Thursday, October 13, 2011

Snow Crash

Snow Crash
By Neal Stephenson

Whoa boy, here we go... Some spoilers.

I was inclined to write unfavorably about this novel until, about halfway through reading it, I noticed that it was published in 1992. See, that's the thing with science fiction. The date of publication can actually sway the reader's opinion of the book convincingly. Had this book been written even five years later and I'd be writing a cynical post about all the nonsense espoused by Stephenson. As it so happens, I can't trash this book and I'll tell you why.

Snow Crash takes place in a not-too-distant future of instant gratification and hyper-sensitivity toward personal freedoms. It is a world where the Mafia is a legal enterprise, hyper-inflation has rendered America impotent, the government has become a parody of politically correct mind games while other nations and religions act as corporate entities within its borders. It all feels like a mix of Blade Runner, The Matrix and Idiocracy but without the androids, spoon-bending and Brawndo. A hopeless, soulless dystopia that provides some very dis-spiriting end results based on our current trajectories.

The reader is introduced to a cast of improbable characters: Hiro Protagonist, a katana-wielding super-hacker turned pizza delivery guy, Y.T. (short for Yours Truly) a spunky 15-year old skateboarding Kourier working for the Mafia, and Raven, a freakishly large Aleutian harpoonist turned nuclear threat bent on revenge against America for their attack on the Alaskan islands at the end of World War Two. In Snow Crash we watch as these characters and a host of others prance around reality and something called the Metaverse (a 3D computer world that is eerily similar to the internet, although far more interactive) seemingly at will. Since the police force has been rendered entirely impotent and personal freedoms are a premium and any sort of freedom can be purchased (racist? Come live in New South Africa!), there exists virtually no laws to speak of and thus the characters face very few consequences for their often violent and destructive actions.

And then there's Snow Crash. Snow Crash is at once an extremely dangerous computer virus that can actually physically harm hackers inside the Metaverse and a highly addictive drug in reality. It is the product of one Bob L. Rife who, through an elaborate plan involving an aircraft carrier, ancient Sumerian tablets and an army of Asian refugees is bent on converting America to his own brand of Pentecostal insanity. The rationale for this requires an elaborate descent into Sumerian mythology that reminded me of the Da Vinci Code in its scope. Stephenson suggests that the Sumerian language is some sort of basic operating system hardwired into the human brain. By tapping into the basic functions of the brain via the sumerian language, Rife can control the world.

Confused yet? OK, good.

So what makes this novel so good? Well it was published way back in 1992. Ah 1992! When over-sized sweaters and bike shorts ruled the fashion world. Flat-tops were all the rage and Vanilla Ice had yet to become the ironic icon of a generation and Microsoft launched Windows 3.1. Also in 1992, Delphi became the first commercial enterprise to offer Internet access to its subscribers. While this was certainly a major moment in the history of the internet, it certainly didn't mean we were all online. Not yet anyway.

So when Stephenson published Snow Crash in 1992 with its mention of the Metaverse there was an element of fantasy to the entire idea (at least there would have been from this 12th grader had I read the book then). Stephenson talks of people having homes and offices in the Metaverse and rendering avatars and requiring greater access and tighter security. All sound familiar?

(In fact, Stephenson has often been credited with coining the phrase "avatar" although he downplays this notion in the afterword of the book).

Wait, there's more. Hiro Protagonist uses two programs within the Metaverse, the Librarian and Earth. It takes very little imagination to link these ideas with our understanding of Wikipedia and Google Earth. What's more, Stephenson talks of the financial collapse of the American system and the hyper-inflation that followed. While this certainly has not happened, it is a grim reminder of issues that plague the American Government and the Federal Reserve today.

While I imagine that Stephenson had to stretch the bounds of archaeology to do so, his idea that language is a program and religion is a virus are intriguing, although far-fetched. According to Stephenson the sumerian goddess Asherah created a virus to infect humanity. The virus was stopped by Enki through some form of linguistic inoculation (the disappearance of the Sumerian language) and the need for acquired languages (thus the Tower of Babel). At times, this portion of the book reads like Chariots of the Gods and I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes in a few places.

As with any action flick, Snow Crash ends with the requisite car chase, boss fight, explosion sequence that failed to leave me with any real closure, but that's not really the point of a science fiction novel, is it. I liked Snow Crash if for no other reason than its creative impact on our current world. While parts of this novel descended into the patently absurd, there was enough real, honest-to-goodness sci-fi excellence to balance it out. As the friend that brought this book to my attention said:

"I will remember parts of this book until the day I die."


Sharon Henning said...

This was a very good review. Back in 1992 was when I used to read science fiction.

Trev said...

Sounds like a good read. New follower: Trev @

Post a Comment