First published in 1992, Snow Crash is considered one of the seminal cyber-punk novels. I wasn’t even sure what that meant when I picked it up; I plucked it from the stacks at the used bookstore with the vague feeling this was one of those classics I’m supposed to have read. For once, the inside voice was right–this was a book I didn’t want to miss.
The opening scene of a mad-cap pizza delivery quickly draws the reader in. Hiro Protagonist (cringe), thirty year-old hacker, chronically unsuited for the career-track, has now found his longest term employment delivering pizzas for the Mafia, who now run pizza chains along with more dubious enterprises. He’s racing against the clock, trying to get the pizza delivered so Uncle Enzo, spokesman and Don, doesn’t have to apologize and give up a whole wad of cash. His delivery credentials get him through most of the gated suburbs, but a short cut lands him in deep water. Thankfully, a skateboarder who was hitching a lift using a special skater harpoon takes pity on him and completes the delivery with seconds to spare. Her actions bring her to the attention of Uncle Enzo. Hiro’s actions, unfortunately cost him his job, but it isn’t long before his genius ex-girlfriend recruits him to find a virus that’s wiping computers clean–and hackers’ minds.
That’s just the first few pages. It goes on to involve a shared computer simulation, religious evangelicals, an ear-destroying rock concert, a sociopath on a motorcycle, a fusion-powered attack dog and a floating raft-like armada.
I rather like the writing, the unusually juxtaposed descriptions:
“Vitaly owns half a carton of Lucky Strikes, an electric guitar, and a hangover.”
and the occasional lovely phrasing:
“When Hiro first saw this place, ten years ago, the monorail hadn’t been written yet; he and his buddies had to write car and motorcycle software in order to get around. They would take their software out and race it in the black desert of the electronic night.”
Characterization is a mixed experience. Hiro and Y.T. gradually came alive for me, but then flattened, strangely, towards the end. I liked Hiro’s ingenuity, curiousity and confidence; I also liked Y.T’s determination and confidence. In many ways, Hiro seemed like Y.T. fifteen years from now. Gradually some of their stories and motivations filled in, and I was able to appreciate their resilience. However, by the end of the book, they felt more like props for the author’s metaphorical and narrative goals, confidence never translating to moments of insecurity or doubt. Y.T. became bizarrely fearless and stupid, and Hiro lost agency and became guided by narrative events that pushed him where he needed to be. The rest of the cast feels little more than mythical props; Uncle Enzo the mysterious guardian that plots; Juanita, the unattainable Eve; Raven, the agent of chaos. There was enough to their personalities to be acceptable to the plotting, but not quite enough to sustain the story of their own accord, and any identifiers felt thrown in (there’s a very oddly placed bit about Hiro’s dad and Raven). It might be worth noting that while Y.T. describes herself as a typical ‘white chick,’ Hiro is from a multi-ethnicity background, somewhat unusual in Sci-fi.
But what really fascinates about Snow Crash, 20 plus years after it was published, is how much it remains culturally current. That bit on page 191 compares viruses and franchises, viruses relying upon its DNA (a little biological sloppiness there), franchises relying on three-ring-binders to replicate themselves. “But when a businessman from New Jersey goes to Dubuque, he knows he can walk into a McDonald’s and no one will stare at him. He can order without having to look at the menu, and the food will always taste the same.” But, more importantly, it sounds like a summation of Fast Food Nation (first published 2001) about the theory behind the franchise experience that the exact same food and experience will be guaranteed across the United States, depersonalized and predictable.
And that part on page 281 about conditions at Y.T.’s mom’s work? “Feds don’t smoke. Feds generally don’t overeat. The health plan is very specific, contains major incentives, get too heavy or wheezy and, no one says anything about it–which would be rude–but you feel a definite pressure, a sense of not fitting in… your co-workers say to themselves, I wonder how much he or she is driving up our health plan premiums?” It’s like Stephenson read the 2014 company memos about our hospital’s new “Wellness Incentives” program that rewards employees for losing 5% of their BMI. It gave me a strange sense of vertigo, reading that–were these insurance changes that long in the making, that they could be predicted like this?
Maybe Stephenson was prescient. Maybe we just haven’t learned to deal with decades-old problems, which is even sadder explanation. The Burbclaves, the corporate memo on saving toilet paper, and the unfixable Sacrifice Zones (cost of reclamation wildly exceeds value of said land) all sound sadly relevant. What are modern suburbs but Burbclaves? What modern company hasn’t been subject to the confusion of randomly changing stock, just so Supply can save $123 on alcohol wipes? And how many Superfund contaminated sites are still waiting for clean-up? Prescient? I couldn’t decide whether to be impressed or depressed.
Then there’s the Metaverse. If that didn’t bring echoes of The Matrix and Ready Player One, I don’t know what will. But again, all that more amazing when you remember: 1992. Grunge music. Friends. Cloning. Ethnic conflict. Soviet Union ended. Internet. Stephenson imagined Second Life and World of Warcraft before they were household names
On the other side of things, despite the interesting extrapolations, I don’t think the science has stood the test of time. When he first started talking about how language determined cognition, I recalled my own love affair with the idea. A popular theory at one time, it’s been somewhat debunked. Every time Hiro discussed it with the Librarian, I couldn’t help feeling how forced it sounded. Then there’s their next step: the parallel between thoughts and viruses work better as a metaphor than a concrete phenomena. At one part during a dialogue with Hiro and the Librarian, they speculate:
“I wonder if viruses have always been with us, or not. There’s sort of an implicit assumption that they have been around forever. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe there was a period of history when they were nonexistent or at least unusual. And at a certain point, when the metavirus showed up, the number of different viruses exploded, and people started getting sick a whole lot.“
While the origin of viruses isn’t much more concrete than the origins of life, the main theories around viral origins are fascinating. However, genetic analysis is fairly certain that they predate multi-cellular organisms (ie. humans). So, while it was one of the few false notes, it was a bit of a stumbling block for me, since his language-virus hypothesis seemed to require that a specific metavirus was introduced at specific times. I suppose I’m getting hung up on terminology; the fascinating thing is that he thought of this at all.
I could have forgiven the science and the bastardization of his intellectual foundation, and chalked it up to an earlier decade, and the alien hypothesis as general sci-fi boundary pushing. However, Stephenson does something far more unforgivable for a writer: once the Librarian character is introduced, large swathes of the novel are given over to info-dumping about Sumarian religion, ancient languages and the beginnings of Christianity. Those sections awkwardly alternated with frantic, action-focused scenes with Y.T. While I appreciated the break between lectures, they remained tiresome and blocky. I started to skim, then gradually realized that Stephenson was intending to use these ancient back-stories to provide some gestalt at the end.
To me, the overall message is bleak, and downgrades my score. Perhaps because of the punk angle–there is no alternative presented, just the dreams of the garish Metaverse and the franchised real one. Stephenson is very good at being wry and mocking, but there isn’t an alternative presented. Further aside–though I am firmly in the agnostic camp, I was a trifle offended by a characterization of religion as unappealing to intellects, especially the “intelligent people who take one look at religion and bolted” (to loosely paraphrase Juanita). It was inflammatory enough that it might block the ability of the reader to hear the message.
Overall a complex book deserving of a complex reaction. I loved all the ideas generated, (even if they didn’t feel like they were entirely accurate), prescient world-building, interesting plotting (except for the info-dumping back story that had me contemplating skimming) and alternating narrative between Hiro and Y.T.