The Diamond Age

science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995) is a postcyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson. It is a bildungsroman focused on a young girl named Nell, and set in a world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. Some main themes include: education, social class, cultural tribalism, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

Any strategy that involves crossing a valley — accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance — will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

Part the FirstEdit

  • The bells of St. Mark's were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun.
    • “A thete visits a mod parlor“ (first sentence of the novel)
  • Bud's relationship with the female sex was governed by a gallimaufry of primal impulses, dim suppositions, deranged theories, overheard scraps of conversation, half-remembered pieces of bad advice, and fragments of no-doubt exaggerated anecdotes that amounted to rank superstition.
    • “A thete visits a mod parlor“
  • Apthorp was not a formal organization that could be looked up in a phone book; in financial cant, it referred to a strategic alliance of several immense companies, including Machine-Phase Systems Limited and Imperial Tectonics Limited. ... MPS made consumer goods and ITL made real estate, which was, as ever, where the real money was. Counted by the hectare, it didn't amount to much...but it was the most expensive real estate in the world outside of a few blessed places like Tokyo, San Francisco, and Manhattan. ...every new piece of land possessed the charms of Frisco, the strategic location of Manhattan, the feng-shui of Hong Kong, the dreary but obligatory Lebensraum of L.A. It was no longer necessary to send out dirty yokels in coonskin caps to chart the wilderness, kill the abos, and clear-cut the groves....
    • “Hackworth encounters a member of the peerage“
  • He had some measure of the infuriating trait that causes a young man to be a nonconformist for its own sake and found that the surest way to shock most people, in those days, was to believe that some kinds of behavior were bad and others good, and that it was reasonable to live one’s life accordingly.
    • “Hackworth encounters a member of the peerage” (biographical note on Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw)
  • Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once again he was struck by the national media coverage—reporters from the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some bewilderment, that there had been no looting. ... Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that 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. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.
    • “Hackworth encounters a member of the peerage”
  • "And what makes one man's life more interesting than another’s?"
    "In general, I should say that we find unpredictable or novel things more interesting."
    …"You yourself said that the engineers in the Bespoke department—the very best—had led interesting lives, rather than coming from the straight and narrow. Which implies a correlation, does it not?”
    "This implies, does it not, that in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting.”
    • “Hackworth encounters a member of the peerage” (Finkle-McGraw and John Percival Hackworth)
  • Ordering matter was the sole endeavor of Life, whether it was a jumble of self-replicating molecules in the primordial ocean, or a steam-powered English mill turning weeds into clothing, or Fiona lying in her bed turning air into Fiona.
    • “Hackworth compiles The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
  • We ignore the blackness of outer space and pay attention to the stars, especially if they seem to order themselves into constellations. “Common as the air” meant something worthless, but Hackworth knew that every breath of air that Fiona drew, lying in her little bed at night, just a silver flow in the moonlight, was used by her body to make skin and hair and bones. The air became Fiona, and deserving—no, demanding—of love. Ordering matter was the sole endeavor of Life, whether it was a jumble of self-replicating molecules in the primordial ocean, or a steam-powered English mill turning weeds into clothing, or Fiona lying in her bed turning air into Fiona.
    • “Hackworth compiles The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
  • "Your case is very serious," he said to the boy. "We will go and consult the ancient authorities…."
    The House of the Venerable and Inscrutable Colonel was what they called it when they were speaking Chinese. Venerable because of his goatee, white as the dogwood blossom, a badge of unimpeachable credibility in Confucian eyes. Inscrutable because he had gone to his grave without divulging the Secret of the Eleven Herbs and Spices. It had been the first fast-food franchise established on the Bund, many decades earlier.
