Neal 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.