Lost in Space:

Geographies of Science Fiction

eds. R. Kitchin and J. Kneal (London: Continuum, 2002)

Chapter THREE

Geography’s conquest of history

in The Diamond Age

Michael Longan and Tim Oakes

Most of my geography I have learned as a byproduct of reading about history Neal Stephenson (1996) In The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson envisions a post-nation-state world of the future, where countless fragmentations of cultural identity differentiate humanity into spatially discrete tribal zones. Identity has become entirely spatialized, rendering its historical basis—that is, the experiences that generate a ‘collective memory’ for a community—into a de-contextualized montage of nostalgia. Stephenson writes a world where history has been conquered by geography. In the absence of an historical narrative from which to derive one’s subjectivity, identity is instead self-consciously constructed by adopting the ready-made form of a particular cultural group. Indeed, one can join the cultural group of one’s choice simply by taking an oath, acquiring the selected dress and manners of the group, and living in the space they have carved out as their own. History, then, becomes little more than a resource for borrowed cultural traits that are mapped onto discrete territories.

Yet, there is a dramatic unevenness to Stephenson’s future world. Three ‘first-tier phyles’ (‘New Atlantis,’ ‘Nippon,’ and ‘Han’) and hundreds of lesser tribes have taken the place of the defunct nation-states, but differential control of information technology and, more specifically microscopic ‘nanotechnology,’ among the phyles and tribes has resulted in striking social differences. For those who control technology, time has been mastered and history reduced to heritage. Indeed, history becomes a toy to be played with by the members of New Atlantis, who call themselves Victorians and adopt the trappings of nineteenth century elite English society. Those who do not control technology continue to struggle over history as they endeavor to arrest the ever-widening techno-gap between rich and poor. A more sinister history continues to haunt the less fortunate parts of the world, like China (the Han phyle), where the events of the novel actually take place. Here, historical ruptures and revolutions have a habit of reappearing like apparitions that have not yet been laid to rest. Thus, many of the key experiences that defined China’s violent nineteenth and twentieth century struggles to reinvent itself as a modern nation-state in the face of Western hegemony, find themselves oddly echoed in the future-China conceived by Stephenson. In China, then, history appears ‘trapped’ in a seemingly endless pattern of recycling—a recycling driven by the deep structure of China’s timeless cultural geography.

Thus, history is not only conquered by geography in terms of identity and subjectivity, but also in broader social and cultural terms. China’s history is trapped by a highly mobile geography of power, expressed in the form of nanotech-wielding phyles. The relationship of technological dependency that exists between the bulk of the Han and the Atlanteans and Nipponese is mirrored by their relationships to time and space. Whereas the most powerful phyles have freed themselves from the modernist teleology of history, and are no longer territorially bound (being able to simply create new utopian offshore islands on which to live), most of the Chinese remain territorially bound and weighted down by their cultural geography, living in an impoverished ‘Celestial Kingdom.’ Their continuing struggle with foreign power recycles a familiar discourse in China’s encounter with modernity: the contradiction between the need for technology and the need for cultural authenticity.

Into such a world, Stephenson introduces an interloping story-teller in the form of an interactive cyberbook—The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer—an agent of narrative which allows its readers to (story)tell themselves into subjectness. While the Primer serves to mobilize an alternative process of subject-formation in the novel’s protagonist, named Nell, it also proves subversive to larger social conditions as well. For, the Primer is the prototype for the Seed, a new kind of technology with the potential to profoundly destabilize the unevenness that dominates Stephenson’s world. Yet, although the Primer represents a kind of liberating technology for those who have invested themselves in its creation and acquisition, the subjectivity narrated for Nell—its chief user—is ultimately a subversive force that disrupts even the intentions of those who seek to use if for liberating purposes. Stephenson thus ends the novel not by affirming the liberating potential of new forms of technology, but reaffirming the importance of recognizing the subject that strives for freedom and subverts all forms of instrumental rationality towards which technological ‘liberation’ so often leads.

Stephenson’s immensely creative novel offers a story about the disequilibrium between space and time, about reconstituting subjectivity in a world where geography has conquered history, and about the importance of narrative in the creation of subject positions. In this chapter, we argue that geography’s conquest of history defines the struggles over culture, identity, subjectivity, and power that drive the events in The Diamond Age. There’s an intriguing parallel between the future Stephenson imagines and the direction of current intellectual debates over culture, identity politics, and the subject in postmodern society. We doubt Stephenson himself is particularly concerned with these debates; indeed, we hope he’s not. But The Diamond Age can be read as a cautionary tale, revealing the excesses of postmodern culturalism, and the dangers of denying history its role in shaping revolutionary and liberating subjectivities in the face of a global techno-power that has marshaled geography in its conquest of history. The chapter proceeds with a brief discussion of the ‘spatial turn’ in social and cultural theory, before turning to a more detailed recounting of the novel itself. Engaging the text, we hope to show the problematic aspects of Stephenson’s hyper-spatialized world—both in terms of individual subjectivity and social relations—and the events in the novel whereby struggles with power, and struggles over subjectivity, lead to ruptures in the spatial logic that secures the control of technology, opening the way for a freedom-seeking subject.


