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The Diamond Age

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Country  United States
Publication date  1995
Author  Neal Stephenson
Genre  Postcyberpunk
4.2/5 Goodreads

Cover artist  Bruce Jensen
Language  English
Originally published  February 1995
Page count  455
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Publisher  Bantam Spectra (U.S.A.)
Media type  Print (hardback & paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette, MP3 CD, Audio download. Narrator: Jennifer Wiltsie) & e-book
Characters  John Percival Hackworth, Nell, Judge Fang
Awards  Hugo Award for Best Novel
Similar  Works by Neal Stephenson, Cyberpunk books, Hugo Award for Best Novel winners

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a science fiction novel by American writer Neal Stephenson. It is to some extent a bildungsroman or coming-of-age story, focused on a young girl named Nell, set in a future world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence. The Diamond Age was first published in 1995 by Bantam Books, as a Bantam Spectra hardcover edition. In 1996, it won both the Hugo and Locus Awards, and was shortlisted for the Nebula and other awards. In 2009, a six-hour miniseries adapted from the novel was slated for development for the Syfy Channel, although the adaptation did not ultimately emerge.



The Diamond Age depicts a near-future world revolutionised by advances in nanotechnology, much as Eric Drexler envisioned it in his nonfiction book Engines of Creation (1986). Molecular nanotechnology is omni-present in the novel's world, generally in the form of Matter Compilers and the products that come out of them. The book explicitly recognizes the achievements of several existing nanotechnology researchers: Feynman, Drexler and Merkle are seen among characters of the fresco in Merkle-Hall, where new nanotechnological items are designed and constructed.

The book contains descriptions of various exotic technologies, such as the chevaline (a mechanical horse that can fold up and is light enough to be carried one-handed), and forecasts the use of technologies that are in development today, such as smart paper that can show personalized news headlines. Major cities have immune systems made up of aerostatic defensive micromachines, and public matter compilers provide basic food, blankets, and water for free to anyone who requests them.

Matter compilers receive their raw materials from the Feed, a system analogous to the electrical grid of modern society. The Feed carries streams of both energy and basic molecules, which are rapidly assembled into usable goods by matter compilers. The Source, where the Feed's stream of matter originates, is controlled by the Victorian phyle (though smaller, independent Feeds are possible). The hierarchic nature of the Feed and an alternative, anarchic developing technology, known as the Seed, mirror the cultural conflict between East and West that is depicted in the book. This conflict has an economic element as well, with the Feed representing a centrally-controlled distribution mechanism, while the Seed represents a more flexible, open-ended, decentralized method of creation and organization.


Society in The Diamond Age is dominated by a number of phyles, also sometimes called tribes. Phyles are groups of people often distinguished by shared values, similar ethnic heritage, a common religion, or other cultural similarities. In the extremely globalized future depicted in the novel, these cultural divisions have largely supplanted the system of nation-states that divides the world today. Cities in The Diamond Age appear divided into sovereign enclaves affiliated or belonging to different phyles within a single metropolis. Most phyles depicted in the novel have a global scope of sovereignty, and maintain segregated enclaves in or near many cities throughout the world.

The phyles coexist much like historical nation-states under a system of justice and mutual protection, known as the Common Economic Protocol (CEP). The rules of the CEP are intended to provide for the co-existence of, and peaceful economic activity between, phyles with potentially very different values. The CEP is concerned particularly with upholding rights to personal property, being shown to provide particularly harsh punishment for harming the economic capability of another person. The role of the CEP in the world of the novel could be seen in comparison with the roles of real-life international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.

"Thetes" are individuals who are not members of any phyle and are often socially disadvantaged and economically poor, being similar to second-class citizens under the CEP. In the novel, the material needs of nearly all thetes are satisfied by freely-available food and clothing, albeit of low quality; thetes without the political connections of a phyle are entitled to similarly low-quality "free justice."

The book distinguishes three Great Phyles: the Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans and other members of the Anglosphere who identify with the culture) and Nippon (consisting of Japanese). The novel raises the question as to whether Hindustan (consisting of Hindu Indians) is a fourth Great Phyle, or a "riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don't get."

Internally, the New Atlantis phyle is a corporate oligarchy whose "equity lords" rule the organization and its bylaws under allegiance to the vestigial British monarchy. Other phyles are less defined – some intentionally, as with the CryptNet group or the mysterious hive-mind Drummers. Over the course of the story, the Common Economic Protocol sponsors the investigation of clandestine Seed technologies in order to preserve the established order from subversion, using the justification that unrestricted access to Sources would lead to the proliferation of high tech weapons and result in anarchy. It is also hinted that property rights are so expansive that the Protocol recognizes children as the economic assets of their parents.

