Thursday, August 30, 2007

Review of Snow Crash -- Neal Stephenson

Science fiction is a genre sustained by big ideas. These big ideas often involve technology or science, though sometimes authors venture into philosophy or even sociology. Sometimes, though, the big idea ladled out in prose for the reader is simply style.

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is an experiment in narrative look-and-feel, a taste of the future not quite realistic but eminently believable. It is a fast-cut MTV music video of striking images wrought in catchy, smile-inducing prose streaking along at breakneck speed. The reader knows exactly what he's getting into with what may be the most engrossing first chapter in science fiction:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

...The Deliverator's car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator's car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, sh*t happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car's tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator's car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of fat ladies' thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.

Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America....There's only four things we do better than anyone else

microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator's report card would say: "Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills."

So now he has this other job. No brightness of creativity involved--but no cooperation either. Just a single principle: The Deliverator stands tall, your pie in thirty minutes or you can have it for free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class action suit.
Never has the delivery of pizza been so utterly fascinating, exciting, dangerous, and sexy. The reader is wise to let this foretaste inform his expectations of the coming narrative. The plot content is no more surprising or nutritious than a slice of pepperoni pizza, but the ride itself is absolutely worth the trip.

Our tour guide on this chic ride around a cyberpunk future is Hiro Protagonist. Only in a sarcastic, media-drenched dystopian novel could an author get away with naming his protagonist Protagonist. Hiro is the quintessential hacker archetype: smart, resourceful, and connected. For a cyberpunk character, Hiro is also kind, charming, and good. Here is no burned-out drug addict, anti-hero type that usually anchors such stories. Hiro gets himself in trouble with the Mafia (who of course run the pizza delivery chain) and has to find a new job. He ends up stumbling onto a strange new drug being marketed both in the "real world" and in the 3D immersive internet of the future. The drug, called Snow Crash, is a vehicle for spreading both a computer virus and a mind-wiping DNA virus at the same time. What?

As Hiro learns more about who is making this virus and what its capable of, he gets himself more and more in over his head. He meets some colorful characters along the way: Y.T., the 15-year old blonde-haired ballistic-armored skateboard thrasher-ette; Ng, the Korean cyborg six-wheeled bus armed with miniature helicopters and cyborg rat-dogs; Raven, the mutant Aleutian harpooneer carrying a thermonuclear warhead strapped to his motorbike; and a long string of others.

By the middle of the book, it's clear that this is your standard conspiracy to enslave/destroy the whole world, and only Hiro and his friends have the know-how and tools to stop the evil-doers. But remember, it's not about the plot; the plot is an excuse to get there in style.

First Steps Toward a Wired View of the World

In order for a cyberpunk novel to be a cyberpunk novel, a significant portion of its action must occur in cyberspace. Here, we see Stephenson's imagination at its most realistic, having foreseen what is essentially today's massively multiplayer "game" called SecondLife. Millions of people walk around in a digital world, interacting with each other for business and pleasure. "Avatars", the digital representation of the user, vary infinitely, though newbies stick to the default options. Experienced users know that the Metaverse has different rules than the real one, and hackers reign supreme in such a world. Best of all, Stephenson doesn't take his hackers too seriously; other characters around them playfully call them antisocial nerds; and before nerdy was hip, there was Hiro.

Stephenson, who published Snow Crash in 1992, had the keen eyes of a reliable futurist. Even now, the narratives which take place in Stephenson's "Metaverse" read as nostalgic rather than merely dated.

A Tribal World of Fractured Individuality

The other setting for the story, the "real world" of the novel, is a fractured North America. Gone is any semblance of nationalism or stability. Anywhere you stand, you can look around and see "franchulates", relatively small enclaves of people within a protected border. These are not really small nations, cities, or villages, but rather collections of businesses and their patrons. These businesses are responsible for policing their immediate areas. Absolutely everything is contract work: jobs, police protection, medical attention, pizza delivery, weapons manufacturing, media, even citizenship and its privileges. This is a world completely swallowed by capitalism, everything has its price and there are no institutional forces driving or shaping the economy. But neither is this a philosophical analysis of (or attack on) capitalism; it is presented as more or less a neutral fact of the world, a fascinating setting in which the characters unravel the mystery of Snow Crash.

Even more fractured are the characters' self-conception of identity. As Hiro and others move in and out of each others' lives, loosely affiliated with their employers, passing through boundary-less social circles, and crossing effortlessly the market-identities of various franchulates, it is clear that these characters are adrift in identity crisis. They have no community, no belonging, no family, no committed relationships of any kind. There is a hollow emptiness that trails behind these interactions, the hint of loneliness in this fast-paced narrative.

Dreading the Infocalypse

The center of the plot is a thoroughly science fiction Big Idea. What if people could get infected with computer viruses? Spread them around like a disease? What if language, properly framed, could propagate these viruses just like digital language does in the world of the microchip? Stephenson takes a scoop of real world mythology, the Tower of Babel, and postulates that as an event in which the human world was innoculated against the spread of informational viruses. The Sumerian language, unlike any other in the world, was uniquely capable of carrying these languages because of its elemental nature (like the assembly or machine code of a computer). But someone "reprogrammed" human language, killing off the Sumerian language and confusing the world's languages. Only now, someone has rediscovered ancient techniques for programming people, forcing them to obey verbal commands and spreading around informational viruses that propagate the control. Hiro and his friends must stop the dark figures who are reviving this ancient menace, hackers against hackers, before the world descends into "Infocalypse", a mindless prehistoric despotism. What?

Real and Digital Humanity

In spite of the strangeness of the novel's inner plot, the novel sustains interest till the last page. Part of the reason for this is the chic and slick-ness of the prose, but even this cannot prop up a novel for 460+ pages. Stephenson paints rich and likable characters. In other cyberpunk stories, angst and frustration mark every interaction; no one can control their dark side and all is tragic quagmire; the reader is left with a nagging ennui. Not in Snow Crash. Here, Hiro has a good and reliable friend in Y.T. Y.T. is nice to people even though she is a punk attitude-spewing teenage girl. When things get serious, her tough-chick facade cracks. Y.T. meets Uncle Enzo, the head of the Mafia franchulate, and their interactions are some of the most authentic, charming, and thoroughly human in the novel. For a story which spends much of its time in a digital playground, this novel is firmly grounded in human relationships, however fragmented they may be.


Readers must beware that cyberpunk fiction in general is rife with foul language, violence, sex, and drugs; Snow Crash has plenty of the first. As far as violence goes, it is an action-oriented plot with frequent armed conflict, but for the most part it is much less brutal than most other similar fare. There is only one sex scene in the book, though it is somewhat disturbing because of the characters involved. And for a cyberpunk novel, there is almost no drug culture; the only drug making its presence felt is the eponymous Snow Crash.

For readers who love science fiction, this is a must-have book. It stands with Neuromancer at the genesis of cyberpunk fiction and is one of the fullest and purest expressions of the form. While the center of the plot may be a little silly (Sumerian Enki programmers and Asherah temple prostitutes, what?), the book is a sheer pleasure to read with lots to see and ponder along the way. More than many other books of its kind, it bears repeated readings. Even more rare, it inspires the desire to pull it off the shelf and read a chapter for the flavor it leaves in your mind.

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