The Diamond Age, or part of it

Books have been notably absent from my coverage this semester, and not for lack of material or lack of interest. Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood are three authors I might have included without leaving my own library. The oversight is merely because I read so damn slowly. You’d think, as an English major and an editor, speed-reading would be one of the tools in my arsenal. Instead, those afflictions made my reading slow and laborious. Every word must be tasted, swilled around in my brain like a sip of fine wine, revisited when errant thoughts snatch away my attention. It’s a labor of love, but a large commitment that I seldom undertake.

I’ve started listening to Audible as I fall asleep, preferably books I’ve heard or read many times before. My library is quite small, so it’s fortunate I don’t mind listening to Wil Wheaton lend his voice to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and John Scalzi’s Redshirts repeatedly. Another staple is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a book in which I find something new to appreciate with every reading. Y.T. and Juanita are both great female characters, but they’re not quite appropriate for my list. Princess Nell, on the other hand, fits right in.

I noticed The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer on a list of Fiction/Novels with Female Protagonists That Aren’t About Love or Romance. I also knew it as the first Neal Stephenson book my husband ever read, inspiring him to read everything else the man has written since. He described it to me as Snow Crash 100 years in the future, and I knew I’d be hooked. I didn’t expect it to practically embody my capstone project. I can’t offer a competent plot summary because I’m still only halfway through the book, and my third-wave heroine hasn’t even come of age yet. But the world she inhabits is so vivid and so relevant for anyone studying Interactive Media.

Nellodee lives in a world filled with “ractives,” down to moving mediaglyphics on their chopsticks. (It seems that emoji have mostly taken the place of reading.) She becomes the unintentional recipient of a unique ractive book created for someone of a much higher class than she. It learns who she is as soon as she opens it, creating a story all about her, with her brother and her four stuffed animals as the main characters. It constantly adapts to her needs and first teaches her to read, then to defend herself and escape from her mother’s abusive boyfriend. The book itself becomes her mother, or rather Miranda, the voice behind the book.

For all the advances in this world, they still haven’t discovered a truly adequate substitute for a real human voice. (Sorry, Siri.) Ractors–with motion-capture grids tattooed onto their bodies–are employed to read the lines and play the parts required of the ractives, often right alongside their customers. Miranda doesn’t know the whole story, and it’s impossible (so far) for her to track the little girl down, but she learns about Nell’s life and realizes her important role in it. I can’t draw conclusions at this point in the book, but the questions are posed about the nature of interacting with someone in this fashion.

My own aspirations for my capstone e-book aren’t nearly as lofty as A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, but they’re thematically consistent. I took a long time to come around to the e-book, and when I did so it was because I thought it could bring more to the reading experience. Features like the built-in dictionary and the ability to track a character’s occurrences throughout the book (spoilers!) offer so much potential, but overall the experience is less. It lacks the tangible experiences of the book, of course, the cover and the spine and the heft of the pages beneath your fingers. A Kindle sitting on your nightstand doesn’t smile and beckon to you the way a dog-eared paperback does. And yet, there’s something else missing in the translation of a novel into raw text that can be viewed on multiple devices and adjusted to suit the reader’s whims. I haven’t figured out what it is yet, but I intend to do so.

The Diamond Age, or part of it

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