Book Reports

I’m just about halfway through Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Insanely great. What can you say about a writer who notices that the standard Chairman Mao picture shows the Buddha’s evil twin?

The Diamond Age is more like Cryptonomicon than it is like Snow Crash: panoramic and cast-of-thousands, after the manner of War and Peace, rather than character-focused like Tom Jones.

Stephenson’s take on the Victorians is the same as mine: they were weird and scary, all right, but they knew some things we’ve found it was dangerous to forget. If you like the riff on hypocrisy as much as I did, you’ll want to read the corresponding chapter in Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices, which seems to be its source. And the update on Judge Dee is utterly wonderful, with the Confucian classics given loving attention.

This wasn’t planned as nanotech week on my reading list, but I also just finished Prey. Someone told me that Crichton used to be better as a novelist, which I hope is true: compared to the artistry of The Diamond Age, Prey is just hackwork. But it’s an interesting meditation on the convergence of nanotechnology with agent-based programming; I’d need an expert to tell me how much of it is more or less accurate, but it sure sounds convincing.

One advantage of reading science fiction is that it forces you to confront the fact that the future will be unlike the past due to things you’re barely aware of. Of course, nanotech might turn out to be mostly a mirage, as fusion power has (so far) turned out to be. But if not, it looks like the biggest revolution in materials technology since the beginning of the Bronze Age, and it’s not hard to imagine it bringing about changes as fundamental as those now being brought about by information technology. Interesting times.