The Diamond Age takes place primarily in a future Shanghai, where governments have been replaced by "phyles" or "claves", bound more by culture than by geographic borders; and where nanotechnology dominates everyday life, providing everything from weapons that can kill a man from the inside to food synthesis to a book that can create a story tailored to its owner.
One such book - A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is stolen - first by John Percival Hackworth, who plans to give it to his daughter Fiona; then by Harv, a tough street kid, who gives the book to his younger sister Nell. Nell grows up with the Primer, which tells her stories of Princess Nell, a fantasy version of Nell who travels through mythical lands on quest after quest. Princess Nell's story parallels that of the real-life Nell and she begins to think of the Primer and the "ractor" who reads the story aloud as a surrogate mother to replace Nell's own neglectful mother. As Nell grows older and runs away from her mother and her mother's abusive boyfriends she seeks comfort in the Primer.
Along with the stories of Nell and Princess Nell, The Diamond Age weaves the story of the unfortunate Hackworth, who seeks to retrieve the book he lost and discover the secret for which it was made.
The Diamond Age book explores technologies role in society and the importance of human interaction, even in a world with advanced technologies. There are many copies of the Primer being consumed by many young girls; but Nell benefits from hers more than other girls do because hers is read by a real-live (if anonymous) ractor and the two connect because of this.
While not as clever or exciting as Stephenson's earlier novel - the excellent Snow Crash - The Diamond Age is a very good story and paints an intriguing picture of a society and the people in it.
There are many characters and sub-plots in The Diamond Age and Stephenson weaves them together brilliantly. In the end, they all come together in a climax that was a bit more confusing than I would have liked; but the journey to that point made this novel worthwhile.