As defined by Judith Butler (1997: 10), the subject is not the individual, or the person, but a linguistic category[1]. ‘The subject is the linguistic occasion for the individual to achieve and reproduce intelligibility, the linguistic condition of its existence and agency’ (Butler 1997: 11). While we often use the term as if it were an equivalent to the individual, Butler’s definition reveals the importance of language in subject formation. This is particularly significant in Stephenson’s novel when considering the role of the Primer in generating a new subjectivity for its readers. In ‘reading’ the Primer, the subject ‘speaks’ itself into existence, makes itself intelligible, and develops the capacity for action. Through an accumulation of virtual experiences, it helps to create a personalized historical narrative that becomes the basis for action. We will return to the role of the Primer later in the paper. For now, we want to focus on the questions of history and narrative as sources of the ‘linguistic occasion’ that is the subject.

Much of the debate surrounding the subject has been generated by assumptions about the role played by history and narrative in subject-formation. A great deal of modern intellectual thought—radical critiques, like Marxism, in particular—has centered on raising consciousness about the historical conditioning of subject positions. Revolutionary action, for instance, is presupposed by a consciousness of one’s historically-situated subjectivity (i.e. ‘class consciousness’). Narrative, then, provides a language by which such consciousness becomes intelligible. Of course, all modern social institutions depend upon narratives of one form or another in attempts to forge common subject positions that are, say, loyal (patriotism), hard working (capitalist work ethic), governable (citizenship), and so on. Modern radicalism simply tries to unify subjectivity around counter-narratives and alternative histories.

Many postmodern critics have claimed that this historical-narrative based model of subjectivity—whether radical or conservative—is hegemonic and oppressive. They criticize narrative as a ‘master text’ that elides difference, and deride history for its teleological disposition (Lyotard 1979; Baudrillard 1983). Much of the impulse for this postmodern critique has come from the rising voices in the marginal peripheries and borderlands of global power, insisting that modernity has not narrated their subjectivities out of existence and that the modern subject is not unified by historical consciousness, but fragmented and hybridized (Bhabha 1986; Anzaldua 1987; Hall 1991; Prakash 1992; Chakrabarty 1992). The same impulse has resulted in a popular discourse of multiculturalism in advanced capitalist societies. Significantly, this has been accompanied by the fall of state-socialism as a viable alternative to capitalism, and the celebratory (if not profoundly ironic) pronouncement of ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama 1992).

Some postmodern criticism has gone so far as to eulogize the subject as the now deceased vestige of a defeated modernity (Lyotard 1979). It is more than coincidence that such radical pronouncements (‘the death of the subject’) have occurred simultaneously with the self-congratulatory conservatism heralding ‘the end of history.’ Both impulses indicate a new privileging of space over time in social theory (Soja 1989). Even for those who seek not the subject’s death but its non-hegemonic reconstitution must look toward spatial metaphors for articulating subjectivity in non-linear, open-ended, and pluralistic ways. As one radical historian put it, ‘the reconstitution of the subject, under the circumstances, can only be local and conditional’ (Dirlik 1994, 90), resulting in a strategy of action termed ‘critical localism.’ This is not a call for a de-historicized subject. But gone from this reconstituted subject is any kind of universal narrative as well as any focus on diachronic time; they have been replaced by localized and contingent narratives, synchronicity, and difference across space (Pile and Thrift 1995). Indeed, it is the question of difference that now drives all efforts toward reconstituting subjectivity, and difference has come to be expressed primarily in spatial, rather than historical, terms (Kirby 1996).

Of course, a celebration of difference lies at the heart of postmodern multiculturalism. In these terms, difference means cultural difference, yet such difference implies a privileging of space over time. The ideology of culturalism—that is the basis for multicultural discourse—dehistoricizes culture as it creates an essential and timeless representation of symbols and markers around which identity can be mobilized (Dirlik 1997: 23-51). Though cultural change over time remains a significant topic of discussion, it has become less important in popular cultural discourse than cultural difference across space. Experiences of diaspora, of migration, travel and exile, of borderland and periphery, and of cosmopolitan mixture have become the focal topics in critical theory, cultural studies, and, indeed, of the humanities and social sciences more generally.

In The Diamond Age, it is as if Stephenson has taken each of these trends to their extreme, if not logical, conclusions. For those in the powerful New Atlantis phyle, subject positions are articulated in the borrowed and dehistoricized discourse of Victorian England. This produces a great deal of discipline, loyalty, and complacency among the ‘Vicky’s.’ Devoid of a real historical narrative, most of the subjects of New Atlantis seem to display little, if any, capacity for critical thought. But, Stephenson does not delve deeply into this issue, save for leaving us with the impression of New Atlantis as something of a nineteenth-century rendition of Seaside, Florida (the Disney planned-community cum theme park of The Truman Show fame)[2]. What he does reveal with striking clarity, however, is the fragmentation of cultural identity into smaller and smaller groupings (‘tribes’ or ‘phyles’) and the spatial expression of this fragmentation, with each group occupying its own space, or ‘clave.’ It is as if today’s discourse of (multi)culturalism has ultimately sorted itself out according to the spatial logic of difference that has always supported it[3]. The result is a landscape of pure cultural segregation, except that the lack of history and narrative in the constitution of subject positions has made possible individual mobility between such culture spaces: within some racial limitations, perhaps, one can easily join whichever tribe one likes.

This culturalist and spatialized subject, we would argue, becomes a premise upon which Stephenson’s imagination thrives. It drives his ability to envision a world where space and time are in disequilibrium with one another. But the space-time disequilibrium in The Diamond Age is also unstable, just as the spatialized subject cannot be sustained. The impulse for liberation is never far from the fantastically rendered surface of Stephenson’s social landscape. It is to that landscape, and the struggles for freedom that ultimately disrupt it, that we now turn.


