Inspired by someone's list of top dystopian novels -- a link I lost and found on twitter, sorry -- I downloaded Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer last week.
It was fascinating to read the descriptions of said primer, especially on my kindle and in light of all the recent developments in the field of e-books and e-readers. Designed to deliver a subversive education in living an interesting life to a young girl in a futuristic neo-Victorian society, the primer is an interactive e-reader that doesn't seem all that improbable anymore. It looks and feels like an old-fashioned book, except that it reads the stories it contains aloud, its illustrations sometimes morph into videos and it offers video-game-like problems to solve. Most interestingly, the primer tailors its stories to the circumstances of the reader's own life and is able to respond to the reader's questions. It also teaches the reader to read along the way, as well as lots of other useful skills like martial arts and computer programming.
Although the primer was designed for the privileged grand-daughter of a wealthy and important man, instead it falls into the hands of an impoverished little girl with a mostly absent mother who brings home a constant stream of abusive boyfriends. Here is that little girl's introduction to the book:
It appeared to be a flat decorated box. Nell could tell immediately that it was fine. She had not seen many fine things in her life, but they had a look of their own, dark and rich like chocolate, with glints of gold.
"Both hands," Harv admonished her, "it's heavy."
Nell reached out with both hands and took it. Harv was right, it was heavier than it looked. She had to lay it down in her lap or she'd drop it. It was not a box at all. It was a solid thing. The top was printed with golden letters. The left edge was rounded and smooth, made of something that felt warm and soft but strong. The other edges were indented slightly, and they were cream-colored.
Harv could not put up with the wait. "Open it," he said.
Harv leaned toward her, caught the upper-right corner under his finger, and flipped it. The whole lid of the thing bent upward around a hinge on the left side, pulling a flutter of cream-coloured leaves after it.
Underneath the cover was a piece of paper with a picture on it and some more letters.
On the first page of the book was a picture of a little girl sitting on a bench. Above the bench was a thing like a ladder, except it was horizontal, supported at each end by posts. Thick vines twisted up the posts and gripped the ladder, where they burst into huge flowers. The girl had her back to Nell; she was looking down a grassy slope sprinkled with little flowers toward a blue pond. On the other side of the pond rose mountains... The girl had a book on her lap.
The facing page had a little picture in the upper left, consisting of more vines and flowers wrapped around a giant egg-shaped letter. But the rest of that page was nothing but tiny black letters without decoration. Nell turned it and found two more pages of letters, though a couple of them were big ones with pictures drawn around them. She turned another page and found another picture. In this one, the little girl had set aside her book and was talking to a big black bird that had apparently gotten its foot tangled up in the vines overhead. She flipped another page.
The pages she'd already turned were under her left thumb. They were trying to work their way loose, as if they were alive. She had to press down harder and harder to keep them there. Finally they bugled up in the middle and slid out from underneath her thumb and, flop-flop-flop, returned to the beginning of the story.
"Once upon a time," said a woman's voice, "there was a little girl named Elizabeth who liked to sit in the bower in her grandfather's garden and read story-books." The voice was soft, meant just for her, with an expensive Victorian accent.
Nell slammed the book shut and pushed it away. It slid across the floor and came to rest by the sofa.
There are passages and passages about the marvels of the primer, so many good ones that I found it difficult to choose which ones to excerpt. As a former teacher of reading to small children, I was intrigued by this one:
The folks at the Complete Review said The Diamond Age is an "ambitious story with interesting ideas, but [it] never really takes off." Apparently, they were most put off by the primer: "Stephenson relates a fair number of tales told by the Primer to Nell, but though these are meant to be tied to the narrative, they are not very successful and certainly the most tiresome aspect of the novel." Whereas I found much of the rest of the novel somewhat tiresome -- although chock full of gripping ideas -- and the story of Nell's life and her constant interaction with the primer enthralling. In fact, I felt most of the book was a sloppy hot mess and that the other story lines could've been dumped in favour of fleshing out and properly finishing Nell's story. (For the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Carroll wrote "Perhaps the loose ends are not all tied up, but then he's very profligate in the creation of string.") Clearly, however, the science fiction community disagreed with me, as the book won both both the Hugo and the Locus and was shortlisted for the Nebula in 1996.
What's a raven?" Nell said.
The illustration was a colorful painting of the island seen from up in the sky. The island rotated downward and out of the picture, becoming a view toward the ocean horizon. In the middle was a black dot. The picture zoomed in on the black dot, and it turned out to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. "R A V E N," the book said. "Raven. Now say it with me."
"Very good! Nell, you are a clever girl, and you have much talent with words. Can you spell raven?"
Nell hesitated. She was still blushing from the praise. After a few seconds, the first of the letters began to blink. Nell prodded it.
The letter grew until it had pushed all the other letters and pictures off the edges of the page. The loop on top shrank and became a head, while the lines sticking out the bottom developed into legs and began to scissor. "R is for Run," the book said. The picture kept on changing until it was a picture of Nell. Then something fuzzy and red appeared beneath her feet. "Nell Runs on the Red Rug," the book said, and as it spoke, new words appeared.
"Why is she running?"
"Because an Angry Alligator Appeared," the book said, and panned back quite some distance to show an alligator, waddling along ridiculously, no threat to the fleet Nell. The alligator became frustrated and curled itself up into a circle, which became a small letter. "A is for Alligator. The Very Vast alligator Vainly Viewed Nell's Valiant Velocity."
The little story went on to include an Excited Elf who was Nibbling Noisily on some Nuts. Then the picture of the Raven came back, with the letters beneath. "Raven. Can you spell raven, Nell?" A hand materialized on the page and pointed to the first letter.
"R," Nell said.
"Very good! You are a clever girl, Nell, and good with letters," the book said. "What is this letter?" and it pointed to the second one. This one Nell had forgotten. But the book told her a story about an Ape named Albert.
The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer leaves me wondering -- are there other fascinating e-books and/or e-readers in fiction that I've not stumbled across? Someone should do a round-up.