I was super excited to read a second novel by Neal Stephenson after absolutely loving Snow Crash. But this novel just didn’t click so well for me. Set in a future society where Victorian values blend with Confucian law and nanotechnology is mainstream, Nell is a young girl being raised as well as can be by her brother Harv, as their mother lurches from one bad relationship to the next. After mugging a scientist, Harv gifts Nell with a stolen book, which was intended for the scientist’s own daughter. The “Young Ladies Illustrated Primer” is no ordinary book, but rather an interactive device that bonds with its reader to become a teacher and confidant throughout her formative years. Nell’s use of the book soon sees her develop into a very accomplished and gifted young woman.
Primarily, this is a story about transformation. Most obviously Nell’s, but also with all the other lives intersecting her own. I think this may be why I felt somewhat distanced from this book – the world in which it was set was absolutely fascinating, but the characters were so mutable that I never really invested in them. I also found this novel to be somewhat more about the sci-fi detail and less about the characters, which is not really my cup of tea. That said, I did find the explanation of early computers and binary code to be so well explained that at times I felt like I almost had a grasp of it.