The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.

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Further to my plan to read everything Neal Stephenson has ever written, the Chaos, who is a good sort, bought me The Diamond Age for Christmas. Like all of Stephenson’s books I’ve read so far, I found it thoroughly addictive, so much so that I blasted through it in under two days. As I go further into his back catalogue, though, and approach his plots with a slightly more critical eye, I’m also discovering that his earlier work tends to suffer from structural weakness. He gets away with it because his invention is explosive and boundless and entirely seductive; the reader is swept up in a world they don’t want to leave, and so the fact that the whole narrative is curiously lopsided doesn’t matter. But it’ll leave the book vulnerable on rereading.

The Diamond Age is set in a near-future made possible by huge leaps in nanotechnological development. Nation-states are obsolete; people now select their own tribe (or join a “phyle”, a slightly less centralised version thereof). Some of them are familiar: the Jews, the Parsis, the Zulus. Some of them are less so: most of England has become neo-Victorian, while America includes a tribe known as the Heartlanders and China is divided into the Celestial Kingdom and the Coastal Republic. Body modification is most commonly practiced through the use of “sites”, nanobots introduced into the bloodstream that can enhance reflexes, incite pain or pleasure, interface with other objects like spectacles or external weaponry, and much more.

Our heroine is little Nell, a “thete” girl who belongs to no particular tribe and into whose hands falls a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is an interactive (or “ractive”) book, programmed with both fairytales and useful instruction, that changes and adapts according to Nell’s responses. It has been designed by John Percival Hackworth, a programmer or “artifex” of great skill, and commissioned by the neo-Victorian Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw. Lord Finkle-McGraw has worked out the fundamental problem with choosing your own tribe: your children will grow up in a society that seems “natural” to them because it is familiar, and will stay in it out of habit, not out of choice. Finkle-McGraw believes, of course, that to be neo-Victorian is the best choice, but he wants his little granddaughter Elizabeth to be raised and educated in such a way that she has the skills and knowledge, eventually, to make that choice. Hackworth is only too happy to build such an education in the form of the Primer, but he makes an illegal copy for his daughter Fiona. And another copy is stolen by Nell’s ne’er-do-well brother, Harv, and finds its way to her…

Add to this heady mix some subplots involving Confucian justice as administered by an inscrutable judge named Fang, a rebellion being led by the Fists of Righteous Harmony and puppeteered by the mysterious Doctor X, and the ractress Miranda Redpath, who, as the voice of Nell’s copy of the Primer, develops a close relationship with this little girl she has never met, and you have some downright addictive stuff. Stephenson’s trademark dry wit is here (I imagine his prose is talking to me with one of its eyebrows lightly arched at all times), as is his entirely unashamed approach to cliffhangers and to proliferating narrative streams. It all makes it very hard to put the book down.

Eventually this becomes a bit of a problem because it also poses a challenge to anyone trying to make the book cohere in their head. About halfway through—roughly, I would say, at the point at which Nell joins Madame Ping’s, though actually I think it starts happening when Hackworth emerges from his ten-year sentence in the realm of the Drummers—the focus of the story shifts from the personal to the political. Technically, I suppose, you could argue that the story has always been political—that the whole thing has been catalysed by Finkle-McGraw’s bid to mass-inculcate subversiveness in the young—but our focus up until now has been on individuals, in whom we have become invested. To see them so suddenly yanked out of one context and thrust into another, and then the battle scenes that follow, is disorienting in the extreme. And, I’m sorry, but I am not satisfied with the ending. It doesn’t need much, maybe another five pages, but I would really have liked those five extra pages.

The star of this book, though, is definitely the Primer. What a wonderful invention; what a beautiful piece of symbolism, using and enriching the trope of a lost child finding solace in books. The Primer isn’t just something you read. It talks back to you; it uses the events of your life as a springboard for the lessons you need to learn; it can zoom in and out on images and stories, showing you both fine detail and the big picture. It contains blueprints, manuals, tales, keys, maps. Had I read The Diamond Age fifteen years ago, I’d have pined away for a Primer of my own. If you love books, you’ll probably love this one just for the way it literalises and takes seriously the deep truth that readers know: a book really can be your best friend.

The Diamond Age is published by Penguin Books.