The central irony of The Diamond Age—and, one could argue, of our own age—is that despite the ubiquity of resources, gaping inequalities persist in their distribution. In the Shanghai of the future, struggles over the control of resources continues. The key resource, in this regard, is the Feed—the source of all artificial matter compilation. The Feed originates at Source Victoria in the Diamond Palace at the center of Atlantis/Shanghai, a New Atlantis colony occupying the artificial island of New Chusan just offshore from Shanghai and Pudong (see Figure 1). Controlled by the neo-Victorians, the Source is a ‘molecular disassembly line’ and mines water and air for their constituent molecules and trace elements. The main line of the Feed extends from the Source, on New Chusan, across a causeway to the mainland, where it branches off to supply raw matter for home matter compilers (MCs for short) in Shanghai and throughout China. Like a new form of opium, the Feed has maintained a relationship of dependency between China and the West. As Dr. X, an enigmatic agent of the Celestial Kingdom, explains, ‘When the Feed came in from Atlantis, from Nippon, we no longer had to plant, because the rice now came from the matter compiler. It was the destruction of our society’ (Stephenson 1996: 457).

One of those MCs is located in the apartment where Nell lives with her Mother Tequila and her brother Harv, a streetwise kid and petty thief. While the family is poor, their basic needs are met through the MC, but it is slow with an output of only ‘a few grams per second.’ Each day Nell’s mother travels from their home in New Chusan’s Leased Territories (or LT), a zone of claves sandwiched between Atlantis/Shanghai and the ocean, to work as a maid in a ‘Vicky’ home. Unlike most of the other characters in the novel, Nell and her family lack a tribal affiliation and literally live in the spaces between claves.

The story of how the Primer gets into Nell’s hands is a complex one and a simplified telling will have to suffice for now. Lord Finkle-McGraw hired Atlantean engineer John Percival Hackworth to create the primer for his daughter Elizabeth. Hoping to create an unauthorized copy for his own daughter Fiona, Hackworth ventures on a rare trip across the causeway, plans for compiling the Primer in hand (so to speak). His destination is the office of the mysterious Dr. X where he compiles a copy of the Primer from an MC hooked up to the doctor's private source (making this illegal copying undetectable). On his way back, a gang of ruffians, one of whom happens to be Harv, steals the book from Hackworth. Harv salvages the book from the other boys and brings it home as a present for Nell.

At its core, the Primer is subversive. The Primer bonds with its owner and sees ‘all events and persons in relation to that girl, using her as a datum from which to chart a psychological terrain, as it were. Maintenance of that terrain is one of the book’s primary processes. Whenever the child uses the book, then, it will perform a sort of dynamic mapping from the database onto her particular terrain’ (Stephenson 1996: 106). The database, Hackworth explains, is ‘a catalogue of the collective unconscious’ and the book functions as a system ‘for mapping the universals onto the unique psychological terrain of one child—even as that terrain changes over time.’ The effect, ‘like Beatrix Potter mapping the Trickster onto Peter Rabbit,’ is that while each Primer tells a story unique to each child’s circumstances it also communicates universal ideas (1996: 107). Thus the fairytale story of Nell’s primer mirrors her own life, but casts that life as a series of encounters with a variety of trickster characters, including King Coyote, whom she must trick into defeat in order to achieve her life’s quest.

The bond between Nell and the Primer is strengthened through the fact that the primer is ‘read’ to Nell by a critically acclaimed ractor (or remote actor) named Miranda. Ractives are a type of interactive virtual theater where professional ractors perform with and for their amateur clients. Because even in this highly technologically advanced era, a computerized voice still can not match a human voice, Hackworth has designed the Primer to be read by a ractor. Soon Miranda, working from a booth in the Theatre Parnasse in mainland Shanghai, is deriving most of her income from reading the Primer to Nell. Over time Miranda essentially becomes a mother to Nell, teaching her to read, write, and think for herself, though neither mother or daughter had ever seen each other. Though the chances of Miranda and Nell ever meeting each other in the flesh, we are told, are ‘astronomically improbable,’ this human touch makes all the difference.

A single mother, Tequila brings home a series of abusive boyfriends who make life difficult for Nell and Harv. Eventually, one of those boyfriends forces Nell and Harv to flee for their lives into the dangerous streets of the LT. Hovering robots called aerostats patrol the mediatronic, billboard-lined streets of the LT making sure that no one pauses long enough to loiter or rest on the sidewalk or in the swath of greenbelt that separates the LT from Atlantis/Shanghai. Nell and Harv retrieve a pair of space blankets from a public matter compiler and settle down for the night on the beach of New Chusan with the rest of the home- and clave-less people who lack an identity of their own and who therefore lack either a history or a geography.

Meanwhile Hackworth returns to the Celestial Kingdom where he is convicted in a show trial—orchestrated by Dr. X—for the crime of trafficking in stolen property. He is sentenced to ten years imprisonment and charged with the task of adjusting the Primer to meet the needs of Dr. X., whose plan is to make hundreds of thousands of copies of the book to help raise young orphan girls saved from infanticide and housed by the hundreds in cargo ships off the cost of China. Yet, Hackworth tricks Dr. X. when reprogramming the Primer. The result is one of the Primer’s many subversions, for the orphan girls—all dressed in pajamas with mouse ears—will later become a ‘mouse army’ serving none other than Nell herself, rather than the needs of Dr. X and China. Meanwhile, Hackworth’s imprisonment is to be served as a member of the society of the drummers, where another kind of subversion begins to take shape.

