The Diamond Age

ISBN: 0553380966
ISBN 13: 9780553380965
By: Neal Stephenson

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About this book

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a postcyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson. It is to some extent a science fiction coming-of-age story, focused on a young girl named Nell, and set in a future world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

Reader's Thoughts

Mike Reiring

The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is the novel that, along with Snow Crash, put Neal Stephenson on the map in the mid 90's. Stephenson has since written a string of imaginative, thought provoking books that all touch on some aspect of the nature of information and it's movement. While it's never stated, Diamond Age seems to be set about 50 - 75 years after Snow Crash.The first part of the title is a reference to the names that anthropologists and historians use to describe the technological ages of humans: Stone Age, Bronze Age, etc. Some believe that we will one day have the ability to create objects and devices at the atomic level. One result of this might be the ability to synthesize carbon based objects which use the crystalline structure of diamonds. This may yield materials that might be, among other properties, extremely light and rigid. Hence, the Diamond Age.Like the other his works, Stephenson touches on a wide variety of subjects. The future according to Stephenson includes the perfection of nanotechnology, obsolescence of nation-states, distributed consciousness, and an emphasis of culture over ethnicity.Set in this world is the story of John Hackworth, a leading nanotech engineer, and Nell, a young girl of humble birth. Hackworth is commissioned to create the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a futuristic book which is capable of tailoring its content to the reader's interests and abilities. Nell's life is changed dramatically when her brother gives her the primer after mugging Hackworth and stealing a copy of the Primer.Diamond Age was not an easy book to get into initially. I read the book over the course of two months, with other reading interspersed. I never really lost interest, but it took awhile before the book really grabbed me. Stephenson writes with a focus on narrative. There is relatively little dialog, and the characters are not as fully developed as some might like. In spite of these things, the book is well worth the effort. The stories of Hackworth and Nell are compelling, and the vision of the future put forth is like nothing I've ever read. Unlike most science fiction, Diamond Age and Snow Crash contain a future world that could believably exist in our lifetime.


I read this the first time when I was a young, impressionable, repressed, closeted Mormon boy. (Oh, god, so many of my reviews seem to start this way.) Stephenson's vision of a future shocked and titillated me, and years later I still found it returning to haunt me. Yet I don't think I ever truly understood the story, and certainly not the ending.Now I think I do. In a future where synthetically assembled diamond is as ubiquitous as glass, where almost anything can be designed and created atom by atom, where the poor are wretchedly poor and the rich are bored and stodgy, and where cultures have come massively adrift from their geographical moorings but have grown ever more rigid and and closed off from each other, one young girl from the ghetto is handed a dangerous, subversive, life-changing book called A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. This book is that book. It is also the story of that girl's journey from childhood to maturity, of an audacious theft and a bungled robbery--both with world-changing consequences--and of a young interactive actress's growing relationship with a child she had never seen.This is a more mature work than Stephenson's earlier Snow Crash . I can't wait to continue on and read the books that made him really famous.

Scott D.

Earlier, I reviewed Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. It was one of the finest audiobooks I'd ever heard, and I feel that this one may be even better. Snow Crash was irreverent and whimsical, and The Diamond Age is that and more, with a plot that is both epic and personal.Nell is a little girl, 4 years old when we first meet her. Her brother, Harv, gives her a stolen copy of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, an interactive ("ractive") book that was designed by an engineer who wanted his own daughter to experience a bit more than the traditional education. Nell's mother flits from abusive relationship to abusive relationship, with Nell and Harv protecting themselves as they can. Nell spends more and more time with the Primer, which teaches Nell through stories told by real interactive actors ("ractors") via the Net.The story is complex and mature. The main plot follows Nell's life, and along the way we see an amazing world. The world has become nearly tribal again with people gathering in Claves, each with their own rules and culture. Much time is spent in a neo-Victorian Clave, a place where Victorian culture is adopted because it is felt that one has to go back to the 19th century to find a viable model for society.Stephenson explores two technologies in the novel as well, and they are both of equal influence on the story. The first is the Net and the entire idea of interactive entertainment, which makes the Primer possible. The second is nanotechnology, which is used in everything from planet building to the creation of stuffed animals in a Matter Compiler. There are also nano-mites which float in your bloodstream and can do anything from carry information to kill you with thousands of tiny explosions. The drawback to this novel is its ending, which, though inadequate, would not keep me from recommending it. The rest of the book is so astonishingly strong, that to miss it would be missing one of the major works of modern science fiction.The Diamond Age could not have been an easy novel to perform, but Jennifer Wiltsie did so admirably. This is the first I've heard her, and I hope to hear her voice often. She had just the right tone for this, and I had no trouble at all discerning the characters in this complex novel. An excellent job.(Originally posted at in September 2003.)


