On the surface, there are quite a few similarities between The Diamond Age and Stephenson’s earlier work Snow Crash. Both are set in a moderately near future and ignore the typical science fiction topic of space travel. Both focus on the societal changes that technology might cause, notably the idea that people will organize themselves into separate but cooperating cultural and ethnic groups with small sovereign enclaves around the world. Both open by describing a character or life situation that will be quickly abandoned as a device for introducing the reader to the peculiarities of his world.
The only difference I noticed early was that the caustic wit with which Snow Crash was written seemed largely gone. Eventually I realized that The Diamond Age has a much looser plot and many more protagonists than its predecessor as well. Like Snow Crash, it ends rather abruptly, leaving quite a few frustratingly loose ends to the reader’s imagination.
Based on these observations, I expected to label The Diamond Age as a spectacular novel, but the lesser of the two. After finishing the section explaining Princess Nell’s journey through the seven lands of King Coyote, I am not so sure. An average reader might find this section boring, but to a computer scientist, they are sheer brilliance. I suspect that this may be how a literary expert feels when finding an allusion in some work to a long-lost poem or myth. If so, it would certainly explain why the literary elite love the works of Joyce and his ilk. Now that I have read about it, I desperately desire to undertake Princess Nell’s virtual adventures myself. In fact, I am shocked that the revealed contents of the Primer have not been adapted into an adventure game.
I am still not sure that I would call The Diamond Age my favorite Stephenson work, but it is a masterpiece nonetheless.