Plot summary

The protagonist in the story is Nell, a thete (or person without a tribe; equivalent to the lowest working class) living in the Leased Territories, a lowland slum belt on the artificial, diamondoid island of New Chusan, located offshore from the mouth of the Yangtze River, northwest of Shanghai. At the age of four, Nell receives a stolen copy of an interactive book, Young Lady's Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion, in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, &c., originally intended for the wealthy Neo-Victorian "Equity Lord" Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw's granddaughter. The story follows Nell's development under the tutelage of the Primer, and to a lesser degree, the lives of Elizabeth and Fiona, girls who receive similar books. The Primer is intended to steer its reader intellectually toward a more interesting life, as defined by "Equity Lord" Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, and growing up to be an effective member of society. The most important quality to achieving an "interesting life" is deemed to be a subversive attitude towards the status quo. The Primer is designed to react to its owners' environment and teach them what they need to know to survive and develop.

The Diamond Age is characterized by two intersecting, almost equally-developed story lines: Nell's education through her independent work with the Primer, and the social downfall of engineer and designer of the Primer, John Percival Hackworth, who has made an illegal copy of the Primer for his own young daughter, Fiona. His crime becomes known both to Lord Finkle-McGraw and to Dr. X, the black market engineer whose compiler Hackworth used to create the copy of the Primer, and each man attempts to exploit Hackworth to advance the opposing goals of their tribes. A third storyline follows an actress, Miranda, who plays the voice of Nell's Primer and has almost become Nell's surrogate mother, in her attempts to find Nell. Later Miranda's storyline is taken over by Miranda's associate Carl Hollywood after Miranda disappears. The text also includes fully narrated educational tales from the Primer that map Nell's individual experience (e.g. her four toy friends) onto archetypal folk tales stored in the primer's database. Although The Diamond Age explores the role of technology and personal relationships in child development, its deeper and darker themes also probe the relative values of cultures (which Stephenson explores in his other novels as well) and the shortcomings in communication between them.


"Diamond Age" is an extension of labels for archeological time periods that take central technological materials to define an entire era of human history, such as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. Technological visionaries such as Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle, both of whom receive an honorary mention in The Diamond Age, have argued that if nanotechnology develops the ability to manipulate individual atoms at will, it will become possible to simply assemble diamond structures from carbon atoms, materials also known as diamondoids. Merkle states: "In diamond, then, a dense network of strong bonds creates a strong, light, and stiff material. Indeed, just as we named the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Steel Age after the materials that humans could make, we might call the new technological epoch we are entering the Diamond Age". In the novel, a near future vision of our world, nanotechnology has developed precisely to this point, which enables the cheap production of diamond structures.


  • Nell (Nellodee) – The story's protagonist, from the viewpoint of the novel as a coming-of-age story. She is born to Tequila, a lower-class single mother, and, with the help of the nanotech Primer, grows up to become an independent woman and the leader of a new phyle.
  • Harv (Harvard) – Nell's older brother, who plays an important role in the beginning as her protector; he obtains the Primer for his sister by mugging John Percival Hackworth. Harv is forced to leave Nell when she joins the Neo-Victorians, and he later dies in hospital of consumption.
  • Bud – A petty criminal and "thete", or tribeless individual, Bud is Tequila's boyfriend and Nell and Harv's father. He is obsessed with his muscular body, and possesses a cranial weapon implant (known as a "skull gun"), which he uses to mug a member of the Ashanti phyle. He is executed for this crime early in the novel.
  • Tequila – Nell and Harv's neglectful thete mother. After Bud's death, she has a series of boyfriends who abuse the children.
  • John Percival Hackworth – The novel's second protagonist. He is a Neo-Victorian nanotech engineer, and develops the code for the Primer. He makes an illicit copy of the Primer for his daughter Fiona, who is Nell's age. When his crime is detected, he is forced to become a double agent in a covert power struggle between the Neo-Victorians and the Chinese Celestial Kingdom. Hackworth is forced to spend ten years with a colony of "Drummers," using their distributed intelligence (similar but not identical to distributed artificial intelligence) for the development of a new form of nanotech, known as the Seed.
  • Fiona Hackworth – Hackworth's daughter, and his motivation for stealing a second copy of the Primer. During Hackworth's decade-long exile with the Drummers, he is able to maintain a connection with his daughter through the Primer, and when he returns she joins him, eventually choosing to stay with a surrealistic acting troupe in London.
  • Gwendolyn Hackworth – Hackworth's wife and Fiona's mother, who divorces Hackworth after he joins the Drummers.
  • Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw – A Neo-Victorian "Equity Lord" with the Apthorp conglomerate, who commissions the development of the Primer for his granddaughter Elizabeth.
  • Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw – Lord Finkle-McGraw's granddaughter. It was for her that the project to develop the Illustrated Primer was begun. However, she never became as engrossed in the stories created by the Primer as Nell, and later rebelled against her Neo-Victorian upbringing due in part to the abuse of Miss Stricken. Elizabeth runs away from her wealthy aristocratic family to join the secretive CryptNet phyle.
  • Judge Fang – A Chinese Confucian judge who sentences Bud to death in the beginning of the book. He also investigates Hackworth's mugging by Harv after he had illicitly had a second edition of the Primer created. As a civil official abiding by deep Confucian principles, his decision to let Nell keep the stolen primer is one of the pivotal plot elements that allows Nell's story to unfold. The fallout from that choice leads him to question his allegiances to the Coastal Republic (which rules Shanghai and the surrounding area), and he eventually joins the inland Celestial Kingdom.
  • Chang and Miss Pao – Judge Fang's assistants.
  • Dr. X. – A mysterious character who evolves from being an illicit technology specialist and hacker to being a powerful Confucian leader and nefarious force. His name comes from the fact that most westerners cannot pronounce his Chinese name; he encourages people to instead call him by the first letter of his name, 'X'.
  • Constable Moore - Constable of the Dovetail community, semi-retired soldier, and Nell's adoptive father/guardian.
  • Miranda Redpath – A "ractor" (actor in interactive movies) who, by performing in the stories of Nell's Primer, effectively becomes a mother figure for Nell.
  • Carl Hollywood – A ractor and performance artist, Miranda's friend and adviser. He becomes more important towards the end of the novel, when he is involved in the battle between the Celestial Kingdom and the Coastal Republic.
  • Miss Matheson- The head teacher at the academy where Nell, Fiona and Elizabeth attend. She instructs Nell to find her own path.
  • Miss Stricken- An authoritarian teacher at Miss Matheson's Academy who frequently uses corporal punishment on the students for minor infractions. During a confrontation with Nell, Stricken attempts to strike her with the ruler only to be immediately disarmed due to Nell's physical training by the Primer, this leads to her Elizabeth and Fiona all being placed in detention where they are forced to mindlessly copy from textbooks.
  • Charles Dickens

