Diamond Age

So on Thursday I got an email from Amazon advertising their new “Kindle for Mac” program. Basically all the previously locked down titles I had on my Kindle are now available on my laptop.

I know it was Thursday and not another day because Thursday is CAD day. As in, computer aided design. My teacher is one of the sculpture professors, and the sole commander of the department’s CNC router. I like to think of the room in which the router is housed as his dojo, in that one must spend many weeks in focus before approaching the machine over which he is the master, and that I spend the majority of my time sweeping up the sawdust, plastic, carcinogenic MDF offal and other waste after the router has been used to cut out someone’s design  No one may near the router without his permission, which is just as well (his response to requests for permission to cut is inevitably no) because it gives our class basically free reign of the place during the on and off hours of our class. We are supposed to make furniture for the class, so I decided to make a robot . Like a 8 foot tall robot. Out of foam. It will be awesome.

Right. The point is I was supposed to spend the three hours of that class working on my robot, but instead spent it reading Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. This is my problem with fiction, in general: It becomes a sort of obsession that becomes harder and harder to overcome. With Stephenson, I find that his fiction can only be consumed in long draughts, like a parched traveler who has found water in the desert after a long trek.

Reading Stephenson is reading the future through an engineer’s eyes: his skill lies not in creating an atmosphere, but building a world and explaining to you its inner workings. His writing draws most readily from Phillip K. Dick, in my opinion. It’s that certain disinterest for the character, where the individual becomes more and more an embodiment of themes: a sort of avatar for the larger forces at play in his stories.** Perhaps the reason why I go back an read Diamond Age from time to time is because of the extent with which he manages to capture my interest in the future he has created: I read about, finally, the technology that might make the Gibsonian cyberspace utopia possible, and in particular, my areas of specialization (molecular dynamics and materials science) fit rather well into the nanotechnological paradise that is Diamond Age. Perhaps I chose them instinctually, or was just swept along my the undercurrents of my field, but I see this sort of research as the next new frontier for an up and coming physicist: not too terribly theoretical (Von Neumann once called solid state physics, squalid state physics). It seems like I could do much for the world in a field like this. For a long time now I have dreamt of being one of those few scientists given the privilege to forge society and foment the revolutions of industry. What Bessemer did for steel, what Tesla did for electricity, I want to do for the nanotechnology revolution.


**Probably the most dangerous aspect of his work is his recent tendency to take himself too seriously. Whereas his condensed-American-pioneer philosophy of self-responsibility and nonconformism was a tolerable facet of Snow Crash, its resurgence in Diamond Age as a defining character of that novel, as well has the recent failure in Anathem show his limits as an author. Whereas the master of the form, Gibson, has long since moved on to bigger and better things, it seems Stephenson is almost reverting to the attitudes of Bradbury and Vonnegut: the sort of depressing, experimental, modernist science fiction that makes the reader suffer to enjoy. I found myself greatly enjoying the chapters that involved the engineer, the ractor artist, Carl Hollywood, I didn’t enjoy the chapters involving Nell or the other girls: it’s that constant reminder of his view of what makes the great historical-individuals of society that bothers me. I know that I have lived my life that way, however subconsciously, but I feel as though his saying it, and publishing it, only deepens my embarrassment over it: I chose what I did because I cautiously felt it was the right thing to do at the time: it was never a single choice, and never made without trepidation. I feel as though the comical, Roarkian characters he creates who embody his philosophy have such certainty that its irksome.


About this entry