"The hour of noon has passed," said Judge Fang. "Let us go and get some Kentucky Fried Chicken."
Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is probably his most frustrating work for me. Some passages are his most beautiful and touching, but at its finale, I want to throw the book against the wall. Published after Snow Crash, it cemented his reputation as a cyberpunk author with its advanced societies, matter compilers, and emphasis on nanotechnology. It deftly balances a few parallel plots as it explores, among other things, cultural clashes—with Dr. Fang represent ing the Leased Territories and Confucionism and Hackworth the neo-Victorianism—and the use of technology in education. Anyone who has read Snow Crash will recognize the advanced states of the Franchise Nations as even an aged Y.T. makes an appearance.
The Diamond Age also has some amazingly deep passages that are almost a shock coming so soon after the hypercharged Snow Crash, and while they might get lost in all the technological wonders, presage his work in Cryptonomicona and The Baroque Cycle. The relationship between Nell and her brother Bud is probably his most fully realized emotional relationship (followed by Nell and the book).
But something happens at the end that I just don't get. I read this about once a year trying to figure out what happens; I've read numerous explanations, I've tried and tried...it just doesn't make any sense. So I've given up trying. I'll still read it for its many beautiful passages and humorous Stephenson touches, I just won't throw it against the wall when I close the back cover. I found a slashdot post that does valiantly tries to explain the ending, and while I don't disagree with it it still doesn't explain the drummers (caution: that link has many spoilers). Maybe it's time to try again.
The obvious excerpt would be a Nell passage or one of the nano passages alluding to the setting's technology. Instead, I think the chapter that introduces Miranda and explains the entertainment of ractives does a good job of revealing the flavor of the novel's science and societies without getting down and dirty in geeky tech.
Before the Europeans got their hooks into it, Shanghai had been a walled village on the Huang Pu River, a few miles south of its confluence with the estuary of the Yangtze. Much of the architecture was very sophisticated Ming Dynasty stuff, private gardens for rich families, a shopping street here and there concealing interior slums, a rickety, vertiginous teahouse rising from an island in the center of a pond. More recently the wall had been torn down and a sort of beltway built on its foundations. The old French concession wrapped around the north side, and in that neighborhood, on a corner looking across the ring road into the old city, the Theatre Parnasse had been constructed during the late 1800s. Miranda had been working there for five years, but the experience had been so intense that it often seemed more like five days.
The Parnasse had been built by Europeans back when they were serious and unapologetic about their Europeanness. The facade was classical: a three-quarter-round portico on the streetcorner, supported by Corinthian columns, all done in white limestone. The portico was belted by a white marquee, circa 1990, outlined by tubes of purple and pink neon. It would have been easy enough to tear it off and replace it with something mediatronic, but they enjoyed hauling the bamboo ladders out from the set shop and snapping the black plastic letters into place, advertising whatever they were doing tonight. Sometimes they would lower the big mediatronic screen and show movies, and Westerners would come from all over Greater Shanghai, dressed up in their tuxedos and evening gowns, and sit in the dark watching Casablanca or Dances With Wolves. And at least twice a month, the Parnasse Company would actually get out on stage and do it: become actors rather than ractors for a night, lights and greasepaint and costumes. The hard part was indoctrinating the audience; unless they were theatre buffs, they always wanted to run up on stage and interact, which upset the whole thing. Live theatre was an ancient and peculiar taste, roughly on par with listening to Gregorian chants, and it didn't pay the bills. They paid the bills with ractives.
The building was tall and narrow, making the most of precious Shanghai real estate, so the proscenium had a nearly square aspect ratio, like an old-fashioned television. Above it was the bust of some forgotten French actress, supported on gilt wings, flanked by angels brandishing trumpets and laurel wreaths. The ceiling was a circular fresco depicting Muses disporting themselves in flimsy robes. A chandelier hung from the center; its incandescent bulbs had been replaced by new things that didn't burn out, and now it cast light evenly onto the rows of tiny, creaking seats closely packed together on the main floor. There were three balconies and three stories of private boxes, two on the left side and two on the right side of each level. The fronts of the boxes and balconies were all painted with tableaux from classical mythology, the predominant color there as elsewhere being a highly French robin's-egg blue.
The theatre was crammed with plasterwork, so that the faces of cherubs, overwrought Roman gods, impassioned Trojans, and such were always poking out of columns and soffits and cornices, catching you by surprise. Much of this work was spalled from bullets fired by high-spirited Red Guards during Cultural Revolution times. Other than the bullet holes, the Parnasse was in decent shape, though sometime in the twentieth century great blackiron pipes had been anchored vertically alongside the boxes and horizontally before the balconies so that spotlights could be bolted on. Nowadays the spotlights were coin-size disks– phased-array devices that carried their own batteries– and could be stuck up anywhere and controlled by radio. But the pipes were still there and always required a lot of explaining when tourists came through.
