The Diamond Age

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The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.
Bertrand Russell
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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.

Part the First

  • 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.
    • first sentence of the novel, "A thete visits a mod parlor"
  • 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.
    • biographical note on Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw; “Hackworth encounters a member of the peerage”
  • 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.”
    • Finkle-McGraw and John Percival Hackworth; “Hackworth encounters a member of the peerage”
  • "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 and Finkle-McGraw; “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.
  • "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."
    • Nellodee (Nell), explaining to her brother, Harvard (Harv), that she wouldn't be able to take the Primer to the Sendero Clave; "A morning stroll through the Leased Territories"

Part the Second

  • "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.
    • Rita and Nell, "A trip to the New Atlantis clave"
  • "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?"
    • Brigadier General Arthur Hornsby Moore, First Protocol Enforcement Expeditionary Force (ret.), aka “Constable Moore" to Nell; "A conversation over dinner"
  • "Nell," the Constable continued, indicating, through is 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"
  • "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."
    • Equity Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw to Gwendolyn Hackworth; "Three girls go exploring"
  • So Beck was the hacker and Oda was the backer. The oldest and most troublesome relationship in the technological world.
    • "Carl Hollywood introduces her to two unusual characters"
  • 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 revealing, to the reader, the possibility that she is Y.T. from Snow Crash, "Miss Matheson's philosophy of education"
  • "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."
    "... 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"
  • "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….”
    • Miss Matheson and Nell; “speculation as to Nell's destiny”
  • 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."
    • Constable Moore; "conversation with a grizzled hoplite"
  • “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."
    "…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…."
    "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."
    • Nell and Constable Moore; “conversation with a grizzled hoplite”
  • As she approached the castle, she learned to keep her horse to the edge of the road, for messengers were constantly blowing past her at a full gallop in both directions.
    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....
    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.
    • Metaphor for an information economy; "From the Primer, Princess Nell's activities as Duchess of Turing"
  • "It represents itself as a simple, moderately successful data-processing collective. … 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.”
    • Hackworth to Fiona; “Cryptnet”
  • 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.
    • Author's coining of the neologism, "Anglosphere"; "The East End"
  • "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."
    • Dr X to Hackworth, "a meeting with Dr. X"
  • 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"
  • 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.
    • Carl Hollywood presents his creditials; "Victory of the Celestial Kingdom"
  • New Chusan rose above them, a short swim away, and up on the mountain they could hear the bells of the cathedral ringing.
    • final line of novel, mentioning bells of St. Mark's Cathedral, which were described in the first sentence of the novel; "Miranda"

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