    • “The magistrate confers with his advisers“
  • “Yet how am I to cultivate the persons of the barbarians for whom I have perversely been given responsibility?"
    … "The Master stated in his Great Learning that the extension of knowledge was the root of all other virtues."
    "I cannot send the boy to school, Chang."
    "Think instead of the girl," Chang said, "the girl and her book."
    • “The magistrate confers with his advisers“
  • “The Indians of the American Southwest called him Coyote, those of the Pacific Coast called him Raven. Europeans called him Reynard the Fox. African-Americans called him Br'er Rabbit. In twentieth-century literature he appears first as Bugs Bunny and then as the Hacker."
    "When I was a lad, that word had a double meaning. It could mean a trickster who broke into things—but it could also mean an especially skilled coder."
    "The ambiguity is common in post-Neolithic cultures," Hackworth said. "As technology became more important, the Trickster underwent a shift in character and became the god of crafts — of technology, if you will — while retaining the underlying roguish qualities. So we have the Sumerian Enki, the Greek Prometheus and Hermes, Norse Loki, and so on.”
    • “Hackworth presents the Primer to Lord Finkle-McGraw”
  • But as many first-time fathers had realized in the delivery room, there was something about the sight of an actual baby that focused the mind. In a world of abstractions, nothing was more concrete than a baby.
    • “A barbarian is interrogated“
  • If the Coastal Republic had believed in the existence of virtue, it could at least have aspired to hypocrisy.
    • “A barbarian is interrogated“
  • If the item of stolen property had been anything other than a book, it would have been confiscated. But a book is different—it is not just a material possession but the pathway to an enlightened mind, and thence to a well-ordered society, as the Master stated many times.
    • “Judge Fang goes for a dinner cruise with a Mandarin“
  • He had fixed his gaze, for no special reason, on a tall bottle with a paper label printed in an ancient crabbed typeface. "McWhorter's Original Condiment " was written large, and everything else was too small to read. The neck of the bottle was also festooned with black-and -white reproductions of ancient medals awarded by pre-Enlightenment European monarchs at exhibitions in places like Riga. Just a bit of violent shaking and thwacking ejected a few spurts of the ochre slurry from the pore-size orifice at the top of the bottle, which was guarded by a quarter inch encrustation. Most of it hit his plate, and some impacted on his sandwich.
    • Hackworth ineffectively stalling
  • “We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,“ Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception---he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.“
    • “A disquisition on hypocrisy“
  • "In an era when everything can be surveiled, all we have left is politeness."
    • Major Napier, “Hackworth's situation develops new complications”
  • ”So, if the Shanghainese gentleman were to request that our engineer partake in activities that we would normally consider unethical or even treasonous, we might take an uncharacteristically forgiving stance. Providing, that is, that the engineer kept us well-informed.”
    ”Would that be something like being a double agent, then?” Hackworth said.
    Napier winced, as if he were being caned himself. ”It is a crashingly unsubtle phrase. But I can forgive your using it in this context.”
    ”Would John Zaibatsu then make some kind of formal commitment to this arrangement?”
    ”It is not done that way,” Major Napier said.
    ”I was afraid of that,"”Hackworth said.
    ”Typically such commitments are superfluous, as in most cases the party has very little choice in the matter.”
    ”Yes,” Hackworth said, ”I see what you mean.”
    • ”Hackworth’s situation develops new complications” (Note: "John Zaibatsu" is the author’s bastardization of John Company with which Hackworth and his peers irreverently refer to the conglomerate, Apthorp).
  • High up the mountain before them, they could see St. Mark's Cathedral and hear its bells ringing changes, mostly just tuneless sequences of notes, but sometimes a pretty melody would tumble out, like an unexpected gem from the permutations of the I Ching.
    • ”A morning stroll through the Leased Territories”
  • They only have one book in Sendero, and it tells them to burn all the other books.
    • ”A morning stroll through the Leased Territories” (Nell, explaining to her brother, Harv, that she wouldn’t be able to take the Primer to the Sendero Clave)
  • “Have you done anything the Shanghai Police might find interesting?” Brad asked Harv gravely. Harv said no, a simple no without the usual technicalities, provisos, and subclauses.
    • “Nell and Harv are separated”

