Monday, April 13, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Dossier: Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (Bantam, 1992)

Filetype: Book

File Under: Postcyberpunk

Executive Summary: Hiro Protagonist loses his job as a delivery driver working for the Mafia-controlled Uncle Enzo's Pizza, and nearly loses more than that as punishment for delivering a pizza late, but 15-year-old skateboard Kourier Y.T. takes pity on him and gets the delivery there on time. This begins the unlikely partnership in an alt-future Los Angeles dominated by corporate city-states and "burbclaves" between Hiro and Y.T. Hiro is a world-class programmer and was one of the architects of the Metaverse, a networked, virtual reality simulation that millions around the world log into daily, but now he's a freelance hacker and intelligence stringer for the Feds, who are still on the scene but only just. He also happens to be the world's greatest swordsman -- both within the Metaverse and without. Y.T. lives in a burbclave with her mother, who works for the Feds and, Y.T. thinks, is in the dark about Y.T.'s job as a Kourier. When Hiro's other (and materially more successful) Metaverse co-creator Da5id succumbs to a computer virus called Snow Crash that not only destroys the operator's system but also the operator's brain, Hiro begins investigating inside the Metaverse with the help of his ex-lover and Da5id's ex-wife Juanita, and enlists Y.T. to help out in the real world. Juanita clues Hiro into a connection between ancient Sumerian linguistics, the Tower of Babel, and a bizarre religious sect backed by mega-industrialist L. Bob Rife that lives on a sprawling offshore colony called The Raft. A gigantic Aleutian hitman named Raven fits in somehow with both Snow Crash and The Raft, and if Hiro can't figure out how, then he, Y.T., and Juanita will all wind up dead, and human technological culture blasted back to the stone age.

High-Tech: While there are some cool future-tech devices in Snow Crash, like the magnetic harpoons the Kouriers use, and the rat-things that act as security in all Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong franchulates, the chief piece of technology that defines the book is the Metaverse. Think a planet-sized VR Sunset Strip where you have to pay real money for virtual real estate, and if you can afford them, virtual Googlebots called Librarians will dig up any information you can desire just by speaking. Until the Snow Crash drug comes along, the Metaverse and the real world are separate, and dying in the Metaverse is a minor inconvenience. After? Well...

Low-Life: Hiro lives in a U-Stor-It storage unit with a roommate, a noise-rocker named Vitaly Chernobyl. Real estate has become so expensive in LA that families with 'roided-up teenage sons and regular jobs live in burbclaves in the Valley, the rich, as ever, live where they please, and the rest -- like Hiro -- scrape by where they can and carefully step around used syringes and the like when exiting their front doors. Along with the disaffected youth and would-be scenesters that circle Vitaly's band, Hiro has an easy relationship with drug dealers and others who dominate an environment where crime is more of a nebulous concept, depending on what kind of franchise you happen to find yourself in.

Dark Times: Snow Crash chiefly concerns itself with a small cast of characters who are plugged in and savvy to at least the potential of something nefarious going down behind the curtain. The majority of humanity beyond, though, are left largely uncommented-upon. Places outside of the franchulates have become lawless warzones, as witnessed through Y.T.'s trip to Compton, but for most middle-class people, life is probably pretty great. They're all self-medicating, driving big cars, living in cookie-cutter neighborhoods and following the paths expected of them. Hiro, et al., though, are onto the fact that there is a dark undercurrent beneath it all, mostly stemming from L. Bob Rife's having franchised out religion to The Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates, which is helping to funnel people to The Raft, and potentially doing much worse.

Legacy: There are some influential books, and then there are influential cultural events. Snow Crash is the latter. Where Neuromancer radically re-defined the books that came after it and started a trend that grew larger, that movement reached something of an apotheosis in Snow Crash, a book that literally defined aspects of the culture itself. Ever wonder why icons that represent you on the internet are called "avatars"? While not the first person to use the word in that context, Snow Crash is why it stuck. Stephenson's envisioning of the Metaverse came to shape gaming, with Michael Abrash, the creator of the game Quake, and others freely admitting the debt they owe the book in how they came to think of networked 3D computing. Google Earth? That's pretty much how Hiro's Librarian shows him around. Like Neuromancer, Stephenson's book landed on Time's list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, alongside authors like Fitzgerald, Nabokov, and Pynchon, and genre luminaries like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Gibson, and Philip K. Dick. Nice company.

In Retrospect: Neal Stephenson writes virtuosic prose. Humor, attitude, clarion insights, and all around verve leap off the pages of Snow Crash, making it a tremendous amount of fun to read. Hiro and Y.T. are both intelligent and resourceful, and enjoyable people to spend a book with. It is also refreshing, even today, to read a science fiction novel where female characters give as good as they get, and -- while they may be regarded as sexual objects by other characters in the book -- are not treated like sexual objects by the book, itself. Hiro and Juanita, for instance, despite a past relationship never hit the sheets in the course of the book.

Stephenson also allows us to have fun inside the world he's created, apart from the main narrative of the book. Brief chapters will introduce a new character, follow him, her, or it through an adventure that somehow touches on the main action, and opens a wider window onto the world of the story. Mafia head Uncle Enzo's unexpected interactions with Y.T. are particularly fun, and walking around inside the mind of a Rat Thing is unexpectedly rewarding and touching. The ways in which elements of the world that at first appear structural -- such as the abundance of Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates franchises -- but eventually become central to the plot are examples of first-rate literary craftsmanship.

The only place where the book falls down a little bit is in the massive info-dump regarding ancient Sumerian and the idea of a language as ones-and-zeros for human beings. The long stretches of the Librarian filling Hiro in on Sumerian mythology are tremendously evocative of, say, the section of the Mythology text book your teacher skipped over or the liner notes to a Morbid Angel album, so while interesting, they slow down the book's momentum. It feels like Stephenson understood this, however, and there's a lot of pinging back-and-forth between Hiro's conversations with the Librarian and Y.T.'s real-life escapades, which become increasingly perilous. And as Zhaoyun remarked in his review of Stephenson's The Diamond Age, this book also ends rather perfunctorily, with almost literally zero "falling action." That is to say, it happens real quick.

Nevertheless, this is a book that lives up to the hype. And for a 20-plus-year-old book concerning network technology to still make a modern reader think "Wow, it'd be cool if we could do that," that's a helluva neat trick to pull.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5
Cybercoefficient: 9/10

Posted by Vance K — who once roomed with a guy who thought Snow Crash was the best book ever written, and, on a separate occasion, boxed that roommate in the backyard while nerds of a feather comics & board game correspondent Mikey kept the ring clock. True story.