I get the feeling that Stephenson's writing process goes something like this:Hey, I found a really cool idea here. I wonder what I can do about it....He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possibly uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social ramifications, and then goes, Oh, damn, I'm writing a story, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and brought up brilliant gems, and it happened here, too.The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen, or what might happen, if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government became obsolete? With the Feed and the Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet came undone, and people banded together into phyles. Like-minded individuals bonded with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty which, in turn, rested on the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.Within one of the phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world. The problem wasn't the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young - indeed it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, they were indoctrinated into them from birth, which made them, well, boring.And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work - The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer to guide his granddaughter to a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been short. But two other copes of the Primer were made - one for the daughter of the book's designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.The Primer is a smart book, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history and martial arts, among other things. And what it teaches little Nell is how to be great.All of this is quite awesome - there's a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans and all that. And then, suddenly, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.I know a lot of people love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He's an incomparably imaginative man, who is able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn't even imagine. He's an heir to the world of that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating worlds and characters and problems without simple solutions.He just keeps bollixing up the endings. Seriously, it's like a whole different story kicks in around page 250. I'm willing to read more of his works, though, in the hope that he's getting his act together....


If 'Snow Crash' was the definitive cyberpunk book, then 'The Diamond Age or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer' is the last word on that particular genre. It's nominally set in the same world as the earlier book and shares some of the geo-political background. Nation states are an outdated concept, and now people are grouped into phyles by a common culture or other affiliation. Three major world views are uneasy neighbours - the neo Victorians of New Atlantis with their mannered stoicism and carefully managed hypocrisy sit alongside the Confucianism of the Han Chinese and the Nipponese.The plot centres around a peculiar book commissioned by Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle McGraw as a present for his grand-daughter, designed and built by the nano engineer John Percival Hackworth who steals a copy of book for his own daughter, which as a result of a street robbery then falls into the hands of Nell, a young girl living in wretched circumstances in the leased territory of a future Shanghai. The book has been designed as a fully interactive education for a young lady from the age of five or six through to adolescence as a subversive alternative to the stifling conformity of the Neo Victorian system. Nell's education over the course of many years, including insights into subjects starting with self defence, history, nano engineering and finally the limits of artificial intelligence (or pseudo intelligence as Hackworth defines it) of Turing machines, has far reaching and startling consequences.I particularly enjoyed the segments of the book told from the viewpoint of the protagonist of the Primer - Princess Nell and her companions Dinosaur, Duck, Peter Rabbit and Purple who are based on the few toys owned by the Nell of the real world. The self defence taught by Dojo the mouse and Princess Nell's slow unravelling of the relentless logic of Castle Turing are the high points.If the book has any failings, it is the rather abrupt and rushed ending which leaves many things open and unresolved, although in retrospect the consequences of a world profoundly changed are thought provoking indeed.

Wilmar Luna

I hated this book, plain and simple. Diamond Age was my first jump into sci-fi books and wow did it disappoint in every aspect. The worst part is that there were some solid, interesting ideas in this book that really seemed awesome, but failed to be executed properly.1.) The book is hard to read and wordy for the sake of being wordy. If you don't know what any of the terminology is that the author has created, tough luck, you need to figure it out. I don't mind grabbing a dictionary here and there but some of his words were just unnecessarily obtuse. It was the equivalent of someone who just loves to hear himself talk.2.) It's boring, I found myself falling asleep while reading passages of his book because I wasn't interested. I wasn't vested in the characters and there was nothing of substance to keep me wanting to read more.(However, I will say there was a very touching scene between Nell and her brother Harv that made me sad. So there was at least one good thing in this book.)3.) Supposedly the setting is some kind of neo victorian future, yet there's references to Cleveland, McDonald's and older tech. If it's the future of our world, why in the heck would we go back to doing things a victorian way? Like in Star Wars, it feels like we took a step backwards in technology rather than forward. I did not enjoy any of the real world references in this book, because the setting made it seem like it wasn't our real world at all. If anything the references took me out of the moment.4.) Probably my most important pet peeve, WHERE IS THE PLOT? There was no plot to speak of! It follows a little girl named Nell through her experiences with the primer, which is fine but... there's no plot! There's character development of the little girl Nell but again, why should I care? This book failed to give me any reason to get invested in any of the characters. Other characters who seemed much more interesting were forgotten and cast aside.What's even more frustrating is that minor characters suddenly become main characters at the end of the book and they are awfully one dimensional. Carl Hollywood, I just don't get why the author made this guy seem so much more important at the end of the book. However, he still had more personality than the 2nd main character Hackworth who is the literary equivalent of watching paint dry.Which brings me to...5.) As another review stated earlier, it's like the author suddenly remembered he had no plot and decided to turn the last hundred pages into a huge action sequence. Suddenly, that little girl Nell becomes this action hero that's jumping across elevators and there's this war going on. When the hell did the war start?I could understand why people liked the book, it certainly had a rich world of cool technological ideas. Yet, when it comes to characters and plot, this book falls flat on its face.I am giving the author another shot with his book Snow Crash and so far it's looking much better.If you don't care about plot or interesting characters, Diamond Age is the perfect book to read for world building.


