Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

It is rare to find a speculative fiction novel that remains thought-provoking after nearly 30 years. Snow Crash is one of those rarities. I admit missing this novel when it first came out in 1992 (I was busy in law school at the time). It had been on my reading list since the late ’90s. I only wish I had read it earlier.

The start of the novel was a bit rocky. At first I was put off by the Vonnegutesque absurdity of Hiro Protagonist and the action-adventure of fulfilling the brand promise of a 30-minute minute pizza delivery made by the Mafia. Yet the an-cap in me loved the image of a pizza delivery guy who had to be armed to the teeth.

Published in 1992, you will see some big anachronisms (such as the using terms like “video tape”). The skater/shredder slang is also very early ’90’s, as is the continued widespread popularity of punk and grunge music (which ended-up quite short lived). The dialogue made me feel Max Headroom would soon make an appearance. Finally, the Metaverse is described as a single virtual destination (rather than a series of worlds or sites; Stephenson’s version sounds like the internet’s sole user face is a robust, VR version of Secondlife).

Yet Snow Crash remains a great novel. To call the novel visionary risks understatement. Interestingly, the story started as a computer-based graphic novel project, making me wonder if those origins gave Stephenson the license to push the story telling boundaries in Snow Crash into extreme territory, taking “what if” questions even farther. I realize Stephenson had a tech background so he likely brought forward ideas the tech community were kicking around at the time. I’m sure not every idea was his inspiration–even I was cognizant of the internet back in 1992 (I was using LEXIS/NEXIS and WESTLAW from a dial-up modem on an Apple Macintosh SE/30)–but Stephenson took both tech and societal trends and extrapolated an incredibly entertaining and compelling world.

To site a few of the visionary tech elements, there are “avatars” in Snow Crash making their way through the Metaverse in what we would call virtual reality today. People use handheld and wearable devices and are accessible from anywhere there’s connectivity to the Metaverse. Data is stored in a cloud. There’s A.I. that can almost pass a Turing test. There are computer viruses. There is digital money. Sound familiar? Imagine how crazy and far reaching these ideas were in 1992.

Snow Crash‘s societal outlook is just as visionary. The US dollar’s value has hyper inflated. China and Japan exert more influence in America than Europe. Stephenson captures the vibe of what we now call “red state America” in his description of caravans of white Americans reeking environmental devastation as they migrate like a swarm of locust. The L. Bob Rife character–a crazy Texan billionaire with an extreme Christian worldview–perhaps inspired by H. Ross Perot who was making political waves at the time–presages the power of tech billionaires who would try to shape the future. Finally, perhaps the best insight is hackers being the real elites in the world, anticipating the power Silicon Valley and big tech have today. He writes:

“We have a huge workforce that is illiterate or alliterate and relies on TV—which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite—the people who go into the Metaverse, basically—who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages.”

I’m sure most readers would see the America of Snow Crash as a dystopia. I’m not certain that is how Stephenson intended it. I thought the panarchy he describes in the novel would be a pretty cool place to live, but that’s just me. The novel does one of my favorite things in that it explores how a privatized society could actually function and what it may feel like to live in such a society. While there’s many bad and even unthinkable things (like a biker with a nuclear warhead in his chopper’s sidecar), Stephenson’s panarchy is a free and dynamic society whose structure is driven by individual choice.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss Hiro and Y.T. The best aspects of the novel are in coming to know these two protagonists. Hiro is a well-imagined hacker/samurai–dominant in both the Metaverse and IRF. Y.T. the teen skate messenger is just a cool character. She’s well-written and gets the best dialogue, and is a great action hero (despite Hiro’s namesake)–she’s never a girl in need of rescue and certainly not a girl who only thinks about boys.

Like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Stephenson’s Snow Crash contributed to the cyberpunk canon in a huge way. It is hard not to see Stephenson’s influence in the cyberpunk movies, TV shows, novels, and graphic novels that followed in the ’90s and ’00s. To site one example, consider The Matrix trilogy and its scenes of martial arts combat in a virtual world. The Wachowskis’ franchise went on to set a new standard for sci-fi action films. Finally I was also reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake when she describes the hyper-commercial pre-plague world. I wonder if Snow Crash gave Atwood any inspiration.

I have some issues with the novel. Reading some of Stephenson’s other novels I’ve gotten used to his penchant for long exposition, but the dialogue between Hiro and the Librarian was just excruciating. Pages are consumed with words and the novel’s pace is disrupted. I know “show don’t tell” isn’t a rule Stephenson lives by, but at times I felt I was reading a cut and paste from a text book about Sumerian myths. The dialogue is supposed to be realistic, written like an actual transcript of a conversation between Hiro and the Librarian (for example, the Librarian doesn’t understand metaphors or analogies, so Hiro has to make clarifications). However, given an expositional purpose of the dialogue, Stephenson has the Librarian lecturing Hiro and going from beginning to end with a big reveal at the conclusion. I can understand the dramatic purpose of a build-up, but if you are going for realism then you need to recognize people actually don’t communicate that way. Rather, they tend to start with a conclusion and then provide justification supporting that conclusion, providing more detail in answers to questions or just further unpacking a reasoning process. I think that would be especially true with an A.I. like the Librarian: it would just get to the point and tell you the answer. Exposition lapsing into fake-sounding realism was also a problem in Stephenson’s recent novel Fall.

Also, the big reveal for the novel was disappointing. It was almost as if Stephenson wanted to explore the similarity of biological and computer viruses. This is science fiction so there needs to be far-fetched ideas, but I had trouble buying into the doubly whammy of an ancient neuro-linguistic virus that reprograms the brain’s “deep structures” as well as the “snow crash” metavirus from outer space that can only affect hackers. Big bad Rife is behind both of them, trying to takeover the world by turning the masses into babbling submissive horde while taking out all of the hackers who would be the class of people to stop him.

Sadly I can see how certain aspects of Snow Crash would cause it to be pilloried today in the dystopia of 2020. Blonde and beautiful Y.T. is a sex object to many of the men around her. She actually has sex with Raven, an older man, though she’s only 15. To me Y.T. a sex-positive feminist, but the aspect of statutory rape is “problematic” (and maybe even makes someone feel “unsafe”) for reactionary activists/fanatics. Also there are a number of things that could be considered racist, or at least insensitive, today. The raper Sushi K is a particularly wince inducing, and the description of Compton as a chaotic war zone feels gross. Finally Hiro is a black Asian-American, so if this novel was published in 2020 Stephenson could be charged with cultural appropriation. This just shows how idiotic racial ideology has gotten. I think Stephenson’s Snow Crash was describing a future that was both multicultural and largely race blind, especially among the hackers and younger people in that world.

Despite it being science fiction, Snow Craft is a novel of America in the 1990s. Even if you believe the world of Snow Craft is dystopian, the novel conveys a sense of techno-optimism from the early ’90’s. I think most readers would tend to forget about Raven’s nuke and remember the wonders of the Metaverse. The Cold War was over and possibilities seemed endless. Maybe I feel this way because the ’90s was a part of my past and I’ve seen how history has changed society, particularly American society. You may read the book today and feel a tinge of sadness for what was lost (a time of peace and prosperity) as well as what may never become (a world that gets even better).

 

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