Bang! It’s another Neal Stephenson.
This one’s a beautiful melange of cyber and steampunk. Steamberpunk. Cybeampunk. Umm…
Anyway…In the not too too distant future, the nation state is dead and gone. In its place we have ‘phyles’ – a new take on geocultural societies. Two of the three largest are fairly analogous to Japan and China. The third, which gives the novel a delightful steampunk vibe, is the anglophone, neo-victorian New Atlantis, which exists in populous scattered enclaves around the world.
The novel starts with the creation of an interactive primer designed to aid the upbringing of young ladies — to inculcate intelligence, creativity and outside the box thinking, and diverse talents of inestimable value. A copy of this otherwise unique, intricate, and amazingly valuable book (through a sequence of unlikely events) falls into the hands of young Nell, a penniless, phyle-less girl in a broken and abusive home. A large part of the novel details her growing up and the effect that the primer has on that process. The primer is basically an immersive novel, in which Nell plays the protagonist. She navigates from plot point to plot point (in what is a folk-lore/fairy tale/fantasy world) implicitly learning all sorts of things (including martial arts, deep philosophy, and complex programing skills) as she solves the problems that the story presents her with.
Many of the characters in the primer’s world are simulated with the aid of a professional ‘ractor’, Miranda. Nell and Miranda are anonymous to one another, but a relationship of sorts develops between them. The events in the primer mirror those in Nell’s real life, and Miranda is able to subtly influence Nell to escape her physically abusive home (this bit was gorgeously written by Stephenson. He captured both characters’ voices perfectly, and his depiction of Nell being beaten was deeply affecting). She leaves and eventually finds her way to the neo-Victorians, where she continues to be brought up by some amongst the upperclass of that phyle.
The other main strand of the novel deals with the adventures of John Percival Hackworth, the designer of the primer. His attempts to reclaim the book bring him into contact with nefarious elements and end with him falling deep into the underground where he is instrumental in creating a new kind of nano-tech matter creation technology (oh yeah – there’s a centrally controlled system of nanotech-based matter creation, which lets anyone create simple items including foodstuffs. So, no one starves, though people are still poor. The wealthy neo-Victorians have a large amount of power over this system.). In parallel with this is the fomentation of a rebellion amongst the Chinese phyles (most of the events of the book happen in the environs of Shanghai). The book concludes with a mass uprising, which results in the demise of the West-emulating Chinese Coastal Republic, and the ascent of the Confucian Celestial Kingdom, supported by the invention of this new, decentralised nano-tech matter compiling system. Of course, all of the major characters are swept up in this and it’s all terribly exciting (one particularly memorable event in the midst of all this excitement is an instance of rape, which is depicted in a most peculiarly cerebral way).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I loved it. The primer allows all sorts of delightful allegorical story within story shenanigans, and Stephenson fills the book with the morally grounded and intellectually exciting big idea stuff that I have come to expect from him (lots of subtle and not so subtle ponderings on culture, morality, economics, pedagogy, artificial intelligence, and science of various stripes). Probably the most exciting aspect of the book (at least for me), is the primer. I don’t know much about his influences here, but it feels like he’s created a whole new (albeit futurist) model of education. I would love to read a paper talking about this from an actual pedagogical/theory of education standpoint (I could be biased here as I’m currently in the middle of a postgraduate course on teaching and learning…).