Neal Stephenson currently enjoys a coveted spot on my top 3 fave authors list. A pattern, however is emerging as I bounce from one of his works to the next. Each one shares the same triumphant highs and sewer-dwelling lows. The Diamond Age is particularly emblematic of this phenomenon. Most notably, Stephenson seems to lose control of his plot by the final act and refuses entirely to provide any real plot resolution. Sometimes I wonder whether he has one more act in mind and wants readers to construct it from clues he has embedded in the text; it's possible but unlikely. I think he simply writes until he finds himself in a corner and then rockets the manuscript to the publisher posthaste.Second, while Stephenson's characters are more varied here than they were in Anathem, most of them never develop more than one or two layers.And while I'm still complaining, Stephenson's prose is more Mieville than Pynchon. That's not a compliment. He uses a lot of high falootin' vocab- especially in description of physical surroundings, but where Pynchon employs difficult vocab seamlessly into lovingly crafted sentences, Stephenson and Mieville appear to use these words only to show off their formidable internal lexicons. Moreover, they tend to repeat these words- causing one to wonder whether their depth is feigned.So why four stars? I'm moaning and groaning as usual, so what gives? The ideas, man, the ideas... There's a reason most of the characters lack depth. Stephenson loves to saddle each of them with a particular value or philosophy and then send them all into valorous combat with each other. In the meantime, he builds a world around them that dialogs with all of the ideas in play. The world of the Diamond Age lacks perhaps the shocking originality of Anathem's monastic scholars- Stephenson is indebted to Gibson for some of his vision- but the pseudo-science concepts he creates compliment Gibson's otherwise vacuous vision wholesale. This is the best cyberpunk novel Gibson never wrote.At the end of the day, The Diamond Age, like Anathem, feels incomplete but contains novel ideas and striking centerpiece scenes that I won't forget. This is science fiction doing what it's supposed to do: make people think.

Lit Bug

Lemmed it. Not that it was so bad, but I couldn't go further.The plot is excruciatingly slow, the characters flat. The world-building is adequate, even really good sometimes. But pages and pages of inconsequential descriptions of surroundings and routine gestures and detailed accounts of characters who die soon and have absolutely nothing to do with the plot so far. Maybe I'll pick it up when I'm in a more lenient mood, more tolerant.


This has been on my shelf a while, I think a friend sent it to me. I have to admit, this is a dense read sometimes in the way that hard sci-fi can be: Glazing over at "tech speak tech speak tech speak." If you fall of the tech-speak train you start to glaze over a bit and get confused, or at least I do. I'm sure all the technology is masterfully crafted and is visionary, I just couldn't 100% follow it. It's like sometimes authors TRY to be obscure in their writing in order to be "highbrow" to rise about the genre or something. That said, something about this book REALLY gripped me, I definitely was drawn into the character of Nell, and even though the society and tech confused me a bit, I just skimmed forward a bit and got right on track. Her character was beautifully realized and very emotional. I can't say why it was so riveting, it just was.The end of the book felt a bit rushed to me, considering the pace of the book previous, but this is certainly a deeply realized and profound book. I feel that one day I'll read it again and "get" more of the nanotechnology parts. I would love to read another book in this universe and about Nell considering how much work I put into absorbing it all! Highly recommended.

