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Meditations on Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
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It may seem odd to spend an entire post on a book that was published 25 years ago, but after re-reading The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson recently I just can’t help myself, the book is just that good. Or, at least the first 99% of it is, I’ve always felt that the ending was too abrupt, and ultimately unsatisfying. Of course any discussion of how something ends means that there’s definitely going to be spoilers, but that’s another reason for talking about something published 25 years ago, the time limit on spoilers has long since expired.
Diamond Age is set in a future where nanotechnology has revolutionized the world, nearly everyone has a matter compiler, and for those that don’t public matter compilers provide the necessities of life (food, blankets, etc.) for free to anyone who requests them.
In parallel with this development the world has been divided into globe spanning tribes, or phyles, as the book refers to them. Phyles are groups of people sharing a tighter cultural bond than individuals in a modern nation state (though perhaps not a historical nation state?) while being more geographically dispersed. (All cites contain multiple phyle enclaves.) Phyles include groups like Mormons, communists (the Senderos), secret cryptographically oriented phyles (this is Stephenson after all) and finally there are the three great phyles:
The Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans and other members of the Anglosphere who identify with the culture) and Nippon (consisting of the Japanese). The novel raises the question as to whether Hindustan is a fourth Great Phyle, or a "riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don't get." (h/t: Wikipedia)
It should also be noted that not everyone belongs to a phyle, and those who don’t are second class citizens.
As you might imagine, given how phyles are constructed, culture plays a very large role in the world of Diamond Age, and discussing how Stephenson treats the various cultures, but particularly the Neo-Victorians (or Vickys as they’re often called) is how I’m going to be spending most of my time.
If you read my book review round up from a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember that I included a quote from Diamond Age on the subject of hypocrisy. The character who was offering his opinion on how hypocrisy had been elevated to “the mother of all vices” was Lord Finkle-Mcgraw, a member of the Neo-Victorian phyle, and in most respects the main driver of events in the novel (though not the main character). As I mentioned the Vickys were one of the “great phyles” and this phyle took the form of a weird corporate oligarchy that owed its allegiance to the British monarchy. Finkle-Mcgraw is an equity lord, meaning that he had a share in the profits of the phyle. This whole construct seems like the kind of thing that would be completely unworkable in reality, but in the book, the Vickys are portrayed as being the phyle you definitely want to be in.
Stephenson’s portrayal of the Neo-Victorians, is definitely what struck me the most on my first read through of Diamond Age, however many years ago. In particular this idea that the tribe holding to traditional values and historical norms would end up being clearly the best tribe. This was in stark contrast to most of the science fiction I had read before, or since in which traditional values either don’t make an appearance or are brought on the stage solely for the purpose of demonstrating how much better future values are, and if the author can throw in some mockery of traditional values, so much the better. But in Diamond Age these values were not only present, they provided a competitive advantage!
It’s tempting to take the next step and hold this up as a broader vindication of tradition, but I’m sure if I did people would hasten to point out that this is fiction, and there are no rules that because something happened in a novel that the chances of it happening in reality are thereby increased. Still, if they’re going to be engaging, the best novels have to reflect at least some reality, and I think that’s precisely what Stephenson has done.
Speaking of reality, and as something of a tangent, one question that occurs after reading Diamond Age, and other Stephenson novels, is where do his political sympathies lie? After his latest novel, Fall (which I reviewed here) featured a whole subplot about internet extremism among (very) fundamental Christians I saw several people asserting that he was obviously very liberal, and if not, then at least very disgusted with Trump. That may be so, but I find it hard to believe that someone could write so eloquently on the subject of traditional norms and customs without having some recognition of their power.
Also to tie it back into the discussion here’s what Finkle-McGraw thinks about culture.
[He] began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgement, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.
I’ll leave it to you to decide how much overlap Finkle-McGraw’s view of culture has with Stephenson’s. Also it should be noted that when he’s speaking of “those days” he’s basically talking about our own time (or at least the 1990’s when the book was written). It would be hard to read that section without immediately following it up with the question of what, exactly, makes one culture better than another? And by making the Vickys the most enviable phyle, Stephenson appears to answer that at least part of it is due to their embrace of traditional norms and customs.
In the novel (and in reality?) it’s because of the unity such an embrace provides. A unity that is greater because membership in a phyle is clearly something people have to work for. Not something which happens automatically as an accident of birth (though clearly that has some influence). This makes the phyles of Diamond Age much closer to religions than would be typical for a modern nation. Though as Samual Huntington argues in his work on civilizations you can’t have a civilization without a religion, and that historically the two have been tied together much more closely than they are now. Beyond the specific appeal of the Neo-Victorians, I also find the idea of nations with much tighter ideological bonds very appealing, particularly these days. (And it strongly resembles the proposal of an ideological archipelago proposed by Scott Alexander.)
