Title: The Diamond Age
Published: Penguin 1996
Purchased: Borders, Cambridge, 2004-01-24, £6.99
Neal Stephenson has a high reputation as a novelist - Cryptonomicon was one of the mostly anticipated books the year it appeared. So how come I didn't have this novel already?
Diamond Age is based about 50 years into the future, and it's a future which is wildly strange. Nanotech has taken off, and the world has been vastly changed as a result. Matter Compilers are everywhere appliances, able to take basic atoms and put them together into anything for which the machine has a program, so food is commonly created in them rather than being grown. Nation states have become old-fashioned, with new 'claves' taking over. Claves are groups of like-minded individuals who prefer to live together, but splintered into scattered fragments. Diamond is cheaper than glass, because it only needs carbon. Yes, this is a gosh-wow setting, and it fizzes and sparks with invention, yet all the high-tech is plausible if you don't look too close (like, how does a Matter Compiler actually [a] create anything in a reasonable time, and [b] do it without huge energy input?).
Also, there's a wide range of characters, ranging from the wonderful Doctor X through Judge Fang to John Percival Hackworth and (Princess) Nell.
The story concerns the attempt by Hackworth to surreptitiously clone an amazing piece of nanotech - the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which he designed - and give a copy to his young daughter. But his first copy gets stolen and ends up in the hands of the young sister of a Shanghai petty hoodlum, before he creates another cloned copy for his daughter Fiona. The young girl is Nell, and we spend much of the book following how Nell learns from the interactive (ractive) stories in her book. In many ways, the story is about her growing up, at least to the age of 16, and it is a delightful story. But there's also the tale of how Hackworth has to make amends, how the Ractive actress Miranda raises a child she never meets, and the submission of the Confucian Judge Fang to the arch-villain X.
If there are flaws, then it's that some huge chunks of time just disappear for some of the characters, and that the end manages to peter out from the climactic fall of Shanghai. And I think this may be the problem. While I was reading it, I had faint echoes - I had read it before, I just barely remembered it. Since it came out only a few years ago, this surprised me - I can usually recognise a novel within a page or two, but here it took nearly half the book!
So, recommended, but with reservations.