Part the SecondEdit

  • "Sorry," she said, "I got out as fast as I could, but I had to stay and socialize. Protocol, you know."
    "Explain protocol," Nell said. This was how she always talked to the Primer.
    "At the place we're going, you need to watch your manners. Don't say 'explain this' or 'explain that.'"
    "Would it impose on your time unduly to provide me with a concise explanation of the term protocol?" Nell said.
    Again Rita made that nervous laugh and looked at Nell with an expression that looked like poorly concealed alarm.
    • "A trip to the New Atlantis clave" (Rita and Nell)
  • "Did the Primer teach you that people would pull your hair?"
    "No, Sir."
    "Did it teach you that your mother's boyfriends would beat you up, and your mother not protect you?"
    "No, sir, except insofar as it told me stories about people who did evil."
    "People doing evil is a good lesson. What you saw in there a few weeks ago"—and by this Nell knew he was referring to the headless soldier on the mediatron—"is one application of that lesson, but it's too obvious to be of any use. Ah, but your mother not protecting you from boyfriends—that has some subtlety, doesn't it?"
    • "A conversation over dinner" (Brigadier General Arthur Hornsby Moore, First Protocol Enforcement Expeditionary Force (ret.), aka “Constable Moore" to Nell)
  • "Nell," the Constable continued, indicating, through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward."
    • "A conversation over dinner," echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald in "The Crackup": "...the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
  • "Nell stands above the fray and thinks," Finkle-McGraw said. "To the other girls, the wall is a decorative feature, no? A pretty thing to run to and explore. But not to Nell. Nell knows what a wall is. It is a knowledge that went into her early, knowledge she doesn't have to think about. Nell is more interested in gates than in walls. Secret hidden gates are particularly interesting."
    • "Three girls go exploring" (Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw to Gwendolyn Hackworth)
  • “It’s the only punishment that seems to sink in—we employ it with some frequency.”
    “Then perhaps it is not sinking in as well as you suppose,” Lord Finkle-McGraw said, looking sad and sounding bemused.
    • "A conversation between Lord Finkle-McGraw and Mrs. Hackworth"
  • So Beck was the hacker and Oda was the backer. The oldest and most troublesome relationship in the technological world.
  • As far as the laws of probability, my lady, these cannot be broken, any more than any other mathematical principle. But laws of physics and mathematics are like a coordinate system that runs in only one dimension. Perhaps there is another dimension perpendicular to it, invisible to those laws of physics, describing the same things with different rules, and those rules are written in our hearts, in a deep place where we cannot go and read them except in our dreams.
    • "Carl Hollywood introduces her to two unusual characters"
  • During her first few weeks in Supplementary Curriculum she had been frightened; in fact she had been surprised at the level of her own fear and had come to realize that Authority, even when it refrained from violence, could be as disturbing a specter as anything she had seen in her earlier years.
    • Nell's Experience at school; a confrontation with Miss Stricken; the rigors of Supplementary Education; Miss Matheson's philosophy of education; three friends go separate ways.
  • They went across the playing fields to the meadow where the wildflowers grew, the two girls walking and Miss Matheson's wheelchair carrying her along on its many-spoked smart wheels.
    "Chiselled Spam," Miss Matheson said, sort of mumbling it to herself.
    "Pardon me, Miss Matheson?" Nell said.
    "I was just watching the smart wheels and remembering an advertisement from my youth," Miss Matheson said. "I used to be a thrasher, you know. I used to ride skateboards through the streets. Now I'm still on wheels, but a different kind. Got a few too many bumps and bruises during my earlier career, I'm afraid."
    • "Miss Matheson's philosophy of education" (Miss Matheson revealing, to the reader, the possibility that she is Y.T. from Snow Crash)
  • "It's a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way. But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few billion other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost—swallowed up in the ocean—unless you are doing it along with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward. That is why the world is divided into tribes."
    • "Miss Matheson's philosophy of education"
  • "There are many Lesser phyles and three Great ones. "What are the Great ones?"
    "New Atlantis," Nell began.
    "Nippon," said Fiona.
    "Han," they concluded together.
    "That is correct," Miss Matheson said. "We traditionally include Han in the list because of its immense size and age—even though it has lately been crippled by intestine discord. And some would include Hindustan, while others would view it as a riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don't get."
    • "Miss Matheson's philosophy of education"
  • "Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.
    "New Atlantis, like many tribes, propagates itself largely through education. That is the raison d'être of this Academy."
    • "Miss Matheson's philosophy of education"
  • "Miss Stricken isn't moral. She's so cruel."
    "Miss Stricken is not someone I would invite to dinner at my house. I would not hire her as a governess for my children. Her methods are not my methods. But people like her are indispensable.
    "It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together," Miss Matheson went on. "That is the job of people like Miss Stricken. We must forgive them their imperfections. She is like an avatar—do you children know about avatars? She is the physical embodiment of a principle. That principle is that outside the comfortable and well defended borders of our phyle is a hard world that will come and hurt us if we are not careful. It is not an easy job to have. We must all feel sorry for Miss Stricken."
    • "Miss Matheson's philosophy of education"
  • She had found that her wits became dull if she got too cozy.
    • "From the Primer, a visit to Castle Turing"
  • "I know that you have a secret, Nell, though I cannot imagine what it is, and I know that your secret has made you different from any other girl I have ever taught….. I haven't much time left, Nell, and we must dispense with what makes you like all the other girls and concentrate on what makes you different…. You can try to act the same—we have tried to make you the same—you can pretend it in the future if you insist, and you can even take the Oath—but it's all a lie. You are different.”…
    "Are you suggesting that I leave the bosom of the adopted tribe that has nurtured me?"
    "I am suggesting that you are one of those rare people who transcends tribes, and you certainly don't need a bosom any more….”