As you might imagine unity is not the only thing the Vickys have going for them. They’ve combined this unity with immense scientific and engineering prowess as well. It should be obvious that this is a powerful combination, but Stephenson doesn’t handwave it into existence, rather he makes the difficulty of maintaining both of these qualities at the same time one of the central themes of the book, going so far as to have one character, the delightful Miss Matheson, point out that, “It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together…” (A point I also made in a previous post.) If this is the case how is it done? I’ll allow Miss Matheson to once again provide the answer:
It is upon moral qualities that a society is ultimately founded. All the prosperity and technological sophistication in the world is of no use without that foundation—we learned this in the late twentieth century, when it became unfashionable to teach these things.
I can imagine many people disagreeing with this statement, particularly coming from the mouth of a fictional character, in a book written 25 years, ago, but if so perhaps you will find less to object to in another statement from Miss Matheson:
Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all that they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.
If you disagree with a foundation of morality I hope you can at least be persuaded that most people would like to preserve what they have built and the things that they have learned. Certainly binding together into a culture is one way of trying to ensure that, but how do you then go on to preserve the subsequent cultural repository? If you’re the Vicky’s how do you maintain unity and technological progress? And more broadly how do you maintain anything at all?
A large part of the problem comes from the fact that the people creating the culture are different from the people living within the culture. It’s made clear in the book that many of the most ardent Neo-Victorians embraced the phyle as a rescue or a correction (or a reaction?) to the licentiousness that surrounded them when they were growing up. But having rejected promiscuity, the last thing they’re going to do is expose their children to it, meaning that people born into the culture won’t have the opportunity to replicate the conditions which lead to the creation of the culture in the first place. The book is initially driven by Finkle-McGraw’s attempt to overcome that problem. Which he does by engaging a young engineer, named Hackworth. Despite its length their initial conversation is worth repeating:
Finkle-McGraw: Tell me, were your parents subjects, or did you take the Oath?
Hackworth: As soon as I turned twenty-one, sir. Her Majesty—at that time, actually, she was still Her Royal Highness—was touring North America, prior to her enrollment at Stanford, and I took the Oath at Trinity Church in Boston.
Hackworth: I knew two kinds of discipline as a child: none at all, and too much. The former leads to degenerate behavior… My life was [also] not without periods of excessive, unreasoning discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for the laxity in the first place. That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.”
Finkle-McGraw: Well done, Hackworth! But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.
Hackworth: We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised that era.
Finkle-McGraw: Have we then? How reassuring. And have we resolved them in a way that all of those children down there live interesting lives?
Finkle-McGraw somewhat euphemistically uses the term “interesting” as a catch-all for the many things which drove him and Hackworth to be Neo-Victorians, and which create success and character in general. But regardless of the culture or in the case of the book, the phyle, maintaining the culture that got you to where you are is a constant problem and nowhere more so than right now.
These days, there are many people who view progress as something of an unstoppable force, or at least an inevitability, and if that’s the case then nothing I say will matter in the slightest. And it would be nice if this were so, but I would hope that something like the coronavirus at least engenders some doubt that things will be quite so smooth. If lines at Costco and the price of gold are any indication it certainly appears that way. (If you’re interested in my take on things, I’m not sure I have much to add, but I’m sure it will form the subject for my personal life section when I do the next book review post.)
As I have repeatedly indicated I am not so sanguine about the future. I think that getting to where we are was a massive effort that built on centuries of trial and error, and yes also a significant amount of morality. That we seem to be abandoning many of the things which got us here without really considering whether they might have been important (i.e. Chesterton’s Fence). That not only are we not making life “interesting” for our kids but that many of us are declining to have kids at all.
Ultimately as Miss Matheson says, it’s a question of survival and propagation. We’ve reached a point where there are no barbarians at the gate and where the idea that there might ever be barbarians is scoffed at. And maybe there won’t be, maybe the barbarians are all gone, and no effort is required to keep civilization going or make the lives of children interesting. But even in the absence of barbarians, I feel positive that some effort is nevertheless required to maintain civilization. That in the end certain traditional standards, standards which got us to where we are will also end up being critical to keeping us where we are.
Somewhat unconnected to the topic, while I was writing this I experienced my first earthquake (magnitude 5.7). I try to neither overreact or underreact, but I’ll tell from an eschatological perspective having an earthquake in the middle of a plague is a bad omen. If you were thinking of donating, then this might be the time to do it, after all you never know when the world might end.