    The novel's neo-Victorian setting, as well as its narrative form, particularly the chapter headings, suggest a relation to the work of Charles Dickens. The protagonist's name points directly to Little Nell from Dickens' 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop.

    Judge Dee mysteries

    The novel's character Judge Fang is based on a creative extension of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mystery series, which is based around a Confucian judge in ancient China who usually solves three cases simultaneously. The Judge Dee stories are based on the tradition of Chinese mysteries, transposing key elements into Western detective fiction.


    Nell's father, Bud, is presented as an archetypal cyberpunk character. He is a career criminal (though not a particularly skilled or high-ranking one) with various surgically implanted devices to aid him in his 'work'. Stephenson attempts to establish The Diamond Age as a "postcyberpunk" book by killing this character early on, while acknowledging the influence of the cyberpunk genre.

    The Wizard of Oz

    When Nell enters the castle of King Coyote in the Primer's final challenge for her, she encounters an enormous computer apparently designed to think and placed in charge of the kingdom. The computer is named "Wizard 0.2", a typographical allusion to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In that book, the Wizard puts on a grand appearance but is later revealed to be merely a man hiding behind a curtain. In similar fashion, Wizard 0.2 creates an impressive light show as it apparently processes data, but it is then revealed that the computer's decisions are in fact made by King Coyote himself.

    Snow Crash

    The Diamond Age can be seen as set in the same universe as Snow Crash, many years later. This reading is based on a connection between Y.T., a major character in Snow Crash, and the aged neo-Victorian Miss Matheson in The Diamond Age, who drops oblique references to her past as a hard-edged skateboarder. This would set The Diamond Age some 80–100 years after Snow Crash.

    Further supporting evidence to connect these two novels include:

  • Stephenson's short story "The Great Simoleon Caper" which refers to both the Metaverse seen in Snow Crash and the First Distributed Republic seen in The Diamond Age (another short story which fits in the Diamond Age milieu and even shares a character is "Excerpt from the Third and Last Volume of Tribes of the Pacific Coast").
  • references to Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities (FOQNEs) in both novels.
  • "The Great Simoleon Caper" depicts a United States in which rising inflation encourages people to use an untraceable relay system that makes it impossible to enforce taxes on online transactions (which was later used as a plot element in another of Stephenson's works, the 1999 novel Cryptonomicon). By the setting of Snow Crash the United States and most other nation-states have collapsed because of hyperinflation; in The Diamond Age, one character tells Miranda that they collapsed from the lack of tax revenue. Small, voluntary governments like the burbclaves depicted in Snow Crash replaced nation-states.

    Both novels deal with an almost "primitive tech" replacing a current, worldwide use technology, in the sense of the reprogramming of the mind through ancient Sumerian chanting in Snow Crash (which also uses allusions to Babylonian prostitutes passing an information virus like a sexually transmitted disease), and the idea of nanotechnology propagating and communicating through sexual intercourse, passing from body to body like a virus. Both novels use an ancient, almost primitive threat to modern, "Western" technology and ideology (The Raft in Snow Crash and The Fists of Righteous Harmony in The Diamond Age). Stephenson explores the idea of the tech divide and its social and economic ramifications to the extreme using these violent, but not surprising, social revolutions.

    Proposed television adaptation

    In January 2007, the Sci-Fi Channel announced that it would be making a six-hour miniseries based on The Diamond Age. According to a June 2009 report in Variety, Zoë Green had been hired to write the series, with George Clooney and Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Productions as executive producers on the project. However, as of 2016, no further news on the project has emerged.

    Allusions to the Diamond Age

    During the early stages of its development, the Amazon Kindle e-reader was codenamed "Fiona", as a deliberate reference to the Illustrated Primer and Fiona Hackworth.


    The Diamond Age Wikipedia