Sunday, February 12, 2006

Book / "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson (1995)

This futuristic novel is a solid read all the way through with many nice literary touches. Published in 1995 and set in the late 21st century, it calls the internet right, and portrays a world dominated by nanotechnology, where anyone can visit a public "matter compiler" and request any basics they need, like food and clothing, free of charge.

It is a strange -Topia, neither Eu- nor Dys-. Nanotech has greatly improved everyone's lives, but there is still a lot of poverty and squalor. Those who are well off can style their lives any way they like, and people have arranged themselves into cultural enclaves rather than old style nation states.

A complex plot unfolds in which a top nanotech engineer creates a special book, really a super-powerful computer, at the behest of a great "equity lord" to teach a young girl about life, and to have some spunk. Yet due to a turn of events, this magic and subversive book ("The Young Lady's Primer") winds up in the hands of a poor little girl living a horrible life in the bad section of town.

The Primer tells her a long, complex, dark, "unreconstructed Grimm Brothers" fairy tale that mirrors her life, including her toy friends, with user participation and lots of factual instruction. By the end of the novel (and of the fairy tale) the little girl's life has been totally transformed, along with those of thousands of other little girls, and the world at large, and the Princess Nell of the fairy tale is now a real world Queen Nell.

While Stephenson calls advanced nano reasonably well, he flubs quantum computing, which will no doubt be a big thing by then. Also it is far from clear that the internet will lead to the collapse of nation states, but who knows? There's still time.

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