E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.05 - September 1995

The Diamond Age

By Neal Stephenson

Three geodesic seeds skated over the roofs and gardens of Atlantis/Shanghai on a Friday afternoon, like germs of some moon-size calabash. A pair of mooring masts sprouted and grew from cricket ovals at Source Victoria Park. The smallest of the airships was decorated with the royal ensign; she kept station overhead as the two large ones settled towards their berths. Their envelopes, filled with nothing, were predominantly transparent. Instead of blocking the sunlight, they yellowed and puckered it, projecting vast abstract patterns of brighter and not-as-bright that the children in their best crinolines and natty short-pants suits tried to catch in their arms. A brass band played. A tiny figure in a white dress stood at the rail of the airship Atlantis, waving at the children below. They all knew that this must be the birthday girl herself, Princess Charlotte, and they cheered and waved back.

Fiona Hackworth had been wandering through the Royal Ecological Conservatory bracketed by her parents, who hoped that in this way they could keep mud and vegetable debris off her skirts. The strategy had not been completely successful, but with a quick brush, John and Gwendolyn were able to transfer most of the dirt onto their white gloves. From there it went straight into the air. Most gentlemen's and ladies' gloves nowadays were constructed from infinitesimal fabricules that knew how to eject dirt; you could thrust your gloved hand into mud, and it would be white a few seconds later. The hierarchy of staterooms on Æther matched the status of its passengers perfectly, as these parts of the ship could be decompiled and remade between voyages. For Lord Finkle-McGraw, his three children and their spouses, and Elizabeth (his first and only grandchild so far), the airship lowered a private escalator that carried them up into the suite at the very prow, with its nearly 180-degree forward view.

Aft of the Finkle-McGraws were a dozen or so Equity Lords, merely earl- or baron-level, mostly ushering grandchildren rather than children into the Class B suites. Then it was executives, whose gold watch chains, adangle with tiny e-mail boxes, phones, torches, snuffboxes, and other fetishes, curved around the dark waistcoats they wore to de-emphasise their bellies. Most of their children had reached the age when they were no longer naturally endearing to anyone save their own parents; the size when their energy was more a menace than a wonder; and the level of intelligence when what would have been called innocence in a small child was infuriating rudeness. A honeybee cruising for nectar is pretty despite its implicit threat, but the same behaviour in a hornet three times larger makes one glance about for some handy swatting material. So on the broad escalators leading to the first-class staterooms, one could see many upper arms being violently grabbed by hissing fathers with their top hats askew and teeth clenched and eyes swivelling for witnesses.

John Percival Hackworth was an engineer. Most engineers were assigned to tiny rooms with fold-down beds, but Hackworth bore the loftier title of Artifex and had been a team leader on this very project, so he rated a second-class stateroom with one double bed and a fold-out for Fiona. The porter brought their overnight bags just as Æther was clearing her mooring mast - a 20-metre diamondoid truss that had already dissolved back into the billiard-table surface of the oval by the time the ship had turned itself to the south. Lying as close as it did to Source Victoria, the park was riddled with catachthonic Feed lines, and anything could be grown there on short notice.The Hackworths' stateroom was to starboard, and so as they accelerated away from New Chusan, they got to watch the sun set in Shanghai, shining redly through the city's eternal cloak of coal-smoke. Gwendolyn read Fiona stories in bed for an hour while John perused the evening edition of the Times, then spread out some papers on the room's tiny desk. Later, they both changed into their evening clothes, primping quietly in twilight so as not to wake Fiona. At nine o'clock they stepped into the passageway, locked the door, and followed the sound of the big band to Æther's grand ballroom, where the dancing was just getting underway. The floor of the ballroom was a slab of transpicuous diamond. The lights were low. They seemed to float above the glittering moonlit surface of the Pacific as they did the waltz, minuet, Lindy, and electric slide into the night.

Sunrise found the three airships hovering over the South China Sea, no land visible. The ocean was relatively shallow here, but only Hackworth and a few engineers knew that. The Hackworths had a passable view from their stateroom window, but John woke up early and staked out a place on the diamond floor of the ballroom, ordered an espresso and a Times from the waiter, and passed the time pleasantly while Gwen and Fiona got themselves ready for the day. All around them he could hear children speculating on what was about to happen.

Gwen and Fiona arrived just late enough to make it interesting for John, who took his mechanical pocket watch out at least a dozen times as he waited, and finally ended up clutching it in one hand, nervously popping the lid open and shut. Gwen folded her long legs and spread her skirts out prettily on the transparent floor, drawing vituperative looks from several women who remained standing. But John was relieved to see that most of the women were relatively low-ranking engineers or their wives; none of the higher-ups needed to come to the ballroom.

