The Diamond Age, Neuromancer, and a question of identity.

“202…shit, 8 right? No, 5. Fuck. No, it’s 1. 2021.”

Weird way to start off a damned post.

About a week and a half ago I finished listening to Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” in the running for my favorite science fiction book of all time. I’ve listened to the audio book of Diamond Age no less than 9 or 10 times. I’ve read it probably half that many.

In its stead I cued up Neuromancer for my first listen (having read IT probably a dozen times) and, questionable narration aside, I realized two things within the first two hours:

  • I easily absorb 8-10 times as much information from an audio format as I do from reading words. I knew it was more, but I didn’t realize how much. I might as well be reading Neuromancer for the first time. There’s SO much I just glossed over and blew past. It could, I suppose, simply be that I’d forgotten about a lot of it. Possible I suppose. But I don’t think so. Sure, there’s some element of that. But even the things I’d forgotten I remembered once I re-heard them. No. There’s a tremendous amount that is absolutely new to me.
  • The Diamond Age is #2. Neuromancer just wins and wins by a lot. Just so much. I adore The Diamond Age. And..all tolled it’s probably a “better” book by any objective standard. But that doesn’t interest me as much. Neuromancer jacks into my head at a point underneath where Diamond Age ever even touches and lives there.

It’s tough to write this and not immediately go in to “compare and contrast” mode. So indulge me a bit while I drift off that way for a couple paragraphs.

The Diamond Age does what great science fiction is supposed to do that being “to ask and explore the question of what it is to be human” from the perspective of culture (rather than something like the Bobiverse books, also exceptional, which explore what it LITERALLY means to be Human.) He presents a few different sets of cultural frameworks and does an interesting job exploring their relative value against each other, the notion of “intentional” culture and such.

In fact The Diamond Age does that SO well that it prompts me, every time I read it, to go back and read Confucius and try hunting down a couple books about the emergence of Victorian culture and the Southern Neo-Victorian upper and middle-upper class social structures. Frankly I think those ideas can save us. But that’s a different discussion.

So I ordered a couple books on the topic and while they’re starting to come in, they’ll be drifting to my loading dock (i.e. front door) over the next few weeks. Hopefully I’ll still be sufficiently full of enthusiasm to dive in. But in practice I expect they’ll sit on the shelf until the next wave.

The problem with that, if you can call it that, and I’m not sure I do, is that as I’ve said I started listening to Neuromancer.

So my head has been steeping in the Cyberpunk aesthetic for the last week. My woodworking projects seem a distant whisper back in the deep halls of my brain. My consciousness has been replaced by purple neon, rainy city streets, and filthy chrome. I’ve pulled out my books on (seriously totally white hat) hacking, my cyberdeck project, coding windows, soldering irons, cables and components.

Neuromancer doesn’t do what The Diamond Age does.

Gibson runs through a high-octane setting with incredible set description full of broken people who are just breaking more throughout the entire book. It’s a race to get through to the end while they still have a shred of humanity left in them. Case, Molly, Armitage, Riviera, Dixie Flatline, all of them are just shells. I don’t to say they’re two dimensional characters, by the way. But the technology is indistinguishable from fantasy. The book, like all cyberpunk really, is a caper novel. It’s one of the most engrossing things I’ve ever read.

The Diamond Age I find fascinating to watch. Neuromancer? I want to BE there. I want to don the trodes of an Ono-Sendai and jack in to the consensual hallucination that is the matrix (a term predating that goofy ass movie by 15 years.)

The magic of Neuromancer lies in part in the fact that it was published a decade before the Web existed. Gibson was making this shit up out of whole cloth and it just sings.

Thus endeth the compare and contrast. Read them both. It’ll do you some good.

Now, back to the point, hinted at above.

It’s interesting to me how completely my brain has switched from one mode to the other. A week ago I could have had the conversation about slowly letting go of writing software and being a technophiliac as a lifestyle. I’ve got a lot going on and maybe it’s not leading me where I want to go.

Today I find that notion laughable. Jack me the hell in, man.

It leads me to wonder: Is identity so ephemeral? Really? Is the witchcraft of a well-crafted word enough to focus the laser on a completely different facet of my personality, to the seeming exclusion of all the others? I mean sure, when I’m on a Shakespeare jag my language changes markedly.

Oddly, it’s not an idea that fills me with any kind of crisis or existential dread. It’s marvelously liberating. It (if you’ll forgive my indulgence in the current mode) suggests that I can simply program myself through what I decide to read, watch, and partake in.

It’s yet another pointer to the fact that my essential identity is something deeper than these stylistic clothes I put on from one book to another. The separation of those surface concerns clarifies the point the improvists keep trying to make of “just do SOMEthing. It doesn’t matter what.” Now that’s something I’ve always had a problem with. “Of COURSE it matters what!”

But…maybe I’ve been looking at it wrong. More of the ‘what’ is window dressing than I’d expected. It’s like walking around shirtless because you can’t decide on the color.

So yeah. It’s about 1100 words crafted around a “huh.” moment. It’s one of those things I’m going to have to let seep around in my mind, conscious and otherwise for a while. Maybe I’ll end up peeling away the next level of dirt in a couple weeks. Tough to tell.