Each of the twelve boxes had its own door, and a curtain rail curving around the front so that the occupants could get some privacy between acts. They'd mothballed the curtains and replaced them with removable soundproof screens, unbolted the seats, and stored them in the basement. Now each box was a private egg-shaped room just the right size to serve as a body stage. These twelve stages generated seventy-five percent of the cash flow of the Theatre Parnasse.
Miranda always checked into her stage half an hour early to run a diagnostic on her tat grid. The 'sites didn't last forever– static electricity or cosmic rays could knock them out, and if you let your instrument go to pot out of sheer laziness, you didn't deserve to call yourself a ractor.
Miranda had decorated the dead walls of her own stage with posters and photos of role models, largely actresses from twentieth-century passives. She had a chair in 'the corner for roles that involved sitting down. There was also a tiny coffee table where she set down her triple latte, a two-liter bottle of mineral water, and a box of throat lozenges. Then she peeled down to a black leotard and tights, hanging her street clothes on a tree by the door. Another ractor might have gone nude, worn street clothes, or tried to match her costume to the role she'd be playing, if she were lucky enough to know in advance. At the moment, though, Miranda never knew. She had standing bids on Kate in the ractive version of Taming of the Shrew (which was a butcherous kludge, but popular among a certain sort of male user); Scarlett O'Hara in the ractive Gone With the Wind; a double agent named Ilse in an espionage thriller set on a train passing through Nazi Germany; and Rhea, a neo-Victorian damsel in distress in Silk Road, an adventure-comedy-romance ractive set on the wrong side of contemporary Shanghai. She'd created that role. After the good review had come in ("a remarkably Rhea-listic portrayal by newcomer Miranda Redpath!") she had played little else for a couple of months, even though her bid was so steep that most users opted for one of the understudies or contented themselves with watching passively for one-tenth the price. But the distributor had botched the PR targeting when they tried to take it beyond the Shanghai market, and so now Silk Road was in limbo while various heads rolled.
Four leading roles was about as many as she could keep in her head at once. The prompter made it possible to play any role without having seen it before, if you didn't mind making an ass of yourself. But Miranda had a reputation now and couldn't get away with shoddy work. To fill in the blanks when things got slow, she also had standing bids, under another name, for easier work: mostly narration jobs, plus anything having to do with children's media.
She didn't have any kids of her own, but she still corresponded with the ones she'd taken care of during her governess days. She loved racting with children, and besides it was good exercise for the voice, saying those silly little rhymes just right. "Practice Kate from Shrew," she said, and the Miranda-shaped constellation was replaced by a dark-haired woman with green, feline eyes, dressed in some costume designer's concept of what a rich woman in the Italian Renaissance would be likely to wear. Miranda had large bunny eyes while Kate had cat eyes, and cat eyes were used differently from bunny eyes, especially when delivering a slashing witticism. Carl Hollywood, the company's founder and dramaturge, who'd been sitting in passively on her Shrews, had suggested that she needed more work in this area. Not many payers enjoyed Shakespeare or even knew who he was, but the ones who did tended to be very high on the income scale and worth catering to. Usually this kind of argument had no effect on Miranda, but she'd been finding that some of these (rich sexist snob asshole) gentlemen were remarkably good ractors. And any professional could tell you that it was a rare pleasure to ract with a payer who knew what he was doing.
. . .The Shift comprised the Prime Times for London, the East Coast, and the West Coast. In Greenwich Time, it started around nine P.M., when Londoners were finishing dinner and looking for entertainment, and wound up about seven A.M., when Californians were going to bed. No matter what time zones they actually lived in, all ractors tried to work during those hours. In Shanghai's time zone, The Shift ran from about five A.M. to midafternoon, and Miranda didn't mind doing overtime if some well-heeled Californian wanted to stretch a ractive late into the night. Some of the ractors in her company didn't come in until later in the day, but Miranda still had dreams of living in London and craved attention from that city's sophisticated payers. So she always came to work early.
When she finished her warmups and went on, she found a bid already waiting for her. The casting agent, which was a semiautonomous piece of software, had assembled a company of nine payers, enough to ract all the guest roles in First Class to Geneva, which was about intrigue among rich people on a train in Nazi-occupied France, and which was to ractives what The Mousetrap was to passive theatre. It was an ensemble piece: nine guest roles to be assumed by payers, three somewhat larger and more glamorous host roles to be assumed by payees like Miranda. One of the characters was, unbeknownst to the others, an Allied spy.
