The Post-Multiculturalism of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age

In Literature, Opinion, Sci-Fi
Scroll this

Multiculturalism is a term used to define a society that contains multiple cultures. This is not to be confused with the European melting pot that defined much of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries in the United States, which is more accurately called cultural assimilation. My focus is on the former.

In a country founded by immigrants and open to immigration to this day, multiculturalism is an inseparable facet of American life. I do not expect a continuation of the melting pot that melded together the European immigrants of yesteryear. Given enough time—centuries, perhaps—anything is possible, but I cannot see so far ahead. The ethnic makeup of the U.S. today consists of large numbers from Latin America and Asia—people with old, significant cultures that sit in stark contrast to that of the amalgamated Old World culture that has dominated American society for so long. These cultures will not assimilate easily, if at all. Such assimilation, too, would be against the principles of multiculturalism, which preaches a healthy respect for and tolerance of all cultures. Where is the respect for a culture picked apart, gutted, and sifted through? That would be a poor outcome.

The drawback of multiculturalism in a country as diverse as the U.S. is in the maintenance of a national identity. Different cultures preach different values. Its peoples want different things. “All I am is what I’m going after,” is a favorite quote of mine from the movie Heat. Applied on a larger scale, who are we as a country if we can’t agree on what we’re “going after”? What holds us together besides geography?

I recently finished reading my second Neal Stephenson novel, The Diamond Age—the first being Snow Crash. Both novels envision a future not of greater unity but largely splintered apart. With the development of technology—particularly advances in communication and transportation—the idea of “countries” completely fell apart in these novels. The Diamond Age is mostly centered around what was Shanghai, China and the many walled-off societies called “phyles” that there stand shoulder-to-shoulder but seldom mingle. The Neo-Victorian New Atlantis, the phyle that is the novel’s focus, have enclaves all over the world. They are in no way restricted to the British Isles. This same freedom from geographical borders is shared by every large phyle.

I do agree that a world divided by culture seems much more logical than the lines we’ve drawn today (not that I question every such line, many of which divide cultures fairly and necessarily). Technology surely makes such a world possible, and I wish I could live to see it realized. I do have to question why a culture would desire (or tolerate) such geographic separation, but I suppose that’s out of necessity. Even with the considerable technology in use in Stephenson’s future, the mass-relocation of billions of people across newly drawn lines seems like a problem without a solution.

If I have one quarrel with Stephenson it is his seeming pessimism regarding the ability of cultures in our increasingly global world to live together. He is saying that we will reach a point when we won’t want to—when we will wall ourselves off and fortify the defenses. It’s an appalling concept to me as a traveler (I’m writing this in McLeod Ganj, India) who feels more at home mixing it up in a strange culture than he does at home with like-minded people. Our globally-connected world created me and facilitates my lifestyle. I’m surrounded by backpackers doing the same. Surely our numbers have grown over the years. While I recognize that my activities are in no way indicative of the culture in which I’m from, I can’t help but think that I’m part of a trend toward greater and greater mingling of peoples and cultures. I don’t see this course reversing and I’m not cynical enough to think that the majority of people want to retreat within the safety of The Familiar and block out the rest. I hear too much envy, even from those who would never do what I’m doing right now.

It’s not all pessimism, though. The positive side of this future is the ability of most people (barring ethnic requirements) to pick the culture they associate with most. I wouldn’t be “stuck” with the local culture of a geographically defined place because I had the misfortune of being born there: I could take the oath with New Atlantis and live on any continent.

That sounds alright to me.

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *