Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer isn’t steampunk, not as that term is generally understood. Instead of a late nineteenth century which has somehow managed to enjoy an accelerated rate of technological progress, Neal Stephenson sets the story in a near-future where one of the dominant socioeconomic groups, or phyles, deliberately embraces Victorian values and reinforces that choice by immersing themselves, to the fullest extent possible, in a Victorian aesthetic.
They’ve done so because they see the rejection of Victorianism as a colossal mistake, blaming the discord and chaos associated with the late 20th century on its more permissive social values. As Lord Finkle-McGraw, one of the neo-Victorian Equity Lords of New Atlantis, frames the issue, “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.” For all its imperfections, to this way of thinking, Victorian culture “worked,” except, as Lord Finkle-McGraw realizes, for one problem: How does a conformist society spur innovation?
Lord Finkle-McGraw’s solution is to commission the development of a “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” an elaborate nanotechnological device crafted to replicate the superficial appearance of a nineteenth-century book, but its smart paper is the interface for a story of near-infinite recursiveness that engages its reader in an interactive educational experience. Shortly after obtaining a bootleg copy of the Primer, for example, Nell, the novel’s heroine, is caught up in a fairy tale that, taking note of the urban squalor around her, begins a course of martial arts instruction.
Stephenson returns to the “Princess Nell” story throughout The Diamond Age, and those of us who came of age in the pre-browser version of the internet (the early ’90s in which the novel was written) will recognize in the Primer an artificial environment much like that of the MUDs and MOOs of that era. Although few of them ever achieved such complexity, in principle at least they offered a world in which any object you encountered could hold vast potential for engagement. Games like the Grand Theft Auto franchise offer a similar experience today, and in some ways the dynamic illustrations of the Primer hint at the transition from the text-based MUDs to today’s immersive gaming environments.
The Primer is distinguished from those other artificial environments by its pedagogical intent, but it has limits. As one character who becomes a protector to Nell in her rise from the slums of Shanghai to a neo-Victorian boarding school points out, education is not the same as intelligence; facts can not prepare us to deal with ambiguity—only experience can do that. Although Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned the Primer with the idea of cultivating a probing intelligence, something more is required to transform Nell from a curious girl to a genuinely inquisitive young woman.
I don’t want to give you the impression that The Diamond Age is all about Nell, because there’s a lot more going on here. There’s the story of John Hackworth, the engineer who creates the Primer for Lord Finkle-McGraw and then winds up on his own hallucinatory journey of discovery, and the story of Miranda, the aspiring actress who gives up her career to become the voice of Nell’s Primer. There’s the clash between New Atlantis and the Celestial Kingdom, a Chinese phyle that seeks the means of liberating itself from dependence on Western technology. (Although the Shanghai of the novel is more of a globally cosmopolitan setting, readers might see here a fascination with Chinese culture that continues through to Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde.) And then there’s a question that’s been implied since the first line of this post: If The Diamond Age isn’t steampunk, why are we reading about it in a steampunk list?
It’s not just about the shiny doodads. I’d put it this way: Although The Diamond Age isn’t set in the Victorian era, Stephenson makes a genuine effort to get at how a Victorian mentality (or at least a postmodern approximation of a Victorian mentality) would integrate technological upheaval into its existing worldview. That provided one line of inspiration for future steampunk authors in creating Victorian-era characters; another line of inspiration might be Nell herself. In the novel’s final passages, Nell is forced into the role of action heroine, and though this new aspect doesn’t quite fully mesh with her previous probing intelligence, those two sides of her character are the starting point for many of steampunk’s female protagonists. For all that it isn’t quite of the genre, The Diamond Age seems to have evolved into one of steampunk’s inspiring foundational texts.