Book Club Questions: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

The future is small. The future is nano…

And who could be smaller or more insignificant than poor Little Nell? An orphan girl alone and adrift in a world of Confucian Law, Neo-Victorian values and warring nano-technology?

Well, not quite alone. Because Nell has a friend, of sorts. A guide, a teacher, an armed and unarmed combat instructor, a book and a computer: the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is all these and much much more. It is illicit, magical, dangerous.

And it isn’t Nell’s. It was stolen. And now some very powerful people want to get their hands on this highly desirable object. Nell is about to discover that the world can feel very small indeed…

My friend and I had a bit of difficulty with this novel, to be honest. We both found it quite interesting and engaging for the first two-thirds, with plenty of neat concepts and strong characters. After that point, however, the book went a bit off the rails, and we were each left with a good deal of confusion by the time the novel ended. I might still recommend it if you are big into hard sci-fi and also have a soft spot for Victoriana and/or steampunk, since the first part of the book really was an interesting read that I just wish had continued in that same vein.

Discussion questions below the cut!

In an interview with Medium, Neal Stephenson remarked, “I am old enough to remember when some of the very first dystopian SF movies came out. They wouldn’t have been called that at the time, other than by film critics writing for an elite audience. At the time it was refreshing, and extremely hip, to see depictions of futures that were not as clean and simple as Star Trek. Now, the dystopian future is the only future that is allowed to be presented in new SF films and television, and it has become so ubiquitous, and so tired, that Apple TV is deploying it as a mass marketing term right up there with ‘Romantic Comedies’ and ‘Superheroes.’” Consider recently distributed novels you’ve read or films that you have seen depicting the future. Do you agree with Stephenson’s comment? Explain.

Lord Finkle-McGraw holds the opinion that “while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.” Do you agree with this opinion? What are the features your own ideal culture would have? How much does your ideal culture reflect the culture you were raised in—either as a continuation of features that have benefitted you or as a rejection of features that have negatively impacted you?

When Finkle-McGraw is speaking with Hackworth about social models and childhood development, he says, “You yourself said that the engineers in the Bespoke department—the very best—had led interesting lives, rather than coming from the straight and narrow. […] That implies, does it not, that in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting.” Do you agree that someone who leads a “boring” life is unable to be innovative and creative? Try to use real life examples to support your argument for or against. Consider also addressing the way in which mental illness has often been romanticized when it comes to artistic ability.

In The Diamond Age, much is made of the fact that there is an actual human who loves Nell behind the face of the Primer. Various characters suggest that this caregiving figure is what allows Nell to develop into a well-adjusted, inquisitive, and confident adult. However, I found this assertion dubious, as last year I read the excellent book Love at Goon Park by Deborah Blum about psychologist Harry Harlow’s experiments in the 1950’s exploring childhood development and the importance of “contact comfort” from a caregiver. Infant rhesus macaques had serious developmental challenges when they were denied a soft, warm, welcoming caregiver presence, and a caregiver who does not offer physical touch and comfort creates a psychologically stressful environment for a developing child. In this novel, who did you see as counting among Nell’s caregiver figures? What specific comforts did they offer her? Which of these comforts do you think are most important to the development of a grounded and intelligent adult? Did you find the development of the different girls throughout the novel—Nell, Elizabeth, Fiona, and the girls of the Mouse Army—to be believable based on the circumstances described?

When Dr. X is speaking with Hackworth about Seed technology, he asserts there is a distinct difference between how technology is used in Western and Eastern cultures. Specifically, in Western culture, “there is no respect for order, no reverence for authority,” thereby requiring them to “enforce order through control of the Feed.” In contrast, Eastern cultures “are disciplined, we revere authority, we have order within our own minds […] In our hands the Seed would be harmless.” The key problem is that Chinese culture has “struggled to absorb the yong of technology without importing the Western ti.” Consider the ways in which colonialism restructured other countries economically and technologically in order to force those countries into becoming dependent on their colonizer. Now consider the modern-day globalizing force of the internet, spreading corporations and conversations and ideas worldwide at lightning speed. What are possible similarities between the globalization of the internet age and the effects of past iterations of colonialism?  Is the internet a strictly Western technology with a Western ideology required to make use of it? Or is it a technology that can be molded to shape the ideology of whoever is currently using it?

Personally, I felt that the book took a sudden turn in Part Two that confused me, rather than delighting me. The Drummers, Seed technology, and the Fist were all (as far as I remember) suddenly introduced in this section, and left me rather bewildered, since I didn’t feel like I fully understood what any of them were or what their place was in the story that I’d been reading up to now. Do you agree or disagree with my opinion? If you agree, explain how you think Stephenson could have better integrated the content of Part Two with Part One so that the book felt more cohesive. If you disagree, explain why I’m wrong, and what you think Stephenson was trying to say by the end of the novel about technology, culture, and the development of individual creativity and intellect.

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