Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Published: Roc, 1992
Nominations: BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
“From the opening line of his breakthrough cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson plunges the reader into a not-too-distant future. It is a world where the Mafia controls pizza delivery, the United States exists as a patchwork of corporate-franchise city-states, and the Internet--incarnate as the Metaverse--looks something like last year's hype would lead you to believe it should. Enter Hiro Protagonist--hacker, samurai swordsman, and pizza-delivery driver.
When his best friend fries his brain on a new designer drug called Snow Crash and his beautiful, brainy ex-girlfriend asks for his help, what's a guy with a name like that to do? He rushes to the rescue. A breakneck-paced 21st-century novel, Snow Crash interweaves everything from Sumerian myth to visions of a postmodern civilization on the brink of collapse. Faster than the speed of television and a whole lot more fun, Snow Crash is the portrayal of a future that is bizarre enough to be plausible.” ~Amazon.com
This is my second Neal Stephenson book, after reading his dense but fantastic The Diamond Age.  I can certainly see that Snow Crash is a very different book, though it’s still a fun read.  I read Snow Crash as a part of the 2011 book club over at Calico Reaction.
My Thoughts:
Snow Crash did seem kind of like a precursor to The Diamond Age’s scattered narrative style.  The point of view occasionally hopped to minor characters, such as the cyborged guard-dog Fido, or the Kourier Y.T.’s Mom, and there were many different concurrent storylines to enjoy.  However, Snow Crash was not nearly as diffuse, and it was clear in the end how each of these plots tied in together.  The ending itself is nearly as abrupt as in The Diamond Age, and I felt like there was at least some sense of closure on all of the storylines. The writing style in Snow Crash was also much less dense, and it was much more of an action-focused narrative.  This made it seem like a faster read, but it also left most of the characters seeming a little flat.
Even if they lacked depth, the characters are colorful and flashy enough to make for an exciting story.  The main character is the obvious Hiro Protagonist, hacker, master swordfighter, and, briefly, pizza deliveryman.  The secondary protagonist is Y.T. (Yours Truly), a fifteen year old girl skateboarding Kourier.  She delivers packages by magnetically harpooning fast-moving vehicles on the highways, and she ends up forming a loose business partnership with Hiro.  I felt like Y.T. was a more interesting and active character than Hiro.  Y.T. got herself into all kinds of interesting situations through her recklessness and irrational lack of self-preservative fear. Hiro, on the other hand, splits his time between sword-fighting and hanging out online to learn about ancient Sumeria.  They’re both kind of self-consciously ‘badass’, and they mostly behaved like invincible action movie heroes.  The minor characters are no less over-the-top, including the ‘main villain’ Raven, a massive Aleut biker who carries a nuclear warhead in his sidecar.
The story revolves around a fictional drug called ‘Snow Crash’, which is a kind of ancient Sumerian neurolinguistic virus.  I enjoyed the information about ancient Sumerian language, culture and religion and the ideas about programming human minds through language. However, most of this information is imparted through a series of massive info-dumps, as Hiro learns about it from a ‘Librarian’ program. These sections seemed to throw off the pacing of the book, as the story leapt from detailed discussions of ancient Sumerian mythology to flashy action scenes and back again.  While the action was entertaining, as well, it was somewhat cartoonish.  There were tons of flashy, futuristic gadgets and extravagant violence. I’ve read somewhere that Snow Crash came into existence as an idea for a graphic novel, and I think I can see that influence.
To me, the most interesting aspect of the book was its prophetic view of future technology. Snow Crash was written in 1992, when the Internet was just starting to come into common usage for the general public.  He predicted all kinds of trends, such as the move towards mobile computing, and the rise of cell phones.  He also predicted some very specific services.  His application ‘Earth’ is so similar to Google Earth that I wonder if Snow Crash was actually an influence in its development.  He also imagined an online information hub called the Library, to which information could be added by users (like Wikipedia?) and a perpetually existing Internet world through which people navigated using avatars, called the Metaverse (MMOs, Second Life, etc?). 
However, in Stephenson’s society, Earth and the Library were very expensive to access. I found it kind of humorous that people could earn money in Snow Crash by sharing information in the Library, whereas in today’s world millions of people are eager to share information for free.  In reality, I think that more money is to be made in the business of restricting information.  While some of the details in the comparisons I’ve made don’t quite match up, I really enjoyed looking at the similarities and differences between Stephenson’s vision of the future with our actual future.  
My Rating: 4/5
Snow Crash, published in 1992, gives an intriguing vision of the future. While Snow Crash has become pretty dated, I think that Stephenson got enough right, or close to right, to keep discussions of his envisioned future technology interesting.  The story itself is packed with over-the-top characters and cartoonish action sequences.  From master swordsman, hacker, and pizza deliveryman Hiro, to highway skateboarding Y.T., to nuclear warhead-wielding Raven, the characters make up for in height what they lack in depth.  The ideas about ancient Sumerian hackers of human minds and neurolinguistic viruses are farfetched, but interesting.  However, constantly jumping between the high-energy action and quiet discussions of Sumeria led to some uneven pacing.  For the most part, Snow Crash is a fun, clever story that never takes itself too seriously. 

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