Hugh Reviews Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Or, more precisely: Hugh Reviews the Critique of Institutionalised Education in Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

a-young-ladies-illustrated-primer-copyI’ve recently been listening to this podcast on politics and science fiction by Courtney Brown (featuring various of his students).* In the class on Diamond Age, one important point seems to be constantly on the edge of the discussion, never quite breaking through. The discussion centres, understandably enough, on the Primer, the value systems and institutions of the various phyles, and the personalities of Nell, Elizabeth, and Fiona. Much is made of the differences in the education received by the three girls and the Mouse Army, but what seems to be to be one the central ideas of the novel is always tantalisingly beyond reach.

Very early in the novel Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw have a conversation in which Finkle-McGraw asserts that the Neo Victorian phyle’s brightest citizens have come exclusively from outside it, having been raised in other, less disciplined phyles and taken the oath as adults.** He decries the educational institutions of his phyle as being incapable of raising children to reach their full potential. He speaks, euphemistically, of life being ‘interesting’. ‘Full of adversity’ is what he means. This is why the Primer is created in the first place; it’s an attempt to create a mechanism whereby a child can be raised simultaneously within a culture and outside of it. And, of course, it doesn’t work.

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

The only girl (leaving aside the Mouse Army for the moment) who truly exemplifies the desired outcomes of the Primer is Nell, who lives the first few years of her life outside of the Neo Victorian phyle, in a position of extreme adversity. Even when she is adopted by the Vickies, her life is far from average; she remains an introverted outsider, cultivating only a few close relationships, all of them with individuals who’s worldviews (and lives in general) Finkle-MGraw would no-doubt describe as ‘interesting’. In short, she isn’t raised within the institutions that the Primer was intended to side step. Elizabeth and Fiona both have experiences more benign than Nell’s. Fiona, certainly experiences her share of adversity, albeit packaged in the repressed bubble-wrap of the Neo Victorians, and her father ensures that she develops a worldview a little more complex than the average Vicky teenager, but the Primer is not quite as central in her life as it is in Nell’s, and this tells in the end. Of course the personality differences play their part, as does the variability of the ractors backing the Primer, but this is all dealt with pretty clearly in the novel itself.

The lack of ractors behind the Primers of the Mouse Army is also a point made clear in the novel, and it is, in itself, an analogy for the cultural institutions with which the work is largely concerned. Courtney Brown’s discussion group deals well with the individualist/collectivist differences between Western and Eastern culture, so I won’t go into that except to say that both Nell and the Mouse Army attain, in a culturally dependent way, the ultimate benefit of the Primer; Nell leads an interesting life to become a strong and capable individual and the Mouse Army experience a rigorously homogenised upbringing to become a perfectly integrated collective. It takes both successes to form their breakaway new phyle. What is note-worthy throughout is that in all cases the primer serves an amplifying function by facilitating a more efficient transmission of the institutional memes of each phyle. It is dependent upon, not independent of, the wider upbringing each girl receives. This is diametrically opposed to Finkle-McGraw’s original intent.

What Stephenson seems to be saying is that learning happens inside memetic institutions and that it can’t be removed from those institutions without the learner actually being removed (physically, socially, philosophically) from those institutions, in which case the learning occurs inside a whole other set of institutions. In this way, the strength of Nell’s position is due to (beside any personality- and intellect-based advantages) the experience of living within multiple social institutions, each imposing their own shadow on the learning she receives both from the Primer and from the larger world around her.

* I recommend it, by the way, to anyone particularly interested in either field.

** This idea is revisited later in the story when Carl Hollywood joins the phyle.

Concept-map image source: Dr Beat A Schwendimann

Hugh Reviews Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

There are things we know without really having experienced; they are part of the background on which our lives are painted. There are words we know, and perhaps use, but cannot strictly define. There are names we’ve heard without really having an appreciation for why they exist in the popular vocabulary. For a long time the name Ray Bradbury was one of these things in my life; I knew he was an author of science fiction (my poison of choice for many years) and that he was highly regarded. Last year I felt a desire to correct this situation at a time that happened to coincide with a heavy erosion of my ‘to read’ pile.

The thing that struck me most immediately about Fahrenheit 451 was the way in which the whole idea of the story seemed to spring from the simple word play of a fireman lighting fires instead of putting them out; every other aspect of the setting could very well have been simply an exploration of the question, “In what world does such a person exist?” This is a deliciously strong vector for a story to evolve along and it keeps good company; The Hobbit was similarly a story that evolved from a simple word play.

Next, I was struck, as I often am when reading older science fiction, by the colour of the technology; at once wonderously surreal and curiously outmoded. Like many works of its era the world of Fahrenheit 451 seems a world of the middle of last century and it reads, now, more like an alternate past than an alternate future.

And then the telling social commentary began to hit home. The insights of Clarisse into the inanities that occupy peoples’ thoughts and their conversation, the extreme emotional investment in passive media, and Montag’s raw frustration at a world that has lied to him until the lies become the only truth that is available all left me feeling exposed and vulnerable; so much of the society presented in this book is uncomfortably familiar. All the elements of modern society that are broken and malicious and soul-destroying are reflected straight back off the page. And the fact that the book is fifty years old and these same issues clearly existed then in more-or-less the same form adds a layer of squirm to the mix. This book affected me emotionally in ways that a lot of science fiction doesn’t.

Fahrenheit 451 is a cutting analysis of a society that has wilfully buggered itself inside out and become the antithesis of everything good that humanity is capable of. And what is most scathing is the focus on the role of the individual in the perpetration of this evil on a large scale. There are no faceless governments and corporations that can hide behind their façade of weasel-words and claim to be free of the responsibilities of morality; there are only the people that make up these organisations, all of whom make a conscious choice at some point in their lives to abandon their ethics and give themselves over wholesale to the collective impoverishment of humanity.

And shining like a lighthouse in the middle of this godawful misery is the story of the belated coming of age of a middle-aged man.  Guy Montag’s perspective is blown open by the simple act of human interaction and he is left gaping, confused, and scared in a world he suddenly doesn’t recognise. And just possibly, amidst the murder and rape of history and smuggling away in the night of the only good people left in the world, against all the odds and despite his most desperate fuck-ups, he may just emerge from this situation a better person.

RIP Ray Bradbury.