Another was a secret colonel in the SS, another was secretly Jewish, another was a Cheka agent. Sometimes there was a German trying to defect to the Allied side. But you never knew which was which when the ractive started up; the computer switched all the roles around at random.
It paid well because of the high payer/payee ratio. Miranda provisionally accepted the bid. One of the other host roles hadn't been filled yet, so while she waited, she bid and won a filler job. The computer morphed her into the face of an adorable young woman whose face and hair looked typical of what was current in London at the moment; she wore the uniform of a British Airways ticket agent. "Good evening, Mr. Oremland," she gushed, reading the prompter. The computer disped it into an even perkier voice and made subtle corrections in her accent.
"Good evening, er, Margaret," said the jowly Brit staring out of a pane on her mediatron. He was wearing half-glasses, had to squint to make out her nametag. His tie was loose on his chest, a gin and tonic in one hairy fist, and he liked the looks of this Margaret. Which was almost guaranteed, since Margaret had been morphed up by a marketing computer in London that knew more about this gentleman's taste in girlflesh than he would like to think.
"Six months without a vacation!? How boring," Miranda/Margaret said. "You must be doing something terribly important," she continued, facetious without being mean, the two of them sharing a little joke.
"Yes, I suppose even making lots of money does become boring after a while," the man returned, in much the same tone.
Miranda glanced over at the casting sheet for First Class to Geneva. She'd be pissed if this Mr. Oremland got overly talkative and forced her to pass on the bigger role. Though he did seem a reasonably clever sort. "You know, it's a fine time to visit Atlantan West Africa, and the airship Gold Coast is scheduled to depart in two weeks– shall I book a stateroom for you? And a companion perhaps?"
Mr. Oremland seemed iffy. "Call me old-fashioned," he said, "but when you say Africa, I think AIDS and parasites."
"Oh, not in West Africa, sir, not in the new colonies. Would you like a quick tour?"
Mr. Oremland gave Miranda/Margaret one long, searching, horny look, sighed, checked his watch, and seemed to remember that she was an imaginary being. "Thank you just the same," he said, and cut her off. Just in time too; the playbill for Geneva had just filled up. Miranda only had a few seconds to switch contexts and get herself into the character of Ilse before she found herself sitting in a first-class coach of a midtwentieth-century passenger train, staring into the mirror at a blond, blue-eyed, high-cheekboned ice queen.
Unfolded on her dressing-table was a letter written in Yiddish. So tonight she was the secret Jew. She tore the letter into tiny pieces and fed them out her window, then did the same with a couple of Stars of David that she rooted out of her jewelry case.
This thing was fully ractive, and there was nothing to prevent other characters from breaking into her coach and going through her possessions. Then she finished putting on her makeup and choosing her outfit, and went to the dining car for dinner. Most of the other characters were already in here. The nine amateurs were stiff and stilted as usual, the two other professionals were circulating among them, trying to loosen them up, break through that self-consciousness and get them into their characters.
Geneva ended up dragging on for a good three hours. It was nearly ruined by one of the payers, who had clearly signed up exclusively for the purpose of maneuvering Ilse into bed. He turned out to be the secret SS colonel too; but he was so hell-bent on fucking Ilse that he spent the whole evening out of character. Finally Miranda lured him into the kitchen in the back of the dining car, shoved a foot-long butcher knife into his chest, and left him in the fridge. She had played this role a couple of hundred times and knew the location of every potentially lethal object on the train.
After a ractive it was considered good form to go to the Green Room, a virtual pub where you could chat out-of-character with the other ractors. Miranda skipped it because she knew that the creep would be waiting for her there.
Next was a lull of an hour or so. Primetime in London was over, and New Yorkers were still eating dinner. Miranda went to the bathroom, ate a little snack, and picked up a few kiddy jobs. Kids on the West Coast were getting back from school and jumping right 'into the high-priced educational ractives that their parents made available to them. These things created a plethora of extremely short but fun roles; in quick succession, Miranda's face was morphed into a duck, a bunny, a talking tree, the eternally elusive Carmen Sandiego, and the repulsively cloying Doogie the Dinosaur. Each of them got a couple of lines at most:
"That's right! B stands for balloon! I like to play with balloons, don't you, Matthew?"
"Sound it out, Victoria! You can do it!"
"Soldier ants have larger and stronger jaws than their worker counterparts and play a key role in defending the nest from predators."
"Please don't throw me into that briar patch, Br'er Fox!"
"Hello, Roberta! I've been missing you all day. How was your field trip to Disneyland?"
"Twentieth-century airships were filled with flammable hydrogen, expensive helium, or inefficient hot air, but our modern versions are filled literally with nothing at all. High-strength nanostructures make it possible to pump all the air from an airship's envelope and fill it with a vacuum. Have you ever been on an airship, Thomas?"