Neal Stephenson,
The Diamond Age or,
A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

(Time Warner, 2001)

Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age is like a trip down the rabbit hole with a nanotechnological twist. Set in Shanghai in a not-too-distant part of the 21st century, The Diamond Age describes a society divided into tribes and "phyles," one of which is the phyle of the neo-Victorians. John Percival Hackworth, a neo-Victorian engineer who has achieved the lofty station of Artifex, is commissioned to create an interactive primer for a young girl. The goal is to teach her to think and act independently and subversively. Hackworth recognizes the advantages of such training and makes a clandestine copy of the primer for his own daughter, Fiona.

Before he can give it to her, however, it is stolen by a "thete" boy from the poverty-stricken Leased Territories, who gives it to his little sister, Nell. As soon as she opens it, she is drawn into the interactive tale within, and it transforms not only her life but the lives of a broad network of people as well.

Stephenson juxtaposes disparate characters -- Nell, Hackworth, a judge, the "ractor" Miranda -- a ractor acts in interactive programs called "ractives" -- and myriad others in a shining and intricate constellation connected with cybernetic strands. It is a thoroughly engrossing tale which begs for more than one reading to absorb it fully.

The audio element adds a new dimension to Stephenson's work. Jennifer Wiltsie's interpretation is practically perfect. Her clear diction and subtle shading of her voice to indicate the different characters brings The Diamond Age to life -- no easy task, considering the novel's complexity. At the same time, it seems as if Wiltsie's reading removes a level of complexity, making the novel much more accessible. Moreover, the vivid presentation captures the reader's imagination.

I've never been all that interested in audiobooks before, but this one had me looking forward to my car trips -- the longer, the better. This audio version of The Diamond Age is a splendid example of high-quality recorded books.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 9 February 2002

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