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Remediated Readers: Gender and Literacy in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age

Eileen McGinnis
Science Fiction Studies
Vol. 40, No. 3 (November 2013), pp. 480-495
Published by: SF-TH Inc
DOI: 10.5621/sciefictstud.40.3.0480
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.40.3.0480
Page Count: 16
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Remediated Readers: Gender and Literacy in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond
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Abstract

With its emphasis on proper pedagogy and “young lady” programmers, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1995) slyly subverts the conventions of earlier cyberpunk, which tends to focus on anti-establishment male heroes. These modifications, I argue, are a response to critics of the 1990s who see computer culture as a threat to human subjectivity cultivated through the act of reading; instead, Stephenson asserts that learning to code can have the same cultural capital as learning to read. This paper explores the pervasive and sometimes troubling ways in which gendered and racialized bodies are used to stabilize this assertion. It begins by tracing how Nell's interaction with the Primer is an education into the values of her society, in contrast to the male loner working outside of or against the system. Further, I examine how Miranda's articulation of the Primer recalls nineteenth-century practices of reading instruction, which simultaneously elided the maternal reader and “naturalized” the act of reading. I also address the imagined community created when the Primer is distributed to an army of orphaned Chinese girls, showing how ideologies of reading can perpetuate inequalities and systems of power. Ultimately, by attempting to “domesticate” the computer, The Diamond Age spawns a more alienating vision of the printed book: as a machine embedded in prescriptive gender roles, imperialist agendas, and capitalist logics.

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