Neal Stephenson does an amazing job setting the scene for The Diamond Age. He throws readers right into the world with little preamble. Details of the world and how it works are woven tightly into the narrative as they’re needed. The book starts out with what amounts to a short story about the social, and governmental structure of the world of the near future, as well as what technological advances have been made since our time.
It begins with the story of Nell’s dad Bud, a petty criminal living in the projects. He’s getting a gun implanted into his head as an investment in his drug running career. While The Diamond Age does talk a lot about what can be done with technology, one of the main themes of the book is the question what should we do with it? As a parent, that’s a question I find myself asking more and more often as my kids grow up. Should we have a DVD player in the car? How old should a kid be before they have an ipod? A phone? What rules and responsibilities come with owning and using these devices? The world is changing rapidly, and thinking about how we will change with it keeps our humanity from being swept away by those changes.
In a second narrative, alongside this introduction to the world we meet John Hackworth, an upper middle class engineer. We’re introduced to nanotechnology, basically the process of building objects, machines and even food directly from the atoms they’re made from. Hackworth is commissioned to design a storybook. Basically a super iPad, that is a teacher, nanny, friend and companion. Created for young girls and drawing from traditions of fairy and folk tales, it tells a fairly dark story of a little girl traveling through a fairy kingdom, conquering fairy kings and queens to collect twelve keys to the land beyond. The storybook is based on the idea of subversiveness in education, teaching through example and coming at lessons sideways and through projects instead of learning facts by rote. By telling stories to children, you can teach them lessons that are more meaningful to them than merely telling facts. Early in the development of the book, Hackworth’s employer sends him this poem as an example of the tone he was looking for.
A Christmas Tale, Told By A School-Boy To
His Little Brothers and Sisters
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)
Underneath an old oak tree
There was of swine a huge company
That grunted as they crunched the mast:
For that was ripe, and fell full fast.
Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:
One acorn they left, and no more might you spy.
Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:
He belonged, they say, to the witch Melancholy!
Blacker was he than blackest jet,
Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.
He picked up the acorn and buried it straight
By the side of a river both deep and great.
Where then did the Raven go?
He went high and low,
Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go.
Many Autumns, many Springs
Travelled he with wandering wings:
Many summers, many Winters-
I can’t tell half his adventures.
At length he came back, and with him a She
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.
They built them a nest in the topmost bough,
And young ones they had, and were happy enow.
But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He’d an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven’s own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.
The boughs from the trunk the Woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.
The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush’d in fast;
Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast.
He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls-
See! See! O’er the topmast the mad water rolls!
Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,
And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank’d him again and again for this treat:
They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET!
Children get quality, and while they’ll accept what’s given to them, they appreciate well made things just like every other person in the world. The darkness of the poem is a subversive element that helps develop an awareness of the subtlety of language and ideas.
John is the father of a young girl, and like many parents, he’s concerned about her education and how to help her to be successful in the world. In another of Neil Stephenson’s books, Cryptonomicon, he writes that there are basically two types of people in the world. What he calls Suits and Beards. Suits are deal makers. They talk to people, find investors, look at the big picture and keep all the moving parts rolling. Beards are support, they have ideas, assemble tech and software, and manage individual projects. While Hackworth is aware of this same idea, he also knows that the people at the top of things have somehow managed to be both of these things, marrying business and art. The main difference between the head of a corporation and anyone else was emotional stance, a willingness to take risks, found companies and then try again after previous tries fail.
Starting your own company and making it successful was the only way. Hackworth had thought about it from time to time, but he hadn’t done it. He wasn’t sure whynot, he had plenty of good ideas. Then he’d noticed that Bespoke was full of people with good ideas who never got around to starting their own companies. And he’d met a few big lords, spent considerable time with Lork Finkle-McGraw developing Runcible, and seen that they weren’t really smarter than he. The difference lay in personality, not in native intelligence.
It was too late for Hackworth to change his personality, but it wasn’t too late for Fiona.
Knowing that the book would help his daughter develop the emotional stance necessary to be a person of note in the world, Hackworth decides to make an illegal copy of it for her. His decision sets the events of the rest of the book in motion.