combines the cyberpunk vision of a future technological nano-dystopia (when atomic recombination can create anything) with the Dickensian obsessions of death, the capacity for human change and the triumph of Good over Evil.
When I sat down to read this book I must admit I was daunted, since at a whacking 450 pages it is a substantial effort. By page ten I was entertained, by page 200 I was having severe headaches, and by page 400 I wished that the book could transform itself (nanotechnologically) into a large drink.
Readers familiar with Stephenson's oeuvre will no doubt love this, but as a someone who has only sketchily read a selection of the cyberpunk genre (Sterling, Gibson, for example) I found it unsatisfying. The basic premise is a good one: combine the world as it will be in the age of nanotech with the theme of the passage of a young orphan into adulthood via the activities of a mysterious benefactor, mediated by a multimedia "illustrated primer" which is capable of interactive instruction. However, the premise is never fully realised.
The whole plot, as far as I could make out, concerned the activities of various warlords, political machinators, and shadowy cults who vie for control of the various bits of nanotechnology, the most important of these being the Feed - the constant supply of atomic constituents for the creation of weird and wonderful nano-machines.
Stephenson's writing is at its best when describing the various nanotechnological possibilities (tiny machines which are injected into the bloodstream, interactive paper which can display multimedia information, swarms of machines which carry out surveillance, for example) and conveying the sense of a future world in which nanotech has completely rejigged entire societies and cultural expectations.
It is at its worst in its ham-fisted characterisation and plotting. The various characters (a young orphan girl in need of self-improvement, a nano-engineer, the mysterious Dr X) do not appear to have any inner life and are are only ciphers and, coupled with a pseudo-cathartic ending (which Stephenson seems to have tacked on, probably because his wordprocessor ran out of memory) this leaves one feeling rather cold.
Added to this, Stephenson's sole stylistic technique appears to be the introduction of the various chapters by titles which reflect the picaresque nature of the plot ("Nell learns to work the matter compiler; youthful indiscretions; all is made better") which seem merely tricksy. This, however, does serve to break up the usual post-cyberpunk post-post-modern dislocated narrative and the invention of new vocabulary (which is unhelpfully and irritatingly never explained).
To be fair, Stephenson is by no means an incompetent cyber-novelist, but on the evidence of The Diamond Age he is no master of the genre either. He is, of course, fighting against the inherent problems of describing in textual form the nanotechnological future which is better rendered visually in a more economical way (2001, or Blade Runner for example, which convey the whole futurescape in minutes).
My review copy of The Diamond Age states on the back cover that this novel is "vividly imagined" (well, maybe), "prophetic" (not really, since nanotech has been done, and done to death, elsewhere) and "epic in scope". Epic in weight certainly - I shall probably throw it away rather than put it in my bag for a flight to Heathrow.
That is, unless it rearranges itself into that drink . . .
Peter Thomas is professor of information management at the University of the West of England.
The Diamond Age
Author - Neal Stephenson
ISBN - 0 670 864 145
Publisher - Viking
Price - £10.00
Pages - 450