|1996 Penguin edition cover|
The setting is near-future, but very different both technologically and culturally. Mastery of nanotechnology has enabled atom-scale rod-logic computers, super-strong materials, and matter creation on demand: on the downside, the air, water, and even people's bodies, swarm with a warring ecology of nanoscale devices. Socially, the nation-state has become obsolete in favour of "phyles" - distributed populations with a common ethos, who occupy "claves" of various sizes, some as small as a building - who interact via shared laws.
The book has been billed as "post-cyberpunk", and it starts with a vigorous demolition of cyberpunk tropes. A character called Bud is getting a nanotech "skull gun" implant installed. In a cyberpunk novel this would probably lead to all kinds of shoot-outs and adventures. However, Bud turns out not to be the protagonist, but a dim racist thug who uses the gun to rob an Ashanti businessman; he is rapidly arrested, put in front of a genially draconian Confucian court (Judge Fang tells Bud "Don't be an asshole" when he asks if he gets to offer a defence), and executed. So much for cyberpunk.
We then get to the real story, which begins among the Neo-Victorians, a powerful phyle who have adopted Victorian dress and rules of conduct. John Hackworth, an "artifex" (software engineer) gets commissioned by a Victorian aristocrat to create a book-format device called A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. The aristocrat has realised that, as with the original Victorians, their culture depends on wildcard personalities, and the Primer would be an educational medium designed to foster such a personality in his daughter. Hackworth does the job, but falls into the Victorian vice of hypocrisy and goes into China to make illegal copies. He is, however, mugged, and the original copy stolen, which ultimately places him in obligation to an illicit Chinese technologist Dr X.
The stolen Primer ends up with an unintended recipient, Nell, a young underclass girl in an abusive household - and by coincidence the late Bud's daughter. She gets to keep it because of further peculiarities of the Confucian justice system. Judge Fang, who also coincidentally deals with the case of the Primer's theft, considers that the thief, Nell's brother Harv, has displayed the correct "filial piety" by giving it to her, and that a greater good is served by her keeping it for her education.
The story then moves into multiple threads, including the life of Nell as she grows up to her teens, educated to higher class and a higher destiny by the Primer; Hackworth's fate, forced by admission of his crime to become a double agent and infiltrate a bizarre and orgiastic hive-community; the life of Miranda, an interactive actor who effectively becomes Nell's mother by providing the characters displayed by the Primer; the growing political unrest in China (much of the action takes place around Shanghai); and, centrally, the interactive story Nell is told by the Primer. Starting with simple stories involving her four animal toys as characters, it's designed to guide her through increasingly sophisticated archetypal adventures, puzzles and challenges that mirror her encounters in the real world.
It's taken me three weeks to read it, as it's quite long at 500 pages, and not always the easiest of novels for stylistic reasons, in places imitating the detailed descriptive digression of Victorian novels. It also has its longeurs; while they're thoroughly pertinent to the theme and I like computing, I found Nell's Primer adventures involving understanding various Turing machines repetitive and uninteresting.
I can see, however, why The Diamond Age won both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1996. It's a detailed and brilliantly-imagined exploration of culture, technology and personality, and worth the effort. And I learned a deal about Confucianism.
SPOILER: The Diamond Age at Wikipedia.