Fiona collapsed to her hands and knees and practically shoved her face against the diamond, her fundament aloft. Hackworth gripped the creases of his trousers, hitched them up just a bit, and sank to one knee.

The smart coral burst out of the depths with violence that shocked Hackworth, even though he'd been in on the design, seen the trial runs. Viewed through the dark surface of the Pacific, it was like watching an explosion through a pane of shattered glass. It reminded him of pouring a jet of heavy cream into coffee, watching it rebound from the bottom of the cup in a turbulent fractal bloom that solidified just as it dashed against the surface. The speed of this process was a carefully planned sleight of hand; the smart coral had actually been growing down on the bottom of the ocean for the last three months, drawing its energy from a supercon that they'd grown across the seafloor for the occasion, extracting the necessary atoms directly from the seaweed and the gases dissolved therein. The process happening below looked chaotic, and in a way it was; but each lithocule knew exactly where it was supposed to go and what it was supposed to do. They were tetrahedral building blocks of calcium and carbon, the size of poppyseeds, each equipped with a power source, a brain, and a navigational system. They rose from the bottom of the sea at a signal given by Princess Charlotte; she had awakened to find a small present under her pillow, unwrapped it to find a golden whistle on a chain, stood out on her balcony, and blown the whistle.

The coral was converging on the site of the island from all directions, some of the lithocules travelling several kilometres to reach their assigned positions. They displaced a volume of water equal to the island itself, several cubic kilometres in all. The result was furious turbulence, an upswelling in the surface of the ocean that made some of the children scream, thinking it might rise up and snatch the airship out of the sky; and indeed a few drops pelted the ship's diamond belly, prompting the pilot to give her a little more altitude. The curt maneuver forced hearty laughter from all the fathers in the ballroom, who were delighted by the illusion of danger and the impotence of Nature.

The foam and mist cleared away at some length to reveal a new island, salmon-coloured in the light of dawn. Applause and cheers diminished to a professional murmur. The chattering of the astonished children was too loud and high to hear.

It would be a couple of hours yet. Hackworth snapped his fingers for a waiter and ordered fresh fruit, juice, Belgian waffles, more coffee. They might as well enjoy Æther's famous cuisine while the island sprouted castles, fauns, centaurs, and enchanted forests.

Princess Charlotte was the first human to set foot on the enchanted isle, tripping down the gangway of Atlantis with a couple of her little friends in tow, all of them looking like tiny wildflowers in their ribboned sun-bonnets, all carrying little baskets for souvenirs, though before long these were handed over to governesses. The Princess faced Æther and Chinook, moored a couple of metres away, and spoke to them in a normal tone of voice that was, however, clearly heard by all; a nanophone was hidden somewhere in the lace collar of her pinafore, tied into phased-audio-array systems grown into the top layers of the island itself.

"I would like to express my gratitude to Lord Finkle-McGraw and all the employees of Machine-Phase Systems Limited for this most wonderful birthday present. Now, children of Atlantis/Shanghai, won't you please join me at my birthday party?"

The children of Atlantis/Shanghai all screamed yes and rampaged down the multifarious gangways of Æther and Chinook, which had all been splayed out for the occasion in hopes of preventing bottlenecks, which might lead to injury or, heaven forbid, rudeness. For the first few moments the children simply burst away from the airships like gas escaping from a bottle. Then they began to converge on sources of wonderment: a centaur, 8 feet high if he was an inch, walking across a meadow with his son and daughter cantering around him. Some baby dinosaurs. A cave angling gently into a hillside, bearing promising signs of enchantment. A road winding up another hill towards a ruined castle.

The grownups mostly remained aboard the airships and gave the children a few minutes to flame out, though Lord Finkle-McGraw could be seen making his way toward Atlantis, poking curiously at the earth with his walking stick, just to make sure it was fit to be trod by royal feet.

A man and a woman descended the gangway of Atlantis: in a floral dress that explored the labile frontier between modesty and summer comfort, accessorised with a matching parasol, Queen Victoria II of Atlantis. In a natty beige linen suit, her husband, the Prince Consort, whose name, lamentably, was Joe. Joe, or Joseph as he was called in official circumstances, stepped down first, moving in a somewhat pompous one-small-step-for-man gait, then turned to face Her Majesty and offered his hand, while she accepted graciously but perfunctorily, as if to remind everyone that she'd done crew at Oxford and had blown off tension during her studies at Stanford B-School with lap-swimming, roller-blading, and jeet kune do. Lord Finkle-McGraw bowed as the royal espadrilles touched down. She extended her hand, and he kissed it, which was racy but allowed if you were old and stylish, like Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw.

"We thank Lord Finkle-McGraw, Imperial Tectonics Limited, and Machine-Phase Systems Limited once again for this lovely occasion. Now let us all enjoy these magnificent surroundings before, like the first Atlantis, they sink forever beneath the waves."

The parents of Atlantis/Shanghai strolled down the gangways, though many had retreated to their staterooms to change clothes upon catching sight of what the Queen and Prince Consort were wearing. The big news, already being uploaded to the Times by telescope-wielding fashion columnists on board Æther, was that the parasol was back.

Gwendolyn Hackworth hadn't packed a parasol, but she was untroubled; she'd always had a kind of natural, unconscious àlamodality. She and John strolled down onto the island. By the time Hackworth's eyes had adjusted to the sunlight, he was already squatting and rubbing a pinch of soil between his fingertips. Gwen left him to obsess and joined a group of other women, mostly engineers' wives, and even a baronet-level Equity Participant or two.

Hackworth found a concealed path that wound through trees up a hillside to a little grove around a cool, clear pond of fresh water - he tasted it just to be sure. He stood there for a while, looking out over the enchanted island, wondering what Fiona was up to right now. This led to daydreaming: perhaps she had, by some miracle, encountered Princess Charlotte, made friends with her, and was exploring some wonder with her right now. This led him into a long reverie that was interrupted when he realised that someone was quoting poetry to him.

"Where had we been, we two, beloved Friend!
If in the season of unperilous choice,
In lieu of wandering, as we did,
through vales
Rich with indigenous produce, open ground
Of Fancy, happy pastures ranged at will,
We had been followed, hourly watched, and noosed,
Each in his several melancholy walk
Stringed like a poor man's heifer at its feed,
Led through the lanes in forlorn servitude.

"Hackworth turned to see that an older man was sharing his view. Genetically Asian, with a somewhat twangy North American accent, the man looked at least 70. His translucent skin was still stretched tight over broad cheekbones, but the eyelids, ears, and the hollows of his cheeks were weathered and wrinkled. Under his pith helmet no fringe of hair showed; the man was completely bald. Hackworth gathered these clues slowly, until at last he realised who stood before him. "Sounds like Wordsworth," Hackworth said. The man had been staring out over the meadows below. He cocked his head and looked directly at Hackworth for the first time. "The poem?"

"Judging by content, I'd guess The Prelude."
"Nicely done," the man said.
"John Percival Hackworth at your service." Hackworth stepped towards the other and handed him a card.
"Pleasure," the man said. He did not waste breath introducing himself.

Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw was one of several duke-level Equity Lords who had come out of Apthorp. Apthorp was not a formal organisation that could be looked up in a phone book; in financial cant, it referred to a strategic alliance of several immense companies, including Machine-Phase Systems Limited and Imperial Tectonics Limited. When no one was listening, its employees called it John Zaibatsu, much as their forebears of a previous century had referred to the East India Company as John Company. MPS made consumer goods and ITL made real estate, which was, as ever, where the real money was. Counted by the hectare, it didn't amount to much - just a few strategically placed islands really, counties rather than continents - but it was the most expensive real estate in the world outside a few blessed places like Tokyo, San Francisco, and Manhattan. The reason was that Imperial Tectonics had geotects, and geotects could make sure that every new piece of land possessed the charms of Frisco, the strategic location of Manhattan, the feng-shui of Hong Kong, the dreary but obligatory Lebensraum of LA. It was no longer necessary to send out dirty yokels in coonskin caps to chart the wilderness, kill the abos, and clear-cut the groves; now all you needed was a hot young geotect, a start matter compiler, and a jumbo Source.

Like most other neo-Victorians, Hackworth could recite Finkle-McGraw's biography from memory. The future Duke had been born in Korea and adopted, at the age of six months, by a couple who'd met during grad school in Iowa City and later started an organic farm near the Iowa/South Dakota border.

During his early teens, a passenger jet made an improbable crash-landing at the Sioux City airport, and Finkle-McGraw, along with several other members of his Boy Scout troup who had been hastily mobilised by their scoutmaster, was standing by the runway along with every ambulance, fireman, doctor, and nurse from a radius of several counties. The uncanny efficiency with which the locals responded to the crash was widely publicised and became the subject of a made-for-TV movie. Finkle-McGraw couldn't understand why. They had simply done what was reasonable and humane under the circumstances; why did people from other parts of the country find this so difficult to understand?

This tenuous grasp of American culture might have been owing to the fact that his parents home-schooled him up to the age of 14. A typical school day for Finkle-McGraw consisted of walking down to a river to study tadpoles or going to the public library to check out a book on ancient Greece or Rome. The family had little spare money, and vacations consisted of driving to the Rockies for some backpacking, or up to northern Minnesota for canoeing. He probably learned more on his summer vacations than most of his peers did during their school years. Social contact with other children happened mostly through Boy Scouts or church - the Finkle-McGraws belonged to a Methodist church, a Roman Catholic church, and a tiny synagogue that met in a rented room in Sioux City.

His parents enrolled him in a public high school, where he maintained a steady 2.0 average out of a possible 4. The coursework was so stunningly inane, the other children so dull, that Finkle-McGraw developed a poor attitude. He earned some repute as a wrestler and cross-country runner, but never exploited it for sexual favours, which would have been easy enough in the promiscuous climate of the time. He had some measure of the infuriating trait that causes a young man to be a nonconformist for its own sake and found that the surest way to shock most people, in those days, was to believe that some kinds of behaviour were bad and others good, and that it was reasonable to live one's life accordingly.

After graduating from high school, he spent a year running certain parts of his parents' agricultural business and then attended Iowa State University of Science and Technology ("Science with Practice") in Ames. He enrolled as an agricultural engineering major and switched to physics after his first quarter. While remaining a nominal physics major for the next three years, he took classes in whatever he wanted: information science, metallurgy, early music. He never earned a degree, not because of poor performance but because of the political climate; like many universities at the time, ISU insisted that its students study a broad range of subjects, including arts and humanities. Finkle-McGraw chose instead to read books, listen to music, and attend plays in his spare time.

One summer, as he was living in Ames and working as a research assistant in a solid-state physics lab, the city was actually turned into an island for a couple of days by an immense flood. Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once again he was struck by the national media coverage - reporters from the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some bewilderment, that there had been no looting. The lesson learned during the Sioux City plane crash was reinforced. The Los Angeles riots of the previous year provided a vivid counter-example. Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgement, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

Finkle-McGraw left the university without a diploma and went back to the farm, which he managed for a few years while his parents were preoccupied with his mother's breast cancer. After her death, he moved to Minneapolis and took a job with a company founded by one of his former professors, making scanning tunnelling microscopes, which at that time were newish devices capable of seeing and manipulating individual atoms. The field was an obscure one then, the clients tended to be large research in stitutions, and practical applications seemed far away. But it was perfect for a man who wanted to study nanotechnology, and McGraw began doing so, working late at night on his own time. Given his diligence, his self-confidence, his intelligence ("adaptable, relentless, but not really brilliant"), and the basic grasp of business he'd picked up on the farm, it was inevitable that he would become one of the few hundred pioneers of nanotechnological revolution; that his own company, which he founded five years after he moved to Minneapolis, would survive long enough to be absorbed into Apthorp; and that he would navigate Apthorp's political and economic currents well enough to develop a decent equity position.

He still owned the family farm in northwestern Iowa, along with a few hundred thousand acres of adjoining land, which he was turning back into a tall-grass prairie, complete with herds of bison and real Indians who had discovered that riding around on horses hunting wild game was a better deal than pissing yourself in gutters in Minneapolis or Seattle. But for the most part he stayed on New Chusan, which was for all practical purposes his ducal estate.

"Public relations?" said Finkle-McGraw.
"Sir?" Modern etiquette was streamlines; no "Your Grace" or other honorifics were necessary in such an informal setting.
"Your department, sir."
Hackworth had given him his social card, which was appropriate under these circumstances but revealed nothing else. "Engineering. Bespoke."
"Oh, really. I'd thought anyone who could recognise Wordsworth must be one of those artsy sorts in PR."
"Not in this case, sir. I'm an engineer. Just promoted to Bespoke recently. Did some work on this project, as it happens."
"What sort of work?"
"Oh, PI stuff mostly," Hackworth said. Supposedly Finkle-McGraw still kept up with things and would recognize the abbreviation for pseudo-intelligence, and perhaps even appreciate that Hackworth had made this assumption.
Finkle-McGraw brightened a bit. "You know, when I was a lad they called it AI. Artificial intelligence.
"Hackworth allowed himself a tight, narrow, and brief smile.
"Well, there's something to be said for cheekiness, I suppose."
"In what way was pseudo-intelligence used here?"
"Strictly on MPS's side of the project, sir." Imperial Tectonics had done the island, buildings and vegetation. Machine-Phase Systems - Hackworth's employer - did anything that moved.
"Stereotyped behaviours were fine for the birds, dinosaurs, and so on, but for the centaurs and fauns we wanted more interactivity, something that would provide an illusion of sentience."
"Yes, well done, well done, Mr Hackworth."
"Thank you, sir."
"Now, I know perfectly well that only the very finest engineers made it to Bespoke. Suppose you tell me how an aficionado of Romantic poets made it into such a position."
Hackworth was taken aback by this and tried to respond without seeming to put on airs. "Surely a man in your position does not see any contradiction -"
"But a man in my position was not responsible for promoting you to Bespoke. A man in an entirely different position was. And I am very much afraid that such men do tend to see a contradiction."
"Yes, I see. Well, sir, I studied English literature in college."
"Ah! So you are not one of those who followed the straight and narrow path to engineering."
"I suppose not, sir."
"And your colleagues at Bespoke?"
"Well, if I understand your question, sir, I would say that, as compared with other departments, a relatively large proportion of Bespoke engineers have had - well, for lack of a better way of describing it, interesting lives."
"And what makes one man's life more interesting than another's?"
"In general, I should say that we find unpredictable or novel things more interesting."
"That is nearly a tautology."
But while Lord Finkle-McGraw was not the sort to express feelings promiscuously, he gave the appearance of being nearly satisfied with the way the conversation was going. He turned back toward the view again and watched the children for a minute or so, twisting the point of his walking stick into the ground as if he were still sceptical of the island's integrity. Then he swept the stick around in an arc that encompassed half he island. "How many of those children do you suppose are destined to lead interesting lives?"
"Well, at least two, sir - Princess Charlotte, and your granddaughter."
"You're quick, Hackworth, and I suspect capable of being devious if not for your staunch moral character," Finkle-McGraw said, not without a certain archness. "Tell me, were your parents subjects, or did you take the Oath?"
"As soon as I turned 21, sir. Her Majesty - at that time, actually, she was still Her Royal Highness - was touring North America, prior to her enrolment at Stanford, and I took the Oath at Trinity Church in Boston."
"Why? You're a clever fellow, not blind to culture like so many engineers. You could have joined the First Distributed Republic or any of a hundred synthetic phyles on the West Coast. You would have had decent prospects and been free from all this" - Finkle-McGraw jabbed his cane at the two big airships - "behavioural discipline that we impose upon ourselves. Why did you impose it on yourself, Mr Hackworth?"
"Without straying into matters that are strictly personal in nature," Hackworth said carefully, "I knew two kinds of discipline as a child: none at all, and too much. The former leads to degenerate behaviour. When I speak of degeneracy, I am not being priggish, sir - I am alluding to things well known to me, as they made my own childhood less than idyllic."
Finkle-McGraw, perhaps realising that he had stepped out of bounds, nodded vigorously. "This is a familiar argument, of course."
"Of course, sir. I would not presume to imply that I was the only young person ill used by what became of my native culture."
"And I do not see such an implication. But many who feel as you do found their way into phyles wherein a much harsher regime prevails and which view us as degenerates."
"My life was not without periods of excessive, unreasoning discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for laxity in the first place. That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the 19th century instead for stable social models."
"Well done, Hackworth! But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria."
"We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised that era."
"Have we, then? How reassuring. And have we resolved them in a way that will ensure that all of those children down there live interesting lives?"
"I must confess that I am too slow to follow you."
"You yourself said that the engineers in the Bespoke department - the very best - had led interesting lives, rather than coming from the straight and narrow. Which implies a correlation, does it not?"
"This implies, does it not, that in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting. And the question I have for you, Mr. Hackworth, is this: Do you think that our schools accomplished that? Or are they like the schools that Wordsworth complained of?"
"My daughter is too young to attend school - but I should fear that the latter situation prevails."
"I assure you that it does, Mr Hackworth. My three children were raised in those schools, and I know them well. I am determined that Elizabeth shall be raised differently."
Hackworth felt his face flushing. "Sir, may I remind you that we have just met - I do not feel worthy of the confidences you are reposing in me."
"I'm telling you these things not as a friend, Mr Hackworth, but as a professional."
"Then I must remind you that I am an engineer, not a child psychologist."
"This I have not forgotten, Mr Hackworth. You are indeed an engineer, and a very fine one, in a company that I still think of as mine - though as an Equity Lord, I no longer have a formal connection. And now that you have brought your part of this project to a successful conclusion, I intend to put you in charge of a new project for which I have reason to believe you are perfectly suited."