What on earth did I just read? It was a sci-fi book for sure, but beyond that...what? Okay, okay, I'll give it to you: I'm not the world's biggest sci-fi fan. I don't typically seek out sci-fi books. But I've read quite a few from various places along the spectrum that I quite liked. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can say that The Diamond Age was one of them. Because here's the thing: there's not really a plot in this book until the last 20% and by that time I was so uninvested in the characters and world, having been boredly trucking along for the past 400 pages, that I didn't really care about what happened to them when the plot finally emerged.
The book starts with a character called Bud, who isn't at all important, so don't worry about him. Ultimately the people you have to worry about are Hackworth, a nanotechnology guru, and Nell, a young girl who inadvertently ends up with one of Hackworth's creations, an intelligent "book" called The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer that adjusts to her and teaches her everything from reading to self-defense. This could be some sort of bildungsroman, featuring Nell as the character coming of age, but it was really too scattered to be that in a convincing way, and then Stephenson tried to shoehorn in a plot about Feeds and Seeds and a revolution in what we know as China that just felt strange.
Ultimately, what this book felt like was that Stephenson wanted to build a cool world, but then he didn't know what to do about it. Why are white people suddenly grouped together in a "phyle" named for Atlantis when everyone else gets their own group based on their old ethnicity or nationality? What's up with all the body mods? Why on earth did those nanites or whatever they're called have to be transmitted through bodily fluids? Clearly they didn't have to be, we certainly saw enough that weren't, and Stephenson was apparently just figuring out a way to put some orgies and spontaneous combustion into his book. (No, I am not kidding.) Miranda was cool, and admirable, but what the heck was up with the Drummers? That didn't make any sense at all. This book read like some sort of bizarre fever dream, and one that probably would have been better off left in the world of sleep. Like a dream, there were so many parts that could have been very intriguing, but it jumped from place to place on the most tenuous connection and just ended up feeling scattered and like Stephenson just made stuff up as he went along instead of thinking how it could all ultimately be connected--and then, when he needed a way to connect it, threw in a revolution, because hey, why not?
This was the August book for The Deliberate Reader's book club, and seems to have baffled many of the readers teeing it up, including the book club founder herself. Indeed, the book does have remarkably high reviews given how absolutely schizoid it is; apparently a lot of people found the end worth the read, but there was nothing there that surprised me or made me think that the final events redeemed the rest of the book.
1.5 to 2 stars out of 5, for its potential and the actual stories about Princess Nell in the primer. The main book was junk.