Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash

by Chris Mack

January 8, 2022

Snow Crash, published in 1992, is a science fiction novel that is part cyber punk, part satire, and a dystopian depiction of a near future. I was alternately engrossed and irritated by this thought-provoking and deeply flawed novel.

Stephenson’s writing style is both breathless and pedantic. The action was often fun, and the “librarian’s” history lessons could be interesting, but the alternation between the two storytelling modes felt forced and stilted. As I also noticed in the other Stepheson novel I read, Cryptonomicon, his stories build slowly, but then end in a mad rush – too fast to fully appreciate how all the threads come together. Stepheson is at his best when describing a future world that takes today’s societal trends to logically absurd conclusions. America has given up manufacturing anything physical, excelling only at music, movies, software, and pizza delivery. It has become a failed state, with essential government functions privatized and oligarchs filling the power void. Polarization drives segregation into like-minded, single-race city-states called Burbclaves. Communities bond over corporate identities without a sense of higher purpose and oblivious to the larger world. While I suspect most readers in the 1990s laughed at the extremes depicted in Snow Crash, in 2021 I did more cringing than laughing as the points hit close to home.

The characters in the novel are mostly interesting, sometimes even fascinating, and definitely flawed from a literary perspective. Our hero is Hiro Protagonist, a software writing, sword fighting pizza Deliverator who starts off the novel as an action figure, turns into a somewhat tiring deliverer of Sumerian history and language theory, and eventually becomes the man who saves the world by writing anti-virus software. Hiro, we are told, is half Black, half Asian, but Stepheson’s writing simply wasn’t good enough to convince me he wasn’t 100% white. After the initial pizza delivery fiasco (which I admit was quite fun), Hiro mostly bored me. Which is fine, because we are quickly introduced to the far more interesting protagonist, Y.T.

Y.T. is a bad-ass with a great ass, as we are repeatedly told. The fact that she is 15 is more than a little creepy, so I tried hard to keep that thought out of my mind. She is bold and snarky, fearless and determined. She carries the action throughout the book and almost everything interesting that happens plot-wise involves her. It is clear that both Hiro and Y.T. were written to appeal to the fantasies of the science fiction target audience: nerdy adolescent boys. Still, I definitely liked Y.T. and turned the pages to see what she might do next – perhaps revealing that a nerdy adolescent boy continues to lurk within me. The bad guys were even more hackneyed. L. Bob Rife is an obvious riff on L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author turned inventor of a mind-controlling religious cult. Anything that makes fun of L. Ron Hubbard is OK with me. Uncle Enzo is the comically lovable mafia boss, erasing the already thin distinction between organized crime and much of corporate America. Raven is the ultimate cliché of a bad-ass villain, perfect at everything, supposedly working for a dark overlord but in reality only using him to fulfill his mission of personal revenge: destroying the world to make up for his father’s suffering at the hands of a nuclear-testing America.

The core idea explored in the book relates to our ability to preserve the independence of our thinking. Corporate messaging, religion, and drug abuse have prepared the masses for mind control through Sumerian language babble that taps into our primitive minds. One group of people bright enough to avoid this fate, the elite, are software developers, the people that understand the power of information. But their life in the binary world makes them susceptible to a computer virus called Snow Crash that jumps into the physical world through the optic nerve via virtual reality goggles. The blood of an infected hacker can then be used to spread the virus in the conventional way to non-programmers who are not mind-controllable through language hacking. That’s a LOT of suspension of disbelief. Still, it is an interesting premise. Are today’s internet memes the equivalent of social media viruses?

So why do we read a book like Snow Crash? Obviously not just for the Moby Dick references. What does science fiction offer the fan of good literature? For me, science fiction is good when it does at least one of two things. Some science fiction stories are worth reading because they are just plain fun, and Snow Crash sometimes manages to be fun. But the real power of science fiction is their use of worlds released from the constraints of our own reality to make us think in new ways. This Stephenson sometimes does as well. What are the costs of losing control of our most fundamental human interactions, either through corporatization or though the ultimate social media platform, the Metaverse? How might our increasing computer usage, especially at a very young age, be affecting our brains? What are the people who control the flow of information doing with that information? These are all not just worthy questions; they are important ones.

Snow Crash has the added appeal of being a cultural touchstone. The nerdy adolescent boys of the 1990s who read and loved Snow Crash are now the billionaire technology titans of the 2020s, turning Stepheson’s vision of the metaverse into reality without seeming to heed any of its lessons. The future depicted in Snow Crash is not a pleasant one, and it is certainly avoidable. I’m just not sure we will.

 

Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

© Copyright 2022, Chris Mack.

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