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Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

A SF book by NealStephenson, exploring possible effects of NanoTechnology on culture. If we could build almost anything, what should we build?

The plot is typical CyberPunk; there is a plausible future, thousands of fascinating ideas:

In this particular book, we are dazzled by hoplite armor (also known as Mechs in animes and mangas), matter creation on a large scale (nanobots building coral islands including forests, centaurs, fairies) as well as on a very small scale (blankets, water, rations, first aid kits). Other interesting things are interactive movies (ractives), the South Chinese setting, Confucian thought (much like the introduction of Mesopotamian myth in SnowCrash). The most interesting idea for Meatball regulars is probably the reemergence of communities based on ideology (Senderos (of sendero luminoso fame), Viktorians, Nipponese, Celestial Empire (Confucian China), etc.). Especially the Viktorians are of interest: They believe that morality is the basis of society and therefore (very) strong morals distinguish them from the rest of humanity.

Unfortunately, the ending -- as in many CyberPunk books -- suffers of what I call pseudo-complexity. It seems to be a writer's trick: As the the end of the book is being reached, the characters start to act on unseen cues. The reader feels left out, doesn't understand the rationality of the story anymore. When the reader starts to doubt that there is a rationality of the story, however, then the "suspension of disbelief" breaks down. Not explaining everything makes it more interesting, if the reader can fill in the blanks. It turns out to be really hard to fill in the blanks when they are too big, however. Example (no spoilers, I think): In the Primer we read about the mouse army -- how does the Primer know about them, however? Why does Nell meet them, in the end? Why did it form? Why is the drummer computation superior to other computation?

Oh well. I really enjoyed the book and perhaps these loose ends are left as unsolvable riddles on purpose. Maybe cyberpunk orients itself on such short stories as The Dubliners by James Joyce: There is no introduction and no end, just a fleeting glimpse of the life and works of other people. In the case of Cyberpunk, all we are given is this fleeting glimpse and we are not supposed to find all loose ends tied together because that's not how reality works, that's not how fast science fiction works. The story introduces us to some characters, the plot commences, towards the end the story keeps accelerating, we get lost, it keeps accelerating, and somewhere it just ends, climax and resolution dissolve as the story accelerates beyond the end of the book. "It's all in your head, man."

-- AlexSchroeder

I loved this book which featured a networked teaching device, a NanoBookPrimer? with anime teacher personnas who instruct/ raise two caucasion (sp?) girl characters and a vast demographic of orphaned Chinese girls. The NanoBookPrimer? is somewhat similar to Jane in EndersGame. In The Diamond Age however, there are human aspects of instruction that cannot be programmed, and must be handled by anonymous human actors. There is also a sort of bizarre speculation of sort of AgentOrange? esque cult of ExtremeProgrammers?. Great Book!

-- DaveChristenson

In response to AlexShroeder?, recall that the mouse army is made up of all the girls who were saved, and tutored under the primer. It formed simply out of the coherence of those girls, and their readiness for action. I always figured that the primer was not only aware of its reader but aware of other readers of its other copies. Nell, a natural leader in her own way, was especially suited to lead an army who grew up from the same (but not identical) primer.

-- Marisa



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