    • “Speculation as to Nell's destiny” (Miss Matheson and Nell)
  • He nodded in the direction of China. "Been doing a bit of consulting work for a gentleman there. Complicated fellow. Dead now. Had many facets, but now he'll go down in history as just another damn Chinese warlord who didn't make the grade. It is remarkable, love," he said, looking at Nell for the first time, "how much money you can make shoveling back the tide. In the end you need to get out while the getting is good. Not very honourable, I suppose, but then, there is no honour among consultants."
    • "Conversation with a grizzled hoplite" (Constable Moore)
  • “The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code—but their children believe it for entirely different reasons."
    "They believe it," the Constable said, "because they have been indoctrinated to believe it."
    "Yes. Some of them never challenge it—they grow up to be small minded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel—as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw."
    "Which path do you intend to take, Nell?" said the Constable, sounding very interested. "Conformity or rebellion?"
    "Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded—they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity."
    • “Conversation with a grizzled hoplite”
  • It was a bit too aggressive to be a reverie and too abstract to be a hallucination.
    • "The Hackworths have a family reunion"
  • What does it really mean when such a young person moves to another phyle? It means that they have outgrown youthful credulity and no longer wish to belong to a tribe simply because it is the path of least resistance—they have developed principle, they are concerned with their personal integrity.
    • "An encounter with Lord Finkle-McGraw"
  • There are only two industries. This has always been true....There is the industry of things, and the industry of entertainment....After people have everything they need to live, everything else is entertainment. Everything.
    • "Interview with the same" (Mrs. Ping to Nell)
  • "They believe that information has an almost mystical power of free flow and self-replication, as water seeks its own level or sparks fly upward—and lacking any moral code, they confuse inevitability with Right. It is their view that one day… the Seed will develop inevitably from the Feed…. Of course, it can't be allowed…if everyone possessed a Seed, anyone could produce weapons whose destructive power rivaled that of Elizabethan nuclear weapons.”
    • "An extraordinary conversation in a log cabin" (Hackworth to Fiona on “CryptNet”)
  • It was a vast open marketplace with thousands of stalls, filled with carts and runners carrying product in all directions. But no vegetables, fish, spices, or fodder were to be seen here; all the product was information written down in books.... Book-carriers bumped into each other, compared notes as to what they were carrying and where they were going, and swapped books for other books. Stacks of books were sold in great, raucous auctions—and paid for not with gold but with other books. Around the edges of the market were stalls where books were exchanged for gold, and beyond that, a few alleys where gold could be exchanged for food.
    • "The Cipherers' Market" (Metaphor for an information economy)
  • The tiny old houses and flats of this once impoverished quarter had mostly been refurbished into toeholds for young Atlantans from all around the Anglosphere, poor in equity but rich in expectations, who had come to the great city to incubate their careers....the lustre that was so evident near the approaches to the bridge began to wear thin in places, and the ancient character of the neighborhood began to assert itself, as the bones of the knuckles reveal their shape beneath the stretched skin of a fist.
    • "The East End" (Author's coining of the neologism, "Anglosphere")
  • He had been born without the ability to blend and socialize as some are born without hands.
    • "A remarkable boatride"
  • Some people come here because they are on a quest of some sort—trying to find a lost lover, let’s say, or to understand why something terrible happened in their lives, or why there is cruelty in the world, or why they aren’t satisfied with their career. Society has never been good at answering these questions—the sorts of questions you can’t just look up in a reference database.
    • "A night at the theatre"
  • "You do these things not to serve your Queen but to serve your own nature, John Hackworth, and I understand your nature. For you cleverness is its own end, and once you have seen a clever way to do a thing, you must do it, as water finding a crack in a dike must pass through it and cover the land on the other side."
    • "A meeting with Dr. X" (Dr. X to Hackworth)
  • They wanted to carry her, but she jumped to the stones of the plaza and strode away from the building, toward her ranks, which parted to make way for her. The streets of Pudong were filled with hungry and terrified refugees, and through them, in simple peasant clothes streaked with the blood of herself and of others, broken shackles dangling from her wrists, followed by her generals and ministers, walked the barbarian Princess with her book and her sword.
    • "Deliverance"
  • One of the Boers, a wiry grandmother with a white bun on her head and a black bonnet pinned primly over that, conferred briefly with the Boer leader. He nodded once, then caught her face in his hands and kissed her. She turned her back on the waterfront and began to march toward the head of the advancing column of Celestials....The leader of the Celestial column stepped toward her, covering her with some kind of projectile weapon built into one arm of his suit and waving her aside with the other. The Boer woman carefully got down on both knees in the middle of the road, clasped her hands together in prayer, and bowed her head. Then she became a pearl of white light in the mouth of the dragon. In an instant this pearl grew to the size of an airship. Carl Hollywood had the presence of mind to close his eyes and turn his head away, but he didn't have time to throw himself down; the shock wave did that...
    • "Carl Hollywood takes a stroll to the waterfront"
  • He threw his long coat down on the sand and sloshed out Into the Pacific, accompanied by the officer, and remained at a judicious distance, partly to show due respect, and partly because Nell had a sword in her waistband. Her face was inclined over the pages of her book like a focusing lens, and he half expected the pages to curl and smoke under her gaze.
    • "Victory of the Celestial Kingdom" (Carl Hollywood presents his credentials)
  • New Chusan rose above them, a short swim away, and up on the mountain they could hear the bells of the cathedral ringing.
    • "Miranda" (Final line of novel, mentioning bells of St. Mark's Cathedral, which were described in the first sentence of the novel)

External linksEdit

Wikipedia has an article about: