The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life

In The Diamond Age, the Primer is not the environment Nell ultimately uses to lead her troops, and it’s not the environment she’ll use to generate novel ideas for society (its authors’ ultimate goal). It’s best understood as an onboarding experience for the rest of her life. It conveys its payload via the mechanism described in The Primer is an enormous enacted experience, then it’s meant to be transcended and left behind.

Hackworth himself suggests the transition once Nell finishes the book’s quests:

You have conquered this world today, and now that you have conquered it, you’ll find it a rather boring place. Now it’s your responsibility to make new worlds for other people to explore and conquer.“ (p. 445)

Almost all the meaningful activity in Nell’s youth takes place inside the Primer’s fantasy world, strictly separated from real-world purpose and action. Nell doesn’t do any original thinking inside the Primer, and she’s not supposed to: that’s for after “onboarding.”

I don’t think this kind of strict separation is viable; see Nell doesn’t know or share the Primer’s goals. One of Nell’s real-life mentors, the Constable, suggests as much in the book: “In your Primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life.” (p283)

Because The Primer doesn’t make experts better at anything, it’s not meaningfully extending the frontier: it’s about expanding access.


Stephenson, N. (2003). The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (Reprint edition). Spectra.