Six Degrees of Separation: Revolutionary Road

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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  1. We start this month with Revolutionary Road, a book which I…haven’t read. Sorry! The film came out when I was a teenager, though, and I got the gist: suburban people make each other miserable in painful ways.
  2. A book that I have read about suburban people making each other miserable in painful ways (not one of my favourite genres, I confess) is Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighbourhood. The misery is of a different flavour, and the child narrator is a particularly good touch. The scene of Mr Green’s barbeque, as I think I already said on this blog, is pure agony to read.
  3. Suzanne Berne won the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Prize) for that novel, which is published by Penguin Books. Penguin also publishes On Beauty by Zadie Smith, another Orange Prize winner that retells E.M. Forster’s Howards End with a modern twist.
  4. Smith’s collection of essays, Changing My Mind, includes pieces on several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels, one of which is George Eliot’s marvelous novel Middlemarch.
  5. I first read Middlemarch at seventeen, when I was capable of understanding the words but had so little life experience that much of the book’s emotional subtlety passed me by, without me even noticing that I was missing it. Also in this category, I think, is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (amongst quite a few others).
  6. On the Chaos’s bookshelves are a good many other books that I recall reading years ago, but need to reacquaint myself with. Top of the pile (probably after Christmas) will be Dodie Smith’s lovely coming-of-age novel I Capture the Castle, one of my favourite books of all time.

We stayed pretty white and Eurocentric this time around, which is a shame—hopefully next month (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson) will be better!

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

05. Darwin Among the Machines, by George Dyson

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Where I read it: mostly on the Tube, and a little bit during lunch breaks

This was the first non-fiction book that I got to on my 20 Books of Summer list. As I think I mentioned in my June Superlatives round-up, I have almost no background in computer engineering, evolutionary biology, or mathematics, so it was, to say the least, harder going than any of the fiction I’d read so far. Fortunately, George Dyson is a solidly competent writer; confusion never arose because he was confusing, just because I often didn’t have the knowledge that would have clarified things for me. He also has a distinguished scientific pedigree: his mother was a famous mathematician, Verena Huber-Dyson, and his father was Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and inventor of the Dyson sphere. (More in my wheelhouse was his grandfather, the Edwardian composer Sir George Dyson, responsible for the Evensong canticle settings Dyson in F [aka the Star Wars Service] and Dyson in G. And some other stuff, too.)

Dyson’s thing is machine intelligence. This book is all about how, if and when (and it’s mostly when) machine intelligence arises, it’s likely to do so through processes similar to those that created life as we know it. Computers, in other words, are going to experience evolution, or rather,a version of natural selection. Conditions that are advantageous to a computer network will allow pieces of that network to flourish, until it’s able to respond and adapt to its own environment without any input from the engineers that built its circuits or the programmers that set it in motion.

This is the sort of thing that people (especially fiction writers) refer to as Artificial Intelligence, and AI bots already exist – they’re just not the kind of bots you really want to be hanging out with. Dyson is a science historian, though, not a fortune teller, so he focuses less on the possibilities and more on the history of the belief that humans will someday create a global intelligence. It’s older than you think. It predates Turing by centuries; Dyson pinpoints the beginning of the idea with Hobbes and Leviathan. Hobbes sees the government, the state, as a kind of collective entity composed of a nation’s people:

 “Nature is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal.”

He sees the Internet as a perfect place for a global intelligence to develop: a network that spans the world, through which vast amounts of data travel in fractions of a second. Here, also, he suggests that evolution, which is generally painted as a thoughtless or “randomized” process, might be driven by considerations that could be referred to as intelligent ones. It sails close to the wind of intelligent design, but not in the way that Texan fundamentalists think of it; rather, Dyson suggests that “intelligence” may be a concept we are applying all wrong. Machine intelligence may be something that already exists but which we are simply failing to recognize because it is so far above, beyond, and/or different to, the ways in which we understand human intelligence to work. It’s an argument that allows for the existence of something like a God, in the same way that you can call “magic” a kind of science we don’t yet understand. It’s perhaps the scariest, and yet the most beautiful, idea in the book. For all that I could have done with a greater depth of knowledge while reading it, I’m very glad I did.

(I’ve now passed it on to the Chaos, who will probably have more nuanced things to say.)

Darwin Among the Machines, George Dyson (London: Penguin, 2012 [1997])