Esther’s Space- journey through my life

March 5, 2008

Nell- just a thete girl living in a nano world

So, how ’bout that Diamond Age? This book is not my cup of tea. But, it is also strangely arresting.

I’m having difficulty putting all of the pieces of Stephenson’s story together while trying to focus solely on the role of literature in this future age, since he is commenting on so many different aspects of society. I think Stephenson is making some pretty brash assertions about the necessity, power, and cultural value of books. However, while he has a largely traditionalist view of the purpose of books, he begins to combine the traditional form with nanotechnology-inspired content, thereby complicating the situation.

The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is meant to represent the traditional book that both Hackworth and Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw see as the only way to give children a ‘real’ education. When they first discuss the problem with education, Finkle-Mcgraw says:

in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting….My three children were raised in those schools, and I know them well. I am determined that Elizabeth shall be raised differently. (24)

Here he is implying that the current state of the education system is inferior, and referring to the common neo-Victorian’s mindset, that “there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models” (24). However, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer works in a a strikingly non-traditional way. It does not simply educate in the same way that a book, as we know it, would. Instead, it looks like a book, but functions much like any other ractive available, except on a more complicated level, allowing it to understand the nuances of Nell’s situation and emotions.

However, at the same time, beyond the experience of interacting with the book, there is the ractor, Miranda, who is behind much of Nell’s learning. Without her skilled and involved participation, the book would never have been as effective as it had been. At one point Miranda also admits that she is raising someone else’s child through her work. So, this puts more of the responsibility on her, thereby reducing the power of both the book and the technology by themselves.

So, here I am. I thought that the power of the book was supposed to be primary, but then the success of the book format lies in its nanotechnological advances, but then the true utilization of that lies in the work of a person, Miranda. So, basically, the fact that it looks like a book is related only to the nostalgia of the neo-Victorians who are remembering a past that never really happened. I believe Baudrillard would be in on this conversation.

Is Stephenson’s true message that we are like the neo-Victorians in our nostalgia for the role of the book, when in truth nothing can replace the one-on-one interaction of a parent with his/her child when it comes to education?  I am curious to find out how successful Nell becomes in comparison to the Chinese girls who are not provided with expensive ractors and must make do with computer-generated ones.

But, again, I’ve gotten totally off the topic of the book, yet again.  Maybe Stephenson isn’t all about the book.  Maybe that me imposing a level of importance that the text cannot fully support.  I’m curious to see how the rest of you read the situation.



  1. Something that I found immensely interesting in this book was the subtopic of meaning or intention. Despite the high level of technology, some things can only be achieved using a human element. For eg: Compiling the thousands of primers. A purpose, i believe, the Drummers participated in. Raising children: a fractured and disinterested primer creates an Elizabeth. A dreamlike and wistful primer, Fiona. Nell on the other hand was raised with care (miranda) as well as real life experience, where self reliance and acuity are just as important as information and opportunity.
    I dont believe the neo-victorians were nostalgic for their past, but rather that tribes create a culture around a shared set of values and morals. Being victorian is what held them together.
    About the chinese “mice”. They may never quite reach Nell’s level, not having her experiences or Miranda’s guidance. However they did have many nurses and actual humans around not to mention peers and companions who would carry their thoughts and essence into the future. Long Live Queen Nell!

    Comment by Cyminx — March 7, 2008 @ 8:11 pm

  2. Esther, I always appreciate the insightful way you go about looking at the books we’re reading. I like, also, how you use the word nostalgia when it comes to the Vickys in the novel. I think that’s a perfect word to describe them because they aren’t satisfied with the present or the future, they are always looking back to “better times”. What struck me as most interesting in your blog was the thought that Miranda herself makes the book itself less important in Nell’s life. What this says to me is that Stephenson is playing the field between the book and human relationships. I guess I’ll have to read a bit more to figure out which side he’s really on, because so far I can’t figure it out!

    Comment by Lindsey — March 10, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  3. Esther, I really enjoyed your reading of the text. I agree, I think Stephenson is posing the argument that the book can not function on its own. After reading your post, it made me reflect back to Katherine Egan’s The Keep. Maybe similar to the way Egan describes the literary canon and the network through the keep and its tunnels, Stephenson is taking a similar stance by suggesting that the traditional book can not exist in today’s society alone. Possibly collective intelligence is needed. I’m not sure, but is is possible that Stephenson is claiming that in order for the traditional book to once again be effective it must be paired with supplemental materials AKA technology? Hopefully, tomorrows class will shed some light on everyone’s confusion.


    Comment by Cassie — March 11, 2008 @ 12:58 am

  4. I don’t see the primer, in and of itself, as being all that important to Finkle-McGraw. Finkle-McGraw believed that children needed to experience subversive ideas in order to choose the NV lifestyle intelligently, rather than as a result of indoctrination. As an example, it was pointed out that people born into and indoctrinated by the NV culture were typically able to describe what they believed, but not _why_ they believed it. Finkle-McGraw was a sort of patriot who wanted to ensure the continued survival of NV culture, by ensuring children, or at least his grandchild, were exposed to non-conforming ideas. In this way, NV culture could be chosen intelligently and intentionally.

    This however, is somewhat at odds with Finkle-McGraw’s selfish intent to use the book for one child. That issue aside however, Finkle-McGraw connects “subversive ideas” with “interesting lives”. Clearly, he believed that creative people had typically led “interesting lives” and that the Neo-Victorian educational system practically ensured that children did not have interesting lives. The point was made several times that Finkle-McGraw was a subversive and that he felt subversion was important for the proper upbringing of youth. Had he found a way to introduce subversive ideas to children through amusement parks (one idea that was mentioned but which had been abandoned), he would have.

    In a sense, the primer is important in itself because it was the tool ultimately chosen, but recall that the differences between it and normal books were elaborately spelled out in the passages regarding its compiling. I really don’t hear a general message about books coming from the Diamond Age. There are messages about conformity and how nonconformity aids a cultures longevity, but not so much about books. Indeed, it is hinted that the Mouse Army is somewhat more poorly educated because all they had was the book.

    Finkle-McGraw saw in Hackworth the importance of having an “interesting life”. Hackworth could identify poetry, had come to engineering not by a straight and narrow path, and was considered a master at the skill.

    Then there is Fiona. Hackworth came to the conclusion that book was important because Finkle-McGraw, someone he respected, thought the book was important. He hoped the book would enable Fiona to do grand things with her life but again, it wasn’t “book learning” per se that Hackworth valued, it was the transmission of Finkle-McGraw ideas that Hackworth valued. Had the vehicle for transmission been an ice cream cone, Hackworth would have been just as keen to steal a copy for Fiona.

    What is rather interesting, is that Finkle-McGraw’s desire to prevent internal societal rot, sets in motion a series of events which gets Hackworth working on the Seed, an external force that threatens NV culture far more than a lack of subversiveness, although Nell’s Phyle may come to represent a seed based neo-NV culture if the Fists don’t have their own way.

    Comment by Odin — January 8, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

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