Mohammad Ali Abedi

The most annoying part of a science-fiction book is when the author is so in love with a new technology in his time that he thinks that the future is basically that technology multiplied by a thousand. It would be like when pants were invented, a science fiction author being thrilled so much by it that he would think that in the future everyone would wear pants at all times and put pants on their hand and have houses that were pant shaped and drive pant shaped cars.Author Neal Stephenson is so excited by nanotechnology that he inserts it every single part of his story. The plot keeps get sidetracked by Stephenson telling us another nifty use for nanotechnology whether it is to make food, books, or used as a weapon. I bet I could write a science-fiction story where everyone uses facebook for all purposes, like how Osama Bin Laden has a facebook account and the posts angry messages on George Bush’s wall, but it wouldn’t make me smart.The best science-fiction stories are the ones that use the science of it to place humans in a different setting to see how they will react in a different circumstances, but still be a human story, rather than have the author masturbate about cool new things he can think of using the current new technology that stops being exciting after something new comes along in a couple of years, or more likely, in a few days.The only cool thing in the book is that the future has divided people into groups, such as a group of people have decided to be like the old Victorians. But unfortunately that concept is lost in a stupid story with characters that could have been developed, if the author did not instead tell us how nanotechnology can be used to make realistic paper or some stupid shit like that.


Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).Not long after starting my Locus Quest, I crossed paths with a fascinating purple brick of a book, by the name of Anathem . We hit it off – spent many happy hours together – and I sealed our love affair by naming a kitten after Anathem ’s protagonist, Erasmas.Then along came Cryptonomicon – a different kind of beast. Initially, I was less convinced; where is the sci-fi element? But that fat historical war novel grew on me slowly (and as it was so long it had plenty of time to work its magic) so I found myself a fan by the end.Third (but by no means final) Stephenson to step up to the plate is the steampunk-nanotech extraordinaire, The Diamond Age . Weighing in at a dinky 500 pages compared to its heavyweight kin, The Diamond Age hits the ground running and had me grinning from the get-go.There’s no point bushing-around-the-beat, it’s time to put-my-table-on-the-cards and wear-my-sleeve-on-my-heart: I loved this book! As with Anathem , this book deserves a sixth star from me. It makes me want to downgrade other books to 4-star just to make it stand out further. Anathem is a book with substance – the kind of girl your grandmother calls a ‘keeper’. The Diamond Age is a book with flair – the kind of girl your grandmother calls a ‘bad influence’.What your Grandmother isn’t telling you, is that sometimes ‘bad influences’ grow up to be ‘keepers’. The same soul runs through these books, but Anathem is just a little older and wiser – The Diamond Age more naive and impulsive.You can easily find a list of major characters in this book – Nell, the Hackworths, the Finkle-McGraws, Judge Fang, Miranda – but odds-on they wont mention the star of the show: The Primer. Oh, the Primer! Oh, sweet bejesus, the Primer! I wish I had a Primer as a child. I wish I had a Primer now, to give to my son. The Primer is perfect. It’s like a fully formed idea you were already aware of, that hadn’t been articulated yet. It was on the tip of my tongue – now I know what it’s called: the Primer! The Primer is perfect. It is what everyone who’s banged their head on the desk through educational software wishes it was, and then some. I could read a whole encyclopaedia about Nell’s lessons with the Primer – then go back in time, finish my AI design degree and devote my life to making the Primer a reality. Everything else in this book is window dressing (fascinating, imaginative, playful, funny, adventurous and evocative window dressing, for sure). A lot of people get frustrated by the second half of the book and the ending. I am apparently in the minority. When Nell’s (view spoiler)[Mouse Army come to rescue (hide spoiler)] her I wanted to jump up and down on the bed. I told my wife about it in rushed, excited, babbling sentences which made her stare at me funny and pat me on the head. And the drummers? Yes – the drummers are silly. But so was Bud’s skull gun back at the start. Remember how I said this book was playful and funny in places? Yeah – the drummers are part of that. Drummer orgy?! It’s a nice counterpoint to the Vicky ethos.Buzzzz. Buzzzz. Buuzzzzzzzz!What’s that noise? The Diamond Age pushing my buttons.Locus Sci-Fi and Hugo joint winner from ’96.BUZZZZZZZ!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>


