Race and Gender in The Diamond Age

Author/Epic Beard Man Neal Stephenson wishes to announce: *Spoiler Alert*

“The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations – in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” — Constable Moore, The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson’s 1995 science fiction classic, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, blew me away when I first read it as an idealistic NOC-in-training. I interpreted it as a heartwarming coming-of-age story about a down-and-out little girl named Nell who stumbled upon a copy of the Primer, a multi-disciplinary interactive textbook designed to train an upper-class girl to adulthood. She saves herself and the world through what she learns from the Primer. Girl power! The end!

It turns out, upon a recent re-reading, that I failed to recognize about ten other layers of the onion, all of them much heavier than the idea of an interactive book for girls. There is Stephenson’s grim portrayal of the future of China, for one, as well as his prediction that the boundary lines between people will not be drawn on a geographic plane, but rather by culture, and people will form tribes based on race, religion, or other creeds.

The middle of the onion is a conflict between two major tribes: the Neo-Victorians of New Atlantis, a steampunk’s fantasy society where Victorian dress and decorum is interlaced with advanced nanotechnology, and the Confucians of the Celestial Kingdom, where Confucian ethics still prevail in the court system but every other realm is crime-ridden and corrupt.

Both cultures suffer from extreme class divides and also have inadvertently crippled themselves by raising generations of obedient civil servants but very few true innovators. However, the Neo-Victorians have the distinct upper hand as the inventors and hoarders of nanotechnology. Even their lowest class citizenry have access to free (albeit artificially created) food through proprietary matter compilers called the Feed, whereas millions of Han Chinese are starving from a dust bowl and do not have access to the Feed. This conflict results in a future-set reenactment of the Boxer Rebellion, where the Fists of Righteous Harmony, an extreme wing of the Confucian phyle, rise up against the foreign devil, only this time it’s the Feed instead of opium and Christianity.

Credit: David Tanimura

I originally believed that Stephenson’s intended moral of the story aligned with the philosophies of the Primer itself, which was designed by a Neo-Victorian of Korean American descent who wanted to instill in his granddaughter a spirit of subversion in a society that is slowly choking on its too-rigid code of morals and manners.

However, there are several examples throughout the book that show that maybe Stephenson does buy into the idea that — albeit far from perfect — Western thought is superior to Eastern (and other cultures’) thought.

Taking my cue from this essay’s opening quote, the characters and plot points that seemed conveniently one-dimensional always came from the Confucian side, and that makes me suspicious. Although some of the book’s most likeable characters are Chinese — and some of its most atrocious characters were white — Stephenson’s default minority character is rough-hewn: alien, inscrutable, most likely corrupt, and untrustworthy. You never get to know a member of the Fists; they remain a faceless terrorist horde all throughout the book. Even their converse, the heroic Mouse Army, are also faceless and voiceless, always in a group and at times frighteningly self-negating. And don’t get me started on the token Africans.

I will, however, grant Stephenson brownie points for still managing to be charming while perpetuating somewhat tired tropes of Asian thought:

“For centuries, since the time of the Opium Wars, we have struggled to absorb the yong of technology without importing the Western ti. But it has been impossible… When our society was based upon planting, it could truly be said, as the Master did, ‘Virtue is the root; wealth is the result.’ But under the Western ti, wealth comes not from virtue but from cleverness. So the filial relationships become deranged. Chaos,” Dr. X said regretfully, then looked up from his tea and nodded out the window. “Parking lots and chaos.”

The real-life Huxin Ting Teahouse in Shanghai, where a pivotal scene from the book takes place.

Another disturbing trend I noticed was the glorification of the suffering of the underprivileged female. The Neo-Victorian privileged granddaughter did not quite turn out as her grandfather desired, but poor, abused, and neglected Nell did, forged in the fires of adversity:

“To the other girls, the wall is a decorative feature, no? A pretty thing to run into and explore. But not to Nell. Nell knows what a wall is. It is a knowledge that went into her early, knowledge she doesn’t have to think about. Nell is more interested in gates than in walls. Secret hidden gates are particularly interesting.”

That’s all well and good, but Nell, her brother, and her drug-addicted mother had to go through a hundred pages of beatings, molestation, and neglect just to prove his point. And on top of all this, rape was used as a plot device multiple times, as if that was the only possible way some female characters could find the strength to rise up and do extraordinary things, or in one case, exist at all.

However, therein lies my cognitive dissonance: despite these flaws, I enjoy the hell out of this book. The world Stephenson creates is fascinating and memorable, his mixture of elaborate prose, dry humor, and geekiness outshine the unsavory parts for me, and I still consider it one of my favorite works of science fiction/fantasy. How do I get past all these blights to my feminist and minority sensibilities? In a word: Nell. She is too compelling a heroine to dismiss.

In simple peasant clothes streaked with the blood of herself and of others, broken shackles dangling from her wrists, followed by her generals and ministers, walked the barbarian Princess with her book and her sword.


Cognitive Dissonance is an ongoing feature that explores all the nerdy media that we both hate to love, and love to hate.

For another Boxer Rebellion coming-of-age tale, check out National Book Award finalist Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang.

One thought on “Race and Gender in The Diamond Age

  1. Thanks for the writeup! I really used to love Neal Stephenson, particularly around the Snow Crash – Diamond Age – Cryptonomicon time, but his tendency toward a weird obsession with various forms of racial-essentialism has just gotten too creepy to ignore.

Comments are closed.