This is the second Neal Stephenson book I have read, the previous one being the marvelously entertaining Snow Crash
. Unlike Snow Crash this not an easy read, being the impatient sort I almost gave up on it around page 70, fortunately some wiser heads than mine pulled me back (thank you Goodread friends!). The problem for me is the initial inundation of unfamiliar words, some are of the author's invention, the others are just English words not in my vocabulary!
The book focuses on the trials and tribulations of several protagonists and one central character, a little girl from a poor family called Nell. If the book had been focused on Nell alone it would have been a breeze to read as I like the character and her adventures with her brother in the early parts of the book are relatively straight forward. While I love the setting of this strange future world where nanotechnology pervades every aspect of life, my initial difficulty with the book is that I found one of the protagonists (Hackworth, damn him!) less than endearing and his part of the story hard to follow as he is a genius nanotechnologist and a lot of the technical details Stephenson describes in these chapters go right over my head. Still, the author knows better than I do how his story should proceed and his canvas is too big for just a single protagonist narrative. Anyway, I put the book down for a couple of days to read something much easier (Bujold!) then I was persuaded to get back to The Diamond Age again. By a happy coincidence from the point of my reentry the book switches its focus from the irritating Hackworth to spend a lot of time on Nell and her development with the aid of the high nanotech primer book mentioned in the novel’s subtitle. Another high point for me is Stephenson’s peculiar sense of humor which is based more on cultural oddities rather than witticism or slapstick. For example the dialogue in the tea house scene between a judge and a mysterious Chinese character called Dr X is a subtly hilarious comedy of manners.
However, this is clearly a more serious novel than Snow Crash, one of the theme that resonate very much with me is the right of the disenfranchised to education, enlightenment and a chance of good life. I also share the author's sense of outrage against child abuse, some teacher’s abuse of authority and general spiritual and intellectual deprivation some kids are subjected to. These serious issues are smoothly integrated into the story without ever becoming preachy. Being an extremely well read individual Stephenson has included bits of Confucius philosophy in the narrative, I can't claim to understand it all but the little that I do may have made me just a teensy weensy bit wiser, a definite bonus.
So an entertaining, thought provoking and worthwhile book, it may even give the reader’s intelligence a wee boost. If that doesn’t work you can always eat more fish.