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    Review of THE DIAMOND AGE by Neal Stephenson


    Bantam, 1995

    In the near future, widespread deployment of full-strength encryption has eliminated the government's ability to tax--and governments have ceased to exist. Instead, affiliations have sprung up--along racial, philosophical, and interest-based lines. The 'Feed' provides a subsistance living for everyone, but strong rights-management puts a premium on those who can imagine and create new things. As a reaction to the permissive ways of the 20th century, new Victorianism rules over much of the western world--and a reborn Middle Kingdom controls China.

    When a neo-Victorian Equity Lord hires John Hackwood to create something unique for his granddaughter--something that will challenge her despite the stuffy environment her parents insist upon, Hackwood decides on a hack--he'll make an unauthorized copy for his own daughter, letting her have the same opportunities normally only available to one of society's elite. But his duplicate, the YOUNG LADY'S ILLUSTRATED PRIMER, falls into the hands of an impoverished girl--Nell.

    The YOUNG LADY'S ILLUSTRATED PRIMER is a book, but advanced nanotechnology means that the book can talk, can interact and create new stories to meet the reader's need, can defend itself, can teach, and can create a virtually infinite number of sub-books within itself. It is the complete education--and provides a challenge to Nell. She needs to find the twelve keys that will open the castle and free her brother. The result is certain to be sad, but Nell sets off on her quest, spending her childhood and young adulthood with the book, both creating and being created by it.

    Author Neal Stephenson (see more reviews of novels by Stephenson) creates a fascinating near-future universe. The neo-Victorian reaction Stephenson sees is certainly a far cry from the ugly and fearful one in America today, but Stephenson's vision does provide some hope. In 1995 when the book was first published, nano-technology was much less known than today but Stephenson's understanding still seems valid.

    The philosophical war between the 'feed' and the 'seed' remains a backdrop to the story, but it's a fascinating topic. So is Stephenson's vision of China's future--a decade after THE DIAMOND AGE was written, it is increasingly obvious that China is an awakening giant, as Stephenson had projected.

    By combining powerful technology insights, intriguing characters, philosophical conflict, and social dynamics, Stephenson delivers a truly fascinating book. THE DIAMOND AGE remains fresh and relevant more than a decade after it was written.

    Four Stars

    Reviewed 1/25/05

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