Sympathetic Stupid

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson

Stephenson writes well-researched, erudite works of sci-fi/fantasy/history. And he writes them well. The Baroque Cycle is an especially amazing achievement (even if 3000 pages might have been slightly too long). So I reckon this is his worst.

I love the world he sets up here. His tribal 'phlye'-based society seems a likely future for the globalised world of today. Without research, I'd make the assertion that our world is as, maybe, amorphous? heterogeneous? as it's ever been. The tribes are getting smaller and smaller; one might be 'early twenties Fitzroy politically active Green-voting street artists who like hip-hop' or 'late thirties South Melbourne commerce-type Liberal-voter interested in football and rock and porn and violent movies' or whatever. The only thing that seems to hold nations together as a social grouping is either sport or a combined loathing of the government. Is this a sustainable state of affairs? Tribes of various sizes have been the social grouping a la mode forever. Can they continue to get smaller till they disappear? Or will they, as Stephenson outlines, simply become more global?

Speculation, futurism and technology are the reason I like sci-fi. The first two-thirds of The Diamond Age overflow with these. Nanotech is almost a cliche but there's no doubt it will be important in the future. And he weaves stories of some variously well-drawn characters through the description of future society. Nell, as the heroine, is especially compelling.

But he loses the thread in the last third. Time has passed, it's now fifteen or so years later, so the characters must have changed. But he never really recaptures them. All the sections involving the Drummers come across as too wordy; it's description for the sake of description without any real benefit for the plot. And I found the whole Drummer concept a little wishy-washy, as if he'd had a decent idea but had never really gotten to the heart of it. Things happen, the world changes, the story finds resolution, but it's not a convincing resolution and it left me unsatisfied.

It's still a good work. But it's definitely not great.