rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book, published in 1995, takes place in the not-so-distant future near Shanghai. In this world, people have formed themselves into tribes. John Percival Hackworth belongs to the neo-Victorians, a tribe that has adopted the manners and strict moral code of British royalty in the 19th century. A high-ranking official in the tribe commissions Hackworth to create an interactive device called A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer that can teach a girl to reason and solve problems. There was supposed to be only one copy made, for the official's grandchild, but Hackworth illegally made an extra copy for his own daughter. The copy is stolen from him and ends up with Nell, a four-year-old girl who is a member of the poor tribeless class called thetes. She is alternately abused and neglected by her mother and the parade of men that come throught their apartment, so the Primer gives her a way to escape.
This book is for a person is accustomed to reading sci-fi. Stephenson jumps right in with jargon of the world he created and it can be a steep learning curve if you aren't a regular reader of this genre. Also, a lot of the stuff that is implied in a sci-fi TV show or distilled down to a scene or two is spelled out in a book, which made for long passages about how buildings were constructed or how certain tribes came to be. A fan of the genre would consider this part of the world-building that authors have to do, but I felt like I was reading a dry history textbook in those spots.
Since I prefer more personal stories, I would have to say this book wasn't for me. After the first 50 pages, I ended up skipping several pages in favor of chapters about Nell. The story of how Nell uses the Primer to pull herself out of a bad family situation and become someone who could fit in with the upper class held my attention. Whenever the book switched to following what happened to Hackworth after he stole the Primer, I lost interest. As the book drew to a close, there was more about warring factions and a techonological revolution and less about Nell, so I just skimmed my way to the end.
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