Living in underwater warrens, the collective bodies of the drummers constitute a global-scale computer. Nanosites—microscopic capsules containing a ‘rod logic system’ and ‘a tape drive containing some few gigabytes of data’ (Stephenson 1996: 495)—flow through the drummers’ blood. In this ‘wet net’ data is exchanged through sexual intercourse. When two different nanosites come in close proximity they lock onto each other, exchange data, and perform a computation that throws off waste heat. Collectively these nanosites ‘formed a vast system of communication, parallel to and probably linked to the dry net of optical lines and copper wires’ (ibid.). Acting as cogs in a machine, the drummers exist in a constant dreamlike state where individual subjectivity is lost to the collective whole. Occasionally the heat of computation will consume the bodies of drummers who sacrifice themselves. It is in the warren of the drummers that, Dr. X hopes, Hackworth will ultimately help to create the Seed, a utopian counter-technology to the Feed (more about which will be said below).

Frustrated by the limited lens of the Primer, Miranda takes a leave of absence from the Theatre Parnasse, in order to locate Nell. Eventually her search takes her to the society of the drummers. Miranda’s hope is that the ‘unconscious, nonrational processes’ at work in the wet-net will help her find her adopted daughter Nell.

While Harv continues to make his life in the streets of the LT, Nell finds her way to Dovetail, a clave adjacent to Atlantis/Shanghai filled with people who make things by hand. The residents of Dovetail export their wares to Atlantis/Shanghai whose residents prefer to write on hand-made paper rather than mediatronic paper and to ride real horses rather than robot chevallines. A stream of laborers from the LT arrive each morning to clean the Atlantean’s houses, cook their food, and tend to their gardens. Soon Nell too finds herself commuting to Atlantis/Shanghai to attend Miss Matheson’s Academy, which accepts non-Atlanteans on occasion to prevent stagnation in neo-Victorian culture. Having learned the fine points of Neo-Victorian society and culture, Nell, still an outsider, leaves the lofty heights of Atlantis/Shanghai and heads across the causeway toward the Chinese metropolis of Pudong to seek her fortune.


The China into which Nell ventures offers a landscape upon which geography’s conquest of history is played out. Echoing the cultural critiques of 1980s Chinese intellectuals who sought to articulate the ‘deep structure’ of Chinese society, and explain its ‘super-stable’ systemic qualities, Stephenson’s China is more an organic cultural system than a historically progressing nation; it is, in a way, its own kind of ‘wet-net.’ This idea mirrors those of intellectuals such as Jing Guantao and Sun Longji, who, finding in cybernetics and systems theory alternatives to the orthodox historical materialism of Chinese Marxism, argued that China, as a cultural system, displayed an ‘internal resilience’ and a ‘capacity for adjustment’ so that revolutionary upheavals and disruptions were recurrently absorbed into an ‘ultrastable’ system (see Barmé and Minford 1988: 131-136). Similarly, events in Stephenson’s China unfold in a cyclic rather than diachronic pattern, forcing China to continuously relive the past. It is not simply that history repeats itself in Stephenson’s China, but that ‘China’ marks a more general condition of history trapped by geography. More specifically, China’s history is trapped by a cultural geography, an ultrastable spatial identity of 'Chineseness'[4]

Entrapment is most explicitly rendered by China’s technological dependency on the Feed. The feed flows into China like opium, and this comparison with China’s nineteenth century entrapment by British control of global trade is only one of many intriguing parallels that suggest to us China’s role as the ultrastable landscape of spatialized subjection. But cultural China is in fact a splintered landscape, and this adds considerable nuance to Stephenson’s portrayal. Splitting off from the old Communist China, the ‘Coastal Republic’ emerged when the export processing elite and their slave-wage earning minions rebelled, sparking a civil war that brought an end to Marxist rule and the beginning of the neo-Confucian ‘Celestial Kingdom’ (or CK). Stephenson’s account of the rebellion offers an interesting study in recycled history:

Trouble had been brewing [in South China] since Zhang Han Hua had gone on his Long Ride and forced the merchants to kowtow. Zhang had personally liberated several lao gai camps, where slave laborers were hard at work making trinkets for export to the West, smashing computer display screens with the massive dragon’s-head grip of his cane, beating the overseers into bloody heaps on the ground. Zhang’s ‘investigations’ of various thriving businesses, mostly in the south, had thrown millions of people out of work. They had gone into the streets and raised hell and been joined by sympathetic units of the People’s Liberation Army. The rebellion was eventually put down by PLA units from the north, but the leaders had vanished into the ‘concrete countryside’ of the Pearl River Delta, and so Zhang had been forced to set up a permanent garrison state in the south. The northern troops had kept order crudely but effectively for a few years, until, one night, an entire division of them, some 15,000 men, was wiped out by an infestation of nanosites (Stephenson 1996: 279-80).

This passage reveals a China with such a deep cultural structure that events never seem to break away from their continuous recycling within the system. Past events have become synchronically jumbled together, out of place and time. Much in the passage recycles the communist revolution of the twentieth-century. Zhang’s ‘long ride’ is an implicit reference to Mao Zedong’s Long March of 1934, and Stephenson’s use of the term ‘investigations’ invokes the title of Mao’s famous 1926 report on peasant uprisings in Hunan. Yet these terms are simultaneously cast with lao gai (‘labor reform’) camps of a later, post-revolution period, and the free trade zones of the late twentieth century.

The violent formation of the Coastal Republic also has its antecedents in China’s past. It bears resemblance to the various rebellions that indirectly contributed to the establishment of Shanghai as China’s major extraterritorial city (Lu 1999: 25-36). Indeed, Shanghai under international control became a haven for the Western-oriented business elite of the entire Yangtze River Delta region during the violence of the 1850s, just as much as the Coastal Republic becomes a haven for China’s outward-looking coastal elites in The Diamond Age. The rebellion of the Small Swords in 1853 is also recycled later in the novel as the rebellion of the ‘Fists of Righteous Harmony,’ which wins the Coastal Republic back for the CK, and against which Nell emerges late in the novel as a powerful freedom fighter. The Coastal Republic, like colonial Shanghai before it, serves to emphasize the very culturalist basis for the CK, the still-trapped home of true, cultural China. For, the Coastal Republic is a Western place, a very non-Chinese place, born from free trade zones, Western individualism, investment and technology. The Coastal Republic is a place where people are comfortable, and where the Feed rules. It is home not just to Chinese, but people of cultural groups from around the world, all making money.

Contrasting this, the Celestial Kingdom not only represents ‘true’ China as a deeply structured cultural geography, but a site where an alternative to the global power of the Feed can be imagined. This alternative is expressed in the yet-to-be-realized technology of the Seed. The Seed is a utopian technology with the potential to supplant the Feed, such that ‘one day, instead of Feeds terminating in matter compilers, we will have Seeds that, sown on the earth, will sprout up into houses, hamburgers, spaceships and books,’ thus founding a ‘more highly evolved society’ (Stephenson 1996: 384). While a number of phyles have apparently toyed with developing and acquiring Seed technology, only China can link its development with cultural destiny. We might presume that the Seed’s proponents in the CK believe that it will set China’s trapped history free from geography’s grip, will allow it to break loose from a cyclic pattern of revolution and violence that only confirms the control of the West (Marxism, we’re reminded, was little more than an ‘imperialist plot’ that only took China further from its cultural core). When Dr. X explains to Hackworth why the seed is important to China, it is significant that he repeats precisely the same terms that nineteenth-century Chinese intellectuals used when confronted with the power of Western technology: the so-called ti-yong (essence-appearance) construction. ‘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. Just as our ancestors could not open our ports to the West without accepting the poison of opium, we could not open our lives to Western technology without taking in the Western ideas, which have been as a plague on our society. The result has been centuries of chaos. We ask you to end that by giving us the Seed…. The Seed is technology rooted in Chinese ti. We have lived by the Seed for five thousand years’ (Stephenson 1996: 478).

However, the Seed is metaphorically extended here to represent the agrarian heart of China’s super-stable culture. In unshackling its dependence on the Feed, Dr. X envisions a China that will, in fact, return to its cultural roots, only intensifying a Han subjectivity determined by cultural geography. It was precisely the specter of this cultural geography that haunted many 1980s cultural critics in China: China had for too long been an agrarian, inward looking ‘yellow’ culture. In the 1988 television series Heshang (Su and Wang 1991), for example, it was argued that China’s geography explained its resistance to change, its lack of democracy, its xenophobic tendencies. China was contrasted to Europe, a ‘blue’ civilization of openness and sea-faring traders rather than farmers. Stephenson’s Celestial Kingdom recapitulates this idea, only now inwardness, cultural purity, and suspicion of outsiders is regarded as the only means by which an alternative to Western power can be envisioned. Geography is destiny in this rendering, for China’s cultural qualities, and indeed its significance for the novel as a whole, are geographically determined, just as the qualities of China and Europe in Heshang were geographically determined (Europe’s long coastline vs. China’s vast interior).

We have, then, a regressive kind of liberation being revealed in the struggles of the Celestial Kingdom. The CK’s attempt to acquire the Seed—an attempt supported by the rebellion of the Fists—echoes the kind of civilizational thinking reinforced by 1980s culturalist scholars like Jin and Sun. However, rather than seeking to escape the trap of geography (as modernists Jin and Sun would have it), Stephenson’s Celestial Kingdom pursues the ultimate fruition of its conquest, a completely spatialized subjectivity, where culture and geography are all that matter, and where the Seed will enable a final return to a Middle Kingdom cut off from, and independent of, the rest of the world. As we shall see below, the regressive nature of a Seed-based liberation in the CK is perhaps offered by Stephenson to reveal the more generally dark underside to the utopian potential of the Seed. This dark underside, buried deep within the novel—as deep as the warren of drummers who live deep beneath the ocean waves, and who collectively process the data needed to develop the Seed—does not escape Nell and her subversions. The struggle for freedom inspired in Nell by the Primer will be something quite different from the utopian dreams of Seed technology. Rather than seeking to realize the spatialized subject completely, the Primer reintroduces history and narrative into subject formation. The result is not a subject seeking liberation through rationalized programs, but a subject that embraces paradox and ambiguity in the name of freedom. Thus we return to Nell and her journey into China and further into the world of the Primer.

