Geography's conquest of history in The Diamond Age

Stephenson’s immensely creative novel offers a story about the disequilibrium between space and time, about reconstituting subjectivity in a world where geography has conquered history, and about the importance of narrative in the creation of subject positions. In this chapter, we argue that geography’s conquest of history defines the struggles over culture, identity, subjectivity, and power that drive the events in The Diamond Age. There’s an intriguing parallel between the future Stephenson imagines and the direction of current intellectual debates over culture, identity politics, and the subject in postmodern society. We doubt Stephenson himself is particularly concerned with these debates; indeed, we hope he’s not. But The Diamond Age can be read as a cautionary tale, revealing the excesses of postmodern culturalism, and the dangers of denying history its role in shaping revolutionary and liberating subjectivities in the face of a global techno-power that has marshaled geography in its conquest of history. The chapter proceeds with a brief discussion of the “spatial turn” in social and cultural theory, before turning to a more detailed recounting of the novel itself. Engaging the text, we hope to show the problematic aspects of Stephenson’s hyper-spatialized world–both in terms of individual subjectivity and social relations–and the events in the novel whereby struggles with power, and struggles over subjectivity, lead to ruptures in the spatial logic that secures the control of technology, opening the way for a freedom-seeking subject.


The narrative of the Primer can be read as a call to action for Nell, an enabling force for the formation of a freedom-seeking subject that subverts the culturalist, spatialized subjectivities constituted through Stephenson’s post-national landscape of claves, tribes, and phyles. But, by the end of the novel, it is clear that the Primer by itself is not a sufficient agent in developing Nell’s powerfully emancipated consciousness. The Primer alone cannot account for the woman Nell turns out to be. For, the Primer has been read by two other Vicky girls–Fiona Hackworth and Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw–with totally different results. Fiona ends up seduced by the drummers warren, and Elizabeth checks out of public society altogether with unclear consequences. In all three girls the Primer has introduced its profoundly destabilizing forces, but only Nell is able to channel these forces into meaningful and emancipatory action. Additionally, the Primer has been read by the thousands of abandoned Chinese girls, the “mouse army” that eventually embraces Nell as its queen and paramount leader. In this case, the Primer seems to have merely generated an army of devoted followers. Although the mouse army is composed of exceptionally well-trained fighting girls, there is nothing particularly emancipated about their subjectivities, at least not on the individual level that we find in Nell. —Michael Longan and Tim OakesGeography’s conquest of history in The Diamond Age Lost in Space: Geographies of Science Fiction)