This book is pleasantly dense with interesting ideas about what the future holds. The title refers to the progression of material-driven stages of human progress -- the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, etc. In "the Diamond Age", matter compilers can easily create diamonds out of raw carbon. Basic foodstuffs and many other material wants can be satisfied by these matter compilers. This has created a world in which no one need starve. However there are still tremendous disparities between rich and poor, because many human comforts such as entertainment and fine food still require the services of other people, which must be bought in hard currency. Networked nano-technology is all-pervasive, with microscopic robots putting these poorer citizens under constant surveillance. Faced with this hyperactive stew of technologies, ancient instincts and traditions run strong. Crime, poverty, and tribal conflict are still rampant in this world. People cling to old ways of thought (a strong Confucian motif runs through the book) to help make human sense of the rapidly changing world.Against this backdrop, a fantastically advanced piece of technology (a sentient child's primer) is stolen, and winds up in the hands of a destitute young waif named Nell. Her resulting world-class education, and what she does with that education, is the binding for the various threads of the story.The book's characters are well-realized for the most part, the writing style is honed and mature, the plot is intricate and engaging. The ending is controversial in its ambiguity, but that does not diminish the power of the book as a whole. In all, a very thought-provoking read.

Miss Michael

Stephenson is undoubtedly a good writer. I feel as though that's a trite thing to say, but I'm not talking about the overall story, I'm talking about the way each sentence is crafted. Also, I felt the need to read the book with a dictionary next to me, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, I suppose. As far as the overall story, there's a lot to like, plenty of varied characters, several story lines that are more closely woven than one might originally think, and plenty of action. There's a kind of girl power aspect to it all that's especially nice.While it is set in what Stephenson imagines to be the not-too-distant future, it also has fairy tale elements that mostly stem from the Primer itself, although also from the very concept of a young girl embarking on adventures alone. There were also times (mostly near the end) when I was also reminded of The Wizard of Oz--without the cheesy "moral" we get in the film--and even Buffy--without the super powers. The Diamond Age very much seems to fit in with a long history of children's fantasy literature. Except this is for adults (think Guillermo Del Torro).


I really wish I had listened to Oliver Twist before listening to this audiobook. The style of writing is a wonderful homage to Dickens that seemed very foreign and strange to me, but makes much sense after listening to Oliver Twist.Review of re-read:This was my second listen of the audio version narrated by Jennifer Wiltsie, which I enjoyed more thoroughly than the first time. Perhaps the main reason for this was that I happened to listen to Oliver Twist in between and discovered that Neal Stephenson had written a wonderful homage to Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, unbeknownst to me. That is not to say that reading Oliver Twist is a requirement for liking this book, but that it is a great way to fully appreciate the author’s style in this story, which was somewhat foreign to me at first. The Diamond Age is the sort of book that has the amusing ability to make me feel both more and less intelligent than I really am. Stephenson has a style of genre bending all his own that I like to think of as Neal-punk. At times he’ll mix it with some Dickensian dialogue that makes perfect sense to me. Other times his writing flies right over my head and convinces me that I’d need a significant amount of time and effort doing research in order to get his meaning, which is okay with me. It all lends itself to the sort of layered writing that bears up well to multiple readings, getting more and more understanding and appreciation each time. That is not so say that it requires a re-read in order to enjoy, it just helped me out quite a bit. I also happen to be an avid re-reader.The characters in this book are diverse, interesting, often funny, and easy to sympathize with, especially Nell. I would mostly recommend this to people who enjoy an esoteric story that gives you a lot of food for thought. Neal Stephenson has a bit of a reputation for writing not-so-great endings. I don’t think The Diamond Age has a cut and dried conclusion, leaving room for the listener’s own imagination to wonder about and fill in some details. I can see how this may be dissatisfying to some, but I rather like a story that leaves me thinking about it afterwards. Jennifer Wiltsie did an excellent job with the narration, smoothly going from one character’s voice to another and delivering some lovely Victorian dialogue flawlessly to my American ears. All in all, I found it to be unique, imaginative, and quite fun.


First half of the book gets 4 stars; the second half gets 2 stars. Average = 3 stars.I really liked the first half of the book. His description of technology is wonderful, and the relationship between Nell and the Primer are quite captivating. Much to my dismay, the book fell apart at the end. Characters are disposed quite expediently, conflict is introduced with little or no explanation, very illogical events occur, and then the book stops. If I could give different ratings to both half of the books, I would.The whole book is laced with tangents which I found to be rather dull. I cared very little for Hackworth's mission after he created the Primer. I cared very little for what Dr. X was attempting to do with the Primer. In the first half of the book, Nell captures most of the focus, which makes these other aspects simply minor annoyances.In the end, I found the book to be enjoyable. Although, if I knew then what I know now, I would have stopped reading as soon as the book started to go downhill. My opinion of Stephenson would have been much higher, and I would have saved myself some time and effort of finishing.

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