Stephenson (Snow Crash, 1992) imagines a 21st century in which molecular machines (nanotechnology) can create any desired object or structure.
National governments have vanished, leaving society divided into enclaves along ethnic, cultural, and ideological lines, the most dynamic of which are the new-Victorian Atlanteans of coastal China. Talented nano-engineer John Hackworth designs an interactive book, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, intended to function as both parent and teacher. An illicit copy of the book falls into the hands of an abused little girl, Nell. In the book, she becomes Princess Nell, the focus of marvelous tales and experiences that, seemingly incidentally, educate and train her. Meanwhile, a mysterious Chinese techno-whiz, Dr. X, busy rescuing doomed, unwanted Chinese girl babies, duplicates the stolen copy of the Primer so as to raise and educate the infants. Hackworth is ordered to join the Dreamers, a weird collective intelligence among which, through his subconscious, he designs a nanotech control method for the Celestial Kingdom represented by Dr. X. And when Dr. X's Fanatical Fists invade the coastal enclaves of China, Nell is trapped--until her army of Chinese girls, raised by the interactive Primer and devoted to Princess Nell, pull off a dramatic rescue.
All of this is staggeringly inventive and meticulously detailed, but, lacking a coherent plot and set forth in an irritatingly vainglorious style, it's ultimately soulless and uncompelling.