Neal Stephenson’s third novel, Snow Crash made him a writer to read. An often hilarious successor to the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s, it finally receives its Bureau review.
Title: Snow Crash
Author: Neal Stephenson
Original Publication Date: June 1992
In the far distant future– some time between 1999 and 2004— western society and institutions have splintered into franchulates and gated burbclaves, and the internet has been succeeded by the metaverse, a shared virtual world into which people can jack. Both real and virtual worlds face a threat: “snow crash,” which seems to be both a dangerous drug and a virulent computer virus that affects human hackers. At the core of this mystery: an ancient secret involving human consciousness and the development of language, religion, and culture.
Hiro Protagonist, freelance hacker and Mafia pizza-deliverer and Y.T., skate kid Kourier, must join forces to try to prevent Infocalypse.
The Nipponese businessman lies cut in segments on The Black Sun’s floor. Surprisingly (he looks so real when he’s in one piece), no flesh, blood, or organs are visible through the new crosssections that Hiro’s sword made through the body. He is nothing more than a thin shell of epidermis, an incredibly complex inflatable doll. But the air does not rush out of him, he fails to collapse, and you can look into the aperture of a sword cut and see, instead of bones and meat, the back of the skin on the other side.
It breaks the metaphor. The avatar is not acting like a real body. I t reminds all The Black Sun’s patrons that they are living in a fantasy world. People hate to be reminded of that.
….The creators of the Metaverse had not been morbid enough to foresee a demand for this kind of thing. But the whole point of a sword fight is to cut someone up and kill them. So Hiro had to kludge something together, in order that the Metaverse would not, over time, become littered with inert, dismembered Avatars that never decayed (102)
1. The descriptions and uses of the Metaverse— the Internet with significant upgrades. Stephenson has figured out exactly how things function there, and he uses his hypothetical protocols as part of the plot.
2. The interplay between Y.T. and the secondary characters, particularly Uncle Enzo and Fisheye.
3. The humor and satire. You may find some of the satire unfair but, as Garry Trudeau once said, it’s a satirist’s job to be unfair.
1. I concede I’m picking at a nit, here; all SF eventually becomes alternate history. However, I wonder about Stephenson’s decision to set Snow Crash in a near future which we’ve now passed. Hiro Protagonist was born in the early 1970s, and specific events from the 20th century affect the plot. Clearly, we’re in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Surely, the kind and degree of changes he envisioned must have seemed far-fetched even from the perspective of 1988-1991, when Stephenson wrote the novel. Why not set it further in the future?
2. A recurring problem in Stephenson’s work is the use of concepts which require mountains of explanation. This inevitably takes the form of lengthy expository dialogue during which characters ask exactly the correct question or (occasionally) comment on matters that seem outside their scope.
Fido comes out of his doggie house, curls his long legs beneath him, and jumps over the fence around the yard before he has remembered that he is not capable of jumping over it. This contradiction is lost on him, though; as a dog, introspection is not one of his strong points.
Story: 5/6 I must applaud Stephenson for developing a story that involves Sumerian mythology, religious and linguistic history, cyberpunk conventions, political satire, and video-game-style action, and remains perfectly coherent.
Originality: 5/6. After we pass through the wonder and wit, however, the plot comes down to the heroes battling obstacles in order to (a) get the Supreme McGuffin which will end the villain’s Nefarious Plot and (b) defeat a particularly difficult baddie in personal combat.
Characterization: 5/6. Most of the characters prove memorable, though few are truly layered. Such characterization is, however, not unusual in satiric works.
He also deserves points for giving us the Rat Thing’s point of view, and making the creatures sympathetic.
Imagery: 6/6 Stephenson initially envisioned this story as a computer-generated graphic novel. He has written a highly visual book, with many memorable images.
And it would still make a good graphic novel or movie. The problem with the latter is you’d need to make it a mini-series, with each ep having a budget roughly the equivalent of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
Emotional Response: 5/6 Engaging and often hilarious.
Overall Score: 6/6. Snow Crash kept my attention. Indeed, enough people responded positively to it that it made Stephenson’s career, and I personally prefer it to his more recent, lengthy historical works.
In total, Snow Crash receives 37/42
I wondered about this as a Low Point, but I think it works best as a point of additional discussion. Y.T., the 15-year-old Kourier, would have experienced things that the average girl her age has not, and have a perspective to match. And certainly, 15-year-olds there are with extensive worldly experience, considerable sexual history, or who actually are jaded—as opposed to the typical jaded teen, who is merely an annoying poseur.
That said, I don’t buy her attitude in the sex scene. It feels too much like what one would expect from an experienced thirty-year-old rather than a young teen, even a sexually experienced teen.