Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: The Diamond Age

I was one of those kids whose nose was always in a book. Summer vacations were heaven - Lisa and I would check out books by the dozen and plow through them book after book in the heat of the day. Even on vacation to visit my grandparents in Illinois, we would borrow my uncle's library card to feed our voracious book appetites.

I sort of fell away from reading for many years. I don't know why...perhaps it was time or access or maybe I was burnt out after college. But sometime a few years ago, I decided to get back into books by reading one book a month. It was a success and I was re-hooked.

This was my first Neal Stephenson book. Chris is a huge fan and always engrossed in one of his many ginormous trilogies - The Diamond Age had the benefit of being a standalone novel and definitely not as long as the others. The only other cyberpunk novel I've read was Neuromancer by William Gibson which I enjoyed but found confusing. I was hoping that the somewhat simpler sounding premise would prove a bit more accessible.

Since I want to get on with my review, rather than wasting time trying to summarize this intricate novel, I will just borrow from the very simplistic book description on Amazon:
Set in twenty-first century Shanghai, it is the story of what happens when a state-of-the-art interactive device falls in the hands of a street urchin named Nell. Her life—and the entire future of humanity—is about to be decoded and reprogrammed…
Stephenson is a world builder. He drops you into what feels like a story already in progress and uses this structure to guide the reader through the intricate society of this 21st century future. There is lots of technology - most of it nanotechnology which is as common as germs are today. Actually, the nanotechnology has replaced the germs. There is also seemingly magical sounding technology - like paper that automatically populates with your newspaper and/or media choices. Hrm. Sounds sort of familiar already.

There is so much world and major character building happening I found the story starting with a bang only to be bogged down in the mire of description. But through all this, Stephenson is laying the foundation so he can effortlessly take the reader through his world when the action starts. Once Nell finds the Primer (the interactive device referenced in the book description), both she and the story begin to come to life.

The book pleasantly (even if the developments themselves are harsh) meanders its way through what seem to be unrelated events and after a time, I found myself completely engrossed in this world. I was excited to see the next chapter of Nell's life and also how the other young girls of her age reacted to their own copies of the Primer.

However, somewhere along the line, it seems as though Stephenson forgot that along with this crazy world of nanosites, Source Feeds and mysterious hive mind societies that live under the ocean, there is also a plot happening. Somewhere towards the end, he brings into the picture a conflict in the making that (to me) had no foundation laid - nothing like what he had been doing up until that point. In (literally) 50 pages he introduces these new characters, Nell's pivotal moment and also wraps up the whole story. Without spoiling it, a little bit of background on the Fists would've been nice and also would've helped build the tension since apparently Nell's situation was quite dangerous, unbeknownst to this reader. After 450 pages of details and progressive tension, this quick finish felt flat to me. Even the tone changed to sort of a third party objective tone and while the ending is somewhat tidy, I still turned the page expecting a new chapter.

All in all, I would give the book 4/5 stars for great world building and character development and for an original exciting plot. It loses the final star for the sort of haphazardly thrown together ending.

Previous book:  The Book Thief  by Marcus Zusak [not reviewed].
Current book: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

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