Review of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

December 10, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

The Diamond Age by Neal StephensonThe Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
By Neal Stephenson; read by Jennifer Wiltsie
16 compact discs; Approx. 19 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2001/2012
ISBN: 978-1-4558-8349-3
Themes: / Science Fiction / Nanotechnology / Computer Programming / Victorian Culture / Cyberpunk /

Editor’s Note: This edition is the same recording that was released in 2001, but it has been repackaged and re-released.  Back in 2003, Scott reviewed The Diamond Age after listening to it on cassette tape.

Publisher Summary: Set in twenty-first-century Shanghai, The Diamond Age is the story of what happens when a state-of-the-art interactive device falls into the hands of a street urchin named Nell. Her life — and the entire future of humanity — is about to be decoded and reprogrammed.…

Review: 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.

Posted by Philip

Review of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

September 29, 2003 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Science Fiction - The Diamond Age by Neal StephensonThe Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
By Neal Stephenson; read by Jennifer Wiltsie
12 Cassettes; Approx. 18 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Time Warner Audio
Published: 2001
ISBN: 1586211145 (Cassette)
Themes: / Science Fiction / Nanotechnology / Computer Programming / Victorian Culture / Cyberpunk /

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 storyline 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.

This title is also available on Audible.com.