Arriving in downtown Pudong, Nell quickly finds a job as a scriptwriter for Madame Ping's, an emporium offering a variety of personalized entertainments for men. Living in a dormitory with the young girls who perform the fantasy scenarios that she writes, Nell continues to read the Primer, whose story is nearing conclusion. In the story Nell finally meets up with the mouse army, the hundreds of thousands of young girls who—thanks to Hackworth’s trick—share in Nell’s virtual world via their own Primers. Using a magic spell, Nell (who, in the Primer, is Princess Nell) turns them from enchanted mice back into young girls. We discover, here, that King Coyote, it just so happens, is none other than Hackworth himself, who gives Princess Nell access to King Coyote’s library. She easily opens the ‘Book of the Book,’ instructions for creating the Primer,and realizes that there has been another person—Miranda—accompanying her through her life’s journey. But among the other books in the library is one she can not open, the ‘Book of the Seed,’ containing the instructions for the Seed technology on which Hackworth had been working during his confinement with the drummers. Unlocking this book would take more computation by the drummers, and ultimately the sacrifice of a human being to the heat of computation. The human being chosen by the drummers is none other than Miranda.

Nell’s life at Madame Ping’s is disrupted by the arrival of the Fists of Righteous Harmony in Shanghai who in their invasion of the city destroy the causeways and Feed lines between New Chusan and mainland China. Nell, being a foreigner in Shanghai, is imprisoned by the Fists. She is soon liberated, however, by the mouse army which she then instructs to protect the refugees as they seek passage across the water to New Chusan to escape the Fists. Inoculated against the nanotechnological devices in the drummers’ bloodstreams, Nell enters the world of the drummers where she finds Miranda about to be sacrificed, against her will, in the heat of the final computation required to produce the Seed.

Nell cradled Miranda’s head in her arms, bent down, and kissed her, not a soft brush of the lips but a savage kiss with open mouth, and she bit down hard as she did it, biting through her own lips and Miranda’s so that their blood mingled. The light shining from Miranda’s body diminished and slowly went out as the nanosites were hunted down and destroyed by the hunter-killers that had crossed into her blood from Nell's (Stephenson 1996: 499). With that kiss Nell subverts both Hackworth’s and the Celestial Kingdom’s efforts to create the Seed. The relationship between mother and daughter and their common humanity, Stephenson seems to say, is more important than the Seed.


The narrative of the Primer can be read as a call to action for Nell, an enabling force for the formation of a freedom-seeking subject that subverts the culturalist, spatialized subjectivities constituted through Stephenson’s post-national landscape of claves, tribes, and phyles. But, by the end of the novel, it is clear that the Primer by itself is not a sufficient agent in developing Nell’s powerfully emancipated consciousness. The Primer alone cannot account for the woman Nell turns out to be. For, the Primer has been read by two other Vicky girls—Fiona Hackworth and Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw—with totally different results. Fiona ends up seduced by the drummers warren, and Elizabeth checks out of public society altogether with unclear consequences. In all three girls the Primer has introduced its profoundly destabilizing forces, but only Nell is able to channel these forces into meaningful and emancipatory action. Additionally, the Primer has been read by the thousands of abandoned Chinese girls, the ‘mouse army’ that eventually embraces Nell as its queen and paramount leader. In this case, the Primer seems to have merely generated an army of devoted followers. Although the mouse army is composed of exceptionally well-trained fighting girls, there is nothing particularly emancipated about their subjectivities, at least not on the individual level that we find in Nell.

The difference for Nell is Miranda, who in becoming the mother that Nell never really had, fills the Primer’s stories with love and meaning, and establishes an unbreakable bond that neither she nor Nell really understand until very late in the novel. Thus, Nell’s most significant act of freedom is not her valiant struggle to save the residents of Pudong and the Coastal Republic from the onslaught of the Fists—for which she is crowned a princess by none other than Queen Victoria herself[5]. Rather, it is her search for her mother, for Miranda, that expresses Nell’s truly free subjectivity. It is Miranda, then, who enables Nell to articulate the truly subversive subjectivity inherent in the narrative of the Primer.

Nell’s subversion can most broadly be expressed as one that emerges within the novel’s disequilibrium between space and time. Geography’s conquest of history is subverted by a subject position invested with narrative, and imbued with a recognition of the role that paradox, contradiction, tricks, and deception play in intersubjective relations. Embracing paradox becomes an emancipation from the culturalist conformity of spatialized subjectivity. Indeed, Nell expresses such sentiments on the eve of her departure for Pudong, as revealed in an exchange with the Constable. Nell tells him that while the Neo-Victorians believe in their elaborate code of morals and conduct because experience has taught them its benefits, their children believe it because they are indoctrinated to believe it. The result, Nell says, is that:

‘Some of them never challenge it—they grow up to be small-minded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel—as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.’

‘Which path do you intend to take, Nell?’ said the Constable, sounding very interested.

‘Conformity or rebellion?’

‘Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded—they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.’

‘Ah! Excellent!’ the Constable exclaimed. As punctuation, he slapped the ground with his free hand, sending up a shower of sparks and transmitting a powerful shock through the ground to Nell’s feet.

