Thursday 28 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 21. "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson

Page count: 499 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Some time in the future, when nano technology means you can assemble pretty much anything you want in matter compilers, and there aren't really separate nations any more, so much as various tribes, determined by allegiance rather than race, there lives a little girl called Nell. Her mother is a servant, her father was a  low-life thug who died when she was still a baby. Nell grows up in a slum area of futuristic Shanghai, with only a few stuffed toys and her older brother Harv for comfort as they try to ignore the poor treatment from the ever changing selection of dead beat boyfriends their mother drags home.

One day Harv brings Nell a present - an electronic device shaped like a book. The Young Ladies' Illustrated Primer isn't just any book, but a piece of near unique technology created for the granddaughter of one of the world's most powerful men. The engineer who devised it made an illegal copy for his own daughter, wanting only the brightest and most promising future for her. However, on the way home from his illicit mission of copying the Primer, he's mugged, and as none of the other little hoodlums want what they think looks like junk, Harv gives it to his sister. As Nell discovers, the book addresses itself to her directly, and starts relating exciting stories about Princess Nell and her four special friends, named exactly the same as her beloved toys.

As the years go by, tiny Nell learns all manner of useful things from the Primer. She learns to read, think for herself, defend herself from playground bullies and a wide range of problem solving abilities. She doesn't know that the engineer who created the Primer is ensnared in a complicated web of intrigue because his involvement with the criminal underworld to have it copied for his daughter, or that the actress hired to do the voice work for the marvellous interactive device is getting more and more attached to her, without ever having met her.

I was given this book as a birthday present in 2009, and actually did attempt to start it then. The first third of the book is written in such a convoluted and contrived sci-fi gibberish language, however, that I couldn't make it past the first 30 pages last time. Because diamond is one of the monthly key words for February though, and because I'm doing the Mount TBR reading challenge, which this certainly qualifies for, and thirdly, because the friend who gave it to me thinks it's awesome, I stubbornly persevered through the aforementioned first third, resorting to skimming the worst excesses of techno babble. Once most of the info dumping to get the setting established and the characters to where Stephenson clearly wanted them to be, was over and done with, parts of the story actually started to interest me.

Nell is an awesome character, and I generally very much enjoyed the parts of the story that concerned her and her development into a remarkable, fierce and accomplished young lady, in part thanks to the Primer's guidance. Unfortunately, a lot of the book concerns Hackworth, the engineer who made the Primer, or other characters, which I cared nothing about. I found myself skimming a lot of this book, especially when it got a bit to techno gibberishy again. It's a book that's highly rated on Goodreads, and I'm sure that if I cared about advanced sci-fi world building and clever reinterpretations of technology, I would have liked this a lot more.

The more I try of the genre, though, the more I discover, that with a very few exceptions (usually ones that aren't very hard SF, or even very indistinguishable from fantasy), I don't actually enjoy science fiction. If this was written in a more accessible language, again, I'd probably have enjoyed it more. As it is, I'm giving it 3 rather than 2 stars because Nell was so great. Sorry Bjørnar.

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