This story takes place in the
"mid-21st century" according to one reference in the text. (Some
other references to the early life of one character had made me think it was between
2020 - 2030.) Nanotech is a widespread part of the economy and society in
general. Tiny nanotech worker machines (called “mites” because of their size
and sometimes insect-like aspects) are everywhere being used for various
functions. Even poor homes have MC's ("matter compilers") which
serve a similar purpose to "replicators". However, while one is left
with the impression "replicators" are like “transporters”, using
energy to assemble whatever you want from some nebulous source; an MC has a
physical pipeline bringing raw materials to it, and then uses miniscule nano
devices to chemically and/or mechanically build what you want.
Societies have also changed
considerably. People have subcultures that act in some ways like countries.
While there still are geographically defined countries, there are legal
agreements with the subcultures which alter their traditional government
dominion. One of the subcultures, with many professional and business people,
is based on the customs and attitudes of the Victorian era.
Much of the activity of the
book occurs around China, which has splintered into a number of different
jurisdictions. Some of these have an interesting mix of trying to apply
traditional Confucian ways with 21st century conditions. (I'm not familiar
enough with Confucianism to say how accurate it is, but the story worked for
Book Within A Book
The subtitle of The Diamond
Age is "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer". This refers to a hi-tech
"book" made for a businessman's granddaughter. The businessman feels
the schools his granddaughter is being sent to by her parents will not prepare
her to do what she needs to stay on top. The businessman approaches a skilled
nano engineer to design an interactive "book" that will help guide
and mold the granddaughter in the right direction. The nano engineer has
already been worried about what his daughter needs to rise up in society, so he
decides to make an illegal copy for his daughter. The complications of doing
this without the businessman's knowledge and some chance events lead to the
copy ending up in the hands of a young girl from a poor family with an older
brother who is a gang member. This leads to various forces trying to get use
of the book's design.
Although this poor girl is
not the only one with a copy of The Primer, the story focuses on her. We
follow her from about age 4 to about 17. Over these years we see the girl's
life in the real world, the adventures of her character in the interactive
Primer, and the actress who is employed to add talent to The Primer's story.
In addition, there are subplots about the designer of The Primer, turmoil in China, etc. We are introduced to some other cultures.
I was asked if this was hard
SF. My original answer was that it was mixed genre. There's a lot of tech
handled in a way that would be hard SF material. There are parts about future
cultures, which probably wouldn't be "hard SF", but I'd put in with
SF. There are the interactive virtual adventures with The Primer and the girl
- these tend to have a fantasy or fairy tale motif, although not in the usual
children's story flavor. After thinking about this a bit more, I would suggest
this last element isn't really fantasy. It's never presented as if that was
the real world. We know from the beginning it's an artificial simulation
running on a hi-tech device. We know the setting is simply designed to appeal
to a child. Perhaps it deserves to be called hard SF. Perhaps, in spite of
that the fantasy-like imagery will give it a non-hard SF "feel".
Regardless, it was good SF.
One aspect of possible
interest to you has to do with the nanotech. It’s so pervasive and allows so
many things, such as the replicator-like devices. Yet, what is pictured doesn’t
even suggest being on the threshold of a tech “singularity”. Perhaps some food
for thought about the prospects of a singularity.
I tend to avoid abridged
books, although so many commercially available audiobooks are abridged. I made
an exception in this case. I know that Stephenson tends to write rather long
books. While he may be a good writer, some of the material that makes the
books long is not essential as far as my preferences are concerned. I listened
to the abridged version of this book - which meant I ended up listening to a
length comparable to an unabridged version of a book of more typical length.
This worked well for me. Your reaction to an unabridged version may vary.