‘I suspect that Lord Finkle-McGraw, being an intelligent man, sees through all of the hypocrisy in his society, but upholds its principles anyway, because that is what is best in the long run. And I suspect that he has been worrying about how best to inculcate this stance in young people who cannot understand, as he does, its historical antecedents—which might explain why he has taken an interest in me. The Primer may have been Finkle-McGraw’s idea to begin with—a first attempt to go about this systematically.’ (Stephenson 1996: 355-56)

Indeed, the Primer was ‘Finkle-McGraw’s idea to begin with.’ But Nell’s subversion in fact goes beyond the project envisioned by Finkle-McGraw. There appear to be three distinct levels of subversion inspired by the Primer. The culturalist, spatialized subjectivity of the Vicky’s is unstable, being threatened from within by conformity and a lack of critical thought. Finkle-McGraw realizes this and thus commissions Hackworth to create the Primer. Finkle-McGraw’s commission represents the first level of subversion inherent in the Primer, that is, subverting the unthinking adoption of Victorian discipline in order to generate an authentic sense of why such discipline is needed. Thus, Nell herself appropriates and masters the outward manifestations of Victorian culturalist behavior in language and interaction with others, and she ultimately becomes the heroine who revives what Finkle-McGraw fears is a decaying culture.

For John Hackworth, the Primer represents another level of subversion. While Hackworth appears to accede Finkle-McGraw’s commitment to the disciplinary shackles of neo-Victorianism, his actions belie a deeper rebelliousness. His rebellion, in fact, aims for the very heart that fuels the power of the Atlanteans, and that enables it to maintain a position of dominance in the world: the Feed. Using the warren of the drummers, Hackworth aims to develop Seed technology—the utopian alternative to the Feed—and in fact uses the Primer as a intermediate step toward this goal. Having comprehended the truly subversive nature of the Primer, Dr. X sees this deeper rebelliousness in Hackworth before Hackworth himself does, and this is why Dr. X. exiles him to the drummers warren. For, while the Primer reveals the possibility of and potential for Seed technology, King Coyote’s Book of the Seed remains closed, indicating Hackworth’s hope that readers of the Primer would have developed the faculties of thought to comprehend the nature of the Seed and develop it further.

Nell does comprehend the nature of the Seed, but sees in it only a new kind of oppression, a utopian promise that negates the freedom it aims to provide. Her recognition of this becomes the third level of subversion represented in the Primer. It is Nell’s search for Miranda that reveals this darker underside of the Seed, an underside represented in the ‘wet-net’ of the drummers warren. The drummers are the ultimate society of conformity, existing less as a group of people living beneath the oceans and more as a vast unitary mind. That the Seed requires such a level of conformity and loss of autonomous subjectivity reveals, finally, the problematic nature of the ‘liberation’ it promises. Developing the Seed, in effect, requires that everyone be running on the same operating system, so to speak—a pre-programmed system without options or preferences.

Thus, Nell’s ultimate act of freedom—in seeking out, finding, and saving Miranda from the drummer’s warren—is a subversion of the Seed itself. Her ability to perform this act derives partly from Miranda’s role as her ‘mother,’ and partly from the Primer itself. For, although the Primer is a kind of Seed technology, it is also an agent of narrative in subject formation. The trickster imbedded in the Primer (King Coyote – Hackworth himself) gives Nell the tools to see oppression and resist it, to think for herself as a freedom-seeking subject, a historical subject, rather than a spatialized, cultural subject. In the end, it is not so much that Nell embraces the neo-Victorianism of New Atlantis, but that she has maintained a place for freedom in her subject position. The keys to doing this lie imbedded within the Primer (the ‘twelve keys of King Coyote’), but it is Miranda who breaths life into it, energizing it with humanity. Technology itself is only oppressive when it lacks this human interface.

Such seems to be Stephenson’s ultimate message in The Diamond Age. However, there remains a more troubling aspect to the novel that appears unresolved. While we choose to read The Diamond Age as a cautionary tale about the excesses of postmodern, spatialized (multi)cultural subjectivity, we remain disturbed by the culturalist assumptions about China that, ironically, go unchallenged in Stephenson’s narrative. Nell’s subversion of the drummers warren recapitulates a faith in the autonomous individual, and while the narrative-based subjectivity initiated by the Primer may inspire freedom, it comes perilously close to reviving a Cartesian sense of the autonomy of consciousness. While we maintain that Nell’s embracing of paradox and ambiguity suggests a subject position that steers away from the Cartesian faith in transparent consciousness and instrumental rationality, we do find that the emancipatory nature of Nell’s subjectivity is problematically revealed by Stephenson through its contrast with Chinese subjectivity.

In the end, Nell’s triumphant return to Atlantis/Shanghai highlights the return of a real separation between China—newly liberated by the Fists as the ‘Middle Kingdom’—and the West. The freedom Nell espouses seems to presuppose a Western individualism because it is so clearly separated from and opposed to China’s ‘liberation’ and pursuit of the Seed. The contrast between Chinese and Western subjectivity is reified in the distinction between Nell as a powerful woman warrior and her loyal Primer-trained minions of battle, the abandoned Chinese daughters who constitute the mouse army. Why do the hundreds of thousands of abandoned Chinese girls who read the Primer under the tutelage of Dr. X rise up as the machine-like mouse army, rather than as unique, free-thinking subjects of their own right? The immediate answer is that Hackworth adjusts the version of the Primer turned over the Dr. X. so that it enables just such an outcome. This adjustment is, in fact, one of King Coyote-Hackworth’s tricks, for the result is a fighting force that displays loyalty to neither Dr. X. nor the CK, but to Nell. Yet, Hackworth’s trick passes unnoticed because of the culturalist disguise that he deploys to hide it. During his show trial in Shanghai, Hackworth says he can adjust the Primer ‘so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership’ (Stephenson 1996: 179-80).

