OFF THE SHELF - "The Diamond Age”

By Marcus Pan

Chain Border

The Diamond AgeAs all the space-exploration themes were being done, redone and reheated for the 80s science fiction revolution, some authors of the 90s picked up on one of the last environs that has yet to have been explored. Neal Stephenson was one of these, spinning such long-winded yarns as Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age, subtitled A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. In The Diamond Age, considered by many to be one of the top contenders in the “hack-decking” realm of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson brings us to an age where it’s not the smog, not the smoke, not the pollutants of the air that becomes the enemy – it’s the man-made nanotech devices built to find things anywhere in the world, protect borders from intrusion and detonate within folks’ bloodstreams as punishment for crimes.

Cyberpunk is a theme that slowly grew during the computer revolution of the 80s. One might remember the movie Wargames for example, which really brought light to the “hacker” persona. Also films like 2001: A Space Odyssey with HAL the computer and Electric Dreams with a similar theme pushed the bar of artificial intelligence further. Other films took the same themes of computer-AI and applied it to everything from action to morality to fairy tales to comedy; A.I., Short Circuit, Bladerunner, Terminator; and it only grew from there in Hollywood and even today is still running at a fevered pace with The Matrix and its sequels. Even role playing has taken new turns with Shadowrun and its surrounding styles – modernizing the fantasy theme and adding in the “decking” style characters – powerful geeks who’s job is to manipulate the blood of a society of the future. That blood is information.

In The Diamond Age Neal discusses not only the nanotech and information-highway angle, but develops it further to apply it to mass sociology. In his world, government collapses and people, in their effort to find leadership, turn their helpless pleading eyes to the views of religious style associations. Now instead of governments and countries, there are “phyles” and cults of various morality, cultures and styles. In these the people subscribe and live their lives guided by the moral codes of their beliefs rather than the elected decisions of superiors.

The story follows the lives of a selected few individuals – completely and utterly different in countenance, background and personality - who come together to affect a society who’s reliance on atomic manipulation has taken nearly all meaning out of the people’s lifestyle. Information has become the building blocks of not only business, but home. Internet-style pipelines now deliver not only media and knowledge but matter and desirables through the use of piping actual atoms over Feed Lines to be assembled in your kitchen. Where is the fun in life when you can press a button for everything you need? Only the morality of the various phyles give the people some semblance of old life.

The major problem with the Feed Lines is it is, nonetheless, controlled by superiors in the phyles. It makes society dependent on people they may never meet. One phyle, CryptNet, hopes to reverse this by providing a new type of matter creator to the population – the Seed. Rather than press a button, negotiate a connection to a far-off controlled system and download your desirables and required items, CryptNet hopes to create a plantable seed that you can tend yourself to grow into what you need. The benefit – or in some folks’ eyes the problem – with this is in how it severs the dependence that the society has on their superiors. They no longer need to connect and negotiate with someone else for what they need. Power is returned to the people as a whole, rather than the few individuals that now have it.

The development of the Seed is said to be researched by The Alcehmist; a shadowy underworld figure with as many enemies as friends. The more-developed phyles hope to stop his development of the Seed so they can retain control of society by being “required” for their matter. But who the Alchemist is happens to be a closely guarded secret by everyone – even the Alchemist himself. But how, with superior control over The Feed and the information that it passes along, can the Alchemist be secret enough to not be found by even the greatest deckers? Simply enough – his research is performed not by the hardwired circuitry of the controlled and tracked Feed lines, but instead by one of the most prevalently evident, but unheard of, “internet” and information-passing lines there is. Humanity.

Wetware is, indeed, the ultimate form of information passage. Uncontrollable, uncentralized and available around the world. All that was left was to find a way to connect all the “nodes” – people – so that information can be collected and passed. The Alchemist has, through nanotech, done just that. How? I’ll leave the rest of the story between the covers of The Diamond Age for you to discover for yourself…

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“The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson
Published by Bantam Spectra
Copyright © 1995 by Neal Stephenson
ISBN: 0-553-38096-6

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