From image to imagination: The Diamond Age

by ninashiel

I have just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Due to my topic and his subject matters, Stephenson is one of the key authors whose texts I look at in my research. As I deal with literary representations of virtual worlds, obviously, William Gibson is another, and Charles Stross is working hard in becoming the third, with others featuring here and there. I was very disappointed with Stephenson’s latest, REAMDE, as a text, as I don’t think it does in any way justice to his abilities as a writer. The Diamond Age I overall enjoyed, although I didn’t find it to be without issue.

It could be a sequel to Snow Crash, in that it, too, postulates a future society, in which current states have become  fragmented along social or ethnic divisions. These ‘tribes’ seem to operate a lot like the ‘burbclaves in Snow Crash, with their independent geographical areas. Rather than West Coast US, the events take place mostly on the East coast of what is currently China. The tribes also seem to operate much like social classes, or castes, in that the people of the lowest class, known as ‘thetes’ don’t seem to form a tribe of their own, at least formally. In their case, I was reminded of the ‘livers’ of Nancy Kress’ Beggars series. There is a lot of material in sci-fi dealing with class that could benefit from a closer examination, I suspect, especially taking into account Darko Suvin’s inspiring notion that any science fiction in actual fact deals with the questions and issues of the present.

With The Diamond Age, I was interested in seeing how the visuals of the virtual were handled here. In this text, there is no global information network as such; the network that is there, known as ‘The Feed’ and its Sources, is concerned with the material rather information. The Feed and the machines known as matter compilers enable construction of food, water, clothes, furniture and most other things humans might need apparently from nothing. The easy availability of basic needs was another reminder of the Beggars series – in both cases, this does little to tighten the class divide.

The virtual is here represented as ‘ractives’ – immersive interactive entertainment, basically like films with preset scripts and roles, but which can be actively participated. Professionals in the field are known as ‘ractors’. Typically, a non-professional viewer/experiencer pays for a ‘role’ in a performance/scripted role-play, in which many, if not all, other roles are allocated to professional ractors or automatons. The ractive technology features in the central motif of the text, a book titled A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which ends up in the hands of a little thete girl called Nell and which tells her life story as it happens by means of fantastic and fairy tale analogy. As Nell first learns to read and then keeps reading her own life story, she sees the immersive images of the book take place around her.

I became very interested in what this has to say about the reader/text/imag(e/ination) relationship. I suspect that a thorough examination of this would offer enough material at least for one paper, if not for part of my thesis. At the moment, I don’t have a sufficient theoretical grounding in reader-response criticism to make even preliminary comments, but it seems to me that Iser in particular would be useful here. I will definitely be looking into it. Nell is in constant dialogue with her book, and due to its technological nature, both she and the book can respond and adjusts to each other. She fills gaps in the story with her imagination and moves the narrative onwards from her own part. As she shapes the story in the book, she is also inspired by the events of the story to follow them in her own life, and thus to make her imagination reality.

One of the many pleasures of my (and any, I guess) research project is when your specific research focus brings in material from another area in an unexpected but clearly related way. I look forward to poking all this in more detail.