That such a statement is enough to fool his Chinese interrogators, ‘who were better at noticing tricks than most people in the world,’ speaks to Stephenson’s tendency throughout the novel to reaffirm the deep structure of Chinese culture. Cultural China becomes an inescapable feature of a broader civilizational discourse that underlies The Diamond Age[6]. While the subjectivity displayed by Nell is emancipating on its own terms, it becomes problematic when seen as part of the Orientalizing duality that pervades Stephenson’s novel. In his 1993 Wired article on China, Stephenson wrote that, ‘In China, culture wins over technology every time.’ In this article, we find confirmation of his approach to Chinese culture as a deep structure that remains both resilient and adaptive to change. Indeed, he comes close to describing Chinese culture in similar terms to his portrayal of the drummers warren in The Diamond Age. Thus, he points out in the Wired article that the Chinese have a ‘collective’ approach to technology: ‘A billion of them jammed together have created the world’s most efficient system for honing and assimilating new tech… As soon as someone comes up with a new idea, all the neighbors know about it, and through an exponential process that you don’t have to be a math major to understand, a billion people know about it a week later.’ This ‘human net’ of Chinese culture reads like a prototype to the ‘wet-net’ of the drummers. Given his belief in the organic wholeness of Chinese culture, it makes sense that The Diamond Age would posit a China pursuing Seed technology by attempting to manipulate—via John Hackworth—the wet-net of the drummers[7].

Geography’s conquest of history, then, remains powerfully embodied in cultural China, despite Nell’s subversions. While her subjectivity may ultimately be viewed as an emancipating force for her adopted neo-Victorian culture, it does not begin to challenge the deep structure of Chinese culture. China, by the end of the novel, has closed itself off, shut its doors, burned the Feed lines, and reclaimed itself as the Middle Kingdom. It remains a society conquered by a cultural geography that ‘wins over technology every time.’


1  Our discussion of the subject begins with the assumption that the Cartesian subject of Enlightenment thought has been decentered and fragmented.  We begin, then, by accepting the critique of the Enlightenment subject initiated in the mid-nineteenth century, and approach the subject as a contested field between those who have stressed its determined qualities and mistrust the autonomy of consciousness (for example, Marx and Freud), and those who have emphasized its reflexive qualities and emancipatory potential (see Berman 1970; Dirlik 1994; Touraine 1995).

2   According to the production notes from The Truman Show’s website (http://www.trumanshow.com/epk/b_scenes.html) it was Seaside’s ‘neo-Victorian architecture’ that attracted director Peter Weir to the location.  Production designer Dennis Gassner called Seaside ‘a kind of neoclassical, postmodern retro world.’  He could have just as easily been describing Stephenson’s Atlantis/Shanghai.

3  A word on the positionality of the authors is, perhaps, in order.  While we support the project of reconstituting the subject in spatial terms, we share a concern with privileging space over time in constituting subjectivity, and we remain suspicious of the culturalist tendencies that such privileging can entail.  It is not, then, the subject constituted through difference or hybridity that we question, but rather the ideology of multiculturalism that can emerge from such subjectivity.  The Diamond Age is read as a caution against such multiculturalism.

4  Of China’s ultrastable cultural identity, Sun Longji writes, ‘This tendency toward stagnation is also evident in the personality of every Chinese individual.  A Chinese is programmed by his culture to be ‘Chinese.’  In other words, in-bred cultural predispositions make the Chinese what they are and prevent them from being full-blown individuals.  Dynamic human growth is an alien concept to the Chinese’ (Barmé and Minford 1988: 136).  While Stephenson may not go to such culturalist lengths in his portrayal of Chinese identity (though we think he comes close to this in his 1993 Wired article), he is clearly drawing upon the same sentiments as have inspired Sun to reach such heights of self-flagellation.  Of history’s entrapment, Jin Guantao writes, ‘China has not yet freed itself from the control of history.  Its only mode of existence is to relive the past.  There is no accepted mechanism within the culture for the Chinese to confront the present without falling back on the inspiration and strength of tradition’ (ibid.: 133).

5  The fact that Nell appears in the Primer as Princess Nell offers yet another instance of the way the Primer anticipates the subject-formation of its reader.  In (story)telling herself into ‘existence’ as a fully realized subject, Nell does indeed become a real-life princess, when she is honored by Queen Victoria for saving Coastal Republic residents from the onslaught of the Fists.  While it appears that the Primer is magically predicting the future, it is simply providing the narrative-model through which Nell comes to realize her subjectivity.

6  Note, for example, the similarities between Stephenson’s recycling of history in China, and Huntington’s (1996) thesis that whereas the West has enjoyed the linear progression of Enlightenment liberalism, non-Western civilization has followed a path of cyclical development, the implication being that where history is trapped, culture (i.e. religious fervor) and geography rule.

7  Similarities with the drummers warren and China can also be found by comparing Stephenson’s description of Old Shanghai with the undulating underwater tubes where the drummers live.  Old Shanghai is a ‘living vestige of Imperial China,’ a ‘small but anfractuous subregion whose tendrils were seemingly ramified through every block and building of the ancient city.  On the map, this region looked like a root system of a thousand-year-old dwarf tree; its borders must have been a hundred kilometers long, even though it was contained within a couple of square miles’ (Stephenson 1996: 125-6).  There’s an organic, network-like quality to this description that resembles the hidden underwater maze of the drummers.


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