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Science Fiction Themes in the 1990s

The Diamond Age and the Mars Trilogy

Over the last few weeks in the history of science fiction, we have been looking at different aspects of science fiction in the 1990s. By now cyberpunk ceased to be a ghetto and became more integrated into the mainstream. Emerging themes included environmental issues, the implications of the global Internet and the expanding information universe and questions about biotechnology and nanotechnology. Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age (1995) is typical of this. It won both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1996.


The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is a science fiction novel by American writer Neal Stephenson. It is to some extent a coming-of-age story, focused on a young girl named Nell, set in a future world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence. The Diamond Age was first published in 1995 by Bantam Books, as a Bantam Spectra hardcover edition. In 1996, it won both the Hugo and Locus Awards, and was shortlisted for the Nebula and other awards.

The protagonist in the story is Nell, a thete (or person without a tribe; equivalent to the lowest working class) living in the Leased Territories, a lowland slum built on the artificial, diamondoid island of New Chusan, located offshore from the mouth of the Yangtze River, northwest of Shanghai. At the age of four, Nell receives a stolen copy of an interactive book, Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion, in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, &c., originally intended for the wealthy Neo-Victorian “Equity Lord” Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw’s granddaughter. The story follows Nell’s development under the tutelage of the Primer, and to a lesser degree, the lives of Elizabeth and Fiona, girls who receive similar books. The Primer is intended to steer its reader intellectually toward a more interesting life, as defined by “Equity Lord” Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, and growing up to be an effective member of society. The most important quality to achieving an “interesting life” is deemed to be a subversive attitude towards the status quo. The Primer is designed to react to its owners’ environment and teach them what they need to know to survive and develop.

Kim Stanley Robinson saw images of Mars on TV and was inspired to write of terraforming, in The Mars Trilogy: Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), Blue Mars (1996). The tension in the books is because some people wanted Mars left as it is.

Red Mars
The Mars trilogy is a series of award-winning science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson that chronicles the settlement and terraforming of the planet Mars through the intensely personal and detailed viewpoints of a wide variety of characters spanning almost two centuries. Ultimately more utopian than dystopian, the story focuses on egalitarian, sociological, and scientific advances made on Mars, while Earth suffers from overpopulation and ecological disaster.

The three novels are Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996). The Martians (1999) is a collection of short stories set in the same fictional universe. The main trilogy won a number of prestigious awards. Icehenge (1984), Robinson’s first novel about Mars, is not set in this universe but deals with similar themes and plot elements. The trilogy shares some similarities with Robinson’s more recent novel 2312 (2012), for instance, the terraforming of Mars and the extreme longevity of the characters in both novels.

Science fiction is all imagination. “Science fiction tells a persistent lie – that we will go to the stars, that humanity will live outside this solar system.” Robinson says that science fiction “ignores the reality that even the closest stars are stupendously far away.

[adapted from Wikipedia and other sources]

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at