Neal Stephenson’s Subterranean Orgy Computer

i-5af72ea42f63ed1ac1b839434c847345-diamondage.jpgNeal Stephenson is an unusually inventive writer of historical and futuristic fiction. I have previously reviewed his 2008 novel Anathem here. And somehow I have now come to think of one of his weirdest ideas: the subterranean orgy computer in The Diamond Age.

This 1995 book bursts with far-out motifs and ideas, to the extent that I can’t say I really understood everything very well when reading it back then. I found the ending confusing and dissatisfying, possibly because I wasn’t entirely clued in to what happened or what it meant. But I did get this about the subterranean Drummer subculture. They’re a human computer cluster.

Every Drummer is infected with nanocomputers, microscopic smart particles that run code and talk to each other as well as to the bodily information networks of their host – importantly the brain. This overrides the host’s own consciousness, making each Drummer a mindless slave to their nanoparticles. Each one of them is in themself a walking computing cluster. Here’s when one of the novel’s main characters has been infected with the nano and enters a Drummer tunnel complex.

He could see the nanosites [nano parasites] in his skin. But for all he knew, he might have a million more living in his brain now, piggybacking on axons and dendrites, sending data to one another in flashes of light. A second brain intermingled with his own.

There was no reason that information could not be relayed from one such nanosite to another, through his body and outward to the nanosites in his skin, and from there across the darkness to others. What would happen when he came close to other people with similar infestations?

pp. 250-251, 1996 Bantam paperback edition

This suggests that whenever the nano in one Drummer wants to talk to those in other bodies, it can just blink its LEDs at them. But apparently this doesn’t provide enough bandwidth. So Stephenson introduces his computing orgy: the Drummers exchange nanites with each other by sexual intercourse. As punishment for a crime, our protagonist spends ten years semi-conscious in the Drummer tunnels, apparently crawling about and bonking whoever the nano deems appropriate. This is pretty risky, as the nano has severe cooling problems and fries hosts when the computation gets intense enough. Pretty silly in my opinion – why not just exchange saliva? – and it prompts a gratuitous mindless gang-bang scene that the novel would have been better without. But for better or worse, I must say that the Drummers are one of the most memorable motifs in this intriguing novel.


6 thoughts on “Neal Stephenson’s Subterranean Orgy Computer

  1. Personally I prefer Stephenson’s novel about Hiro Protagonist (Snow Crash), a parody of Ayn Rand-inspired SF where the police is run by private companies and the communities (urbclaves) belong to various virtual nations with their own constitutions. For instance if you are a racist, you can settle in one of the towns belonging to New South Africa scattered all over North America.
    The United States has been reduced by a scattered number of similar urbclaves, where you can work if you don’t mind getting hassled by security guards when you enter and leave (written in the 1990s, he got this part right).
    N S is a friend of George Dyson (son of Freeman Dyson), an enthusiast of the unique Aleutian kayak, and a guy with a similar kayak plays a mayor role in the book.


  2. Stephenson’s gone south in the same way Stephen King did – why write an interesting novel when you can vomit the entire life history of several generations of the protagonists in excruciating detail?


  3. I haven’t read the Diamond Age in, well, ages, but I clearly remember having pretty exactly the same experience of it, and my father did as well when he read it for the first time a month ago. By the time I got to the end I didn’t have any idea what was supposed to have happened anymore, and that started sometime around the rather jarring Drummer orgy. Stephenson is an interesting guy, and an interesting writer, but I don’t get the impression he ever cuts anything, and it starts to show when something is clearly in there because he did some research, or had an idea, and wants to share it whether it really fits in the book or not.

    I still haven’t gotten around to Anathem yet, but I’ll pick it up one of these days.


  4. He seems to have a couple of recurring themes that run through his books. I’m not going to try to do an article, but, pipe organs, hedonistic/drug addicted comic relief, a person or group who highly function and another group lost in primitive tribe like function. In “Snow Crash,” he covers drummer like behavior with his discussion of Christianity and the myth of the garden of Eden and why such a myth would come about. In that novel he also uses the idea that brains can be “hacked” and those hacked can be used in a similar fashion to the drummers. The theme seems to revolve around the idea of mindless tribal conformity vs. free will and higher intellectual function. In “Snow Crash,” one character suggests that Christ was an antidote to the recurrance of such thinking, but his teachings were stolen by folks who wished to create a religion of mysticism. I’d also suggest that in the “Diamond Age,” a central idea was that Victorian principles, ideas and ethics had to be a conclusion adopted by folks who had seen what happens when such ethics don’t exist. People who grow up with such ethics, who know no different, become snobs, are lost and the society stagnates because of a lack of creative input. Ultimately, Nell, who was brought up poor, in the worst of conditions is the one who benefits most from the “young girls primer,” and she is the one who has seen the worst. She decides not to choose action or reaction, conservativism or liberalism but rather to think each idea through on its own. Of course becoming the queen of billions of Chinese orphans doesn’t hurt either…which seems to be a comment on considering humans as being disposable. Particularly humans considered disposable by a given society…who also were able to benefit from the teachings of the “primer.” Nothing like a horde or highly intelligent children who you’ve rejected coming at you to give you a new perspective…


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