You know how everyone has a set of favorite authors, people that they feel inspired them more than anyone else? Some people are lucky and have just one. Others, the “well-read” type, can name about ten, twenty or more! Me? I guess I’m lucky in that that list comes down to about five names. For me, that list includes George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson.
Like many people I know, I enjoy Stephenson’s books because they are entertaining and interesting, but also because he inspires thought. Upon writing this, I’ve read Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and just started Anathema. And I can honestly say that each one is a timely creation, combining a cutting-edge knowledge of technology and computer science with a profound sense of history, politics, anthropology, and philosophy.
So, I thought it high time that I actually review one of his books, and what better place to start than with his first big hit, Snow Crash! Although it was his third book to date, released in 1992 and preceded by The Big U and Zodiac, it was arguably this book that established his reputation and put him on the radar of every fan of the post-cyberpunk genre.
The story takes place in Los Angeles during the early 21st century. The United States has effectively disintegrated, the vast majority of society now living in privatized areas known as “franchulates” (which are clearly meant to satirize gated communities) and the federal government maintaining islands of influence in between it all. Enter into this world Hiro Protagonist, a comically named freelance hacker/swordfighter, who lives in a storage closet and spends much of his free time in the virtual environment known as the Metaverse.
After an abortive delivery working for Uncle Enzo’s Pizza, he meets a young woman named Y.T. (short for Yours Truly) who works for a the “Kourier” delivery company. In this day, couriers get around by riding high-tech skateboards and “pooning” (i.e. harpooning) their way through traffic. After making Hiro’s delivery for him, she becomes a personal friend of Uncle Enzo himself, a friendship which proves lucrative as the story goes on. Since she also saved his butt, Hiro and her decide to become partners in the “intelligence business”, meaning they now work together to obtain and sell information through the CIC (Central Intelligence Company, the leftovers of the CIA).
Things begin to get interesting when Hiro becomes aware of a new pseudo-narcotic that is making the rounds in the Metaverse. It’s called Snow Crash, the use of which causes anyone’s system to crash and emit total static (hence the name). In the real world, a hard version of the drug is making the rounds which alters the minds of users and causes them to utter some kind of “glossolalia” – i.e. speaking in tongues – and become disconnected from reality. Upon investigating, Hiro and Y.T. learn that the drugs are being distributed by a chain of Pentecostal churches known as “Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates”, which is owned by software magnate L. Bob Rife.
Rife is currently at sea and in possession of the USS Enterprise, which has become part of a massive flotilla of ships that makes periodic crossings from Asia-Pacific to North America. Apparently, everyone on board is infected with this virus as well, the people speaking in strange, monosyllabic tongues whenever they are interviewed. After being encouraged to look into this by his Catholic and linguist ex-girlfriend, Juanita Marquez, Hiro begins to uncover that Rife is at the center of Snow Crash and what his plan is. Essentially, it relates back to the mythology of ancient Sumer when the myth of Babel took place (language becoming confounded and splintered).
According to Stephenson, Sumerian is to modern languages what binary is to programming languages. It affects the user at a far more basic level than acquired/programming language. Unlike modern language, Sumerian was rooted in the brain stem and its culture was ruled and controlled via “me”, the human equivalent of software which contains the rules and procedures for various cultural activity (harvesting grains, baking bread, making beer, etc.). The keepers of these important documents were priests referred to as “en”; some of them, like the god/semi-historical-figure Enki, could write new me, making them the equivalent of programmers or hackers.
In any case, the connection between past and present is demonstrated when Hiro learns how the ancient goddess Ashera created a dangerous biolinguistic virus that infected all peoples. This virus was stopped by Enki, another god, who used his skills as a “neurolinguistic hacker” to create an inoculating “nam-shub”, an anti-virus, that would protect humanity by destroying its ability to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue.
It was this creation, a modern take on the Babel myth, that created modern language as we know it today. However, Asherah’s meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the “Cult of Asherah” continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes who spread it through sex and the breast-feeding of orphaned infants. This is turn was countered by the ancient Hebrew priests, men who quashed the cult of Ashera and introduced sanitized, reproducible information with their written testaments.
Furthermore, Hiro learns that Rife has been sponsoring archaeological expeditions to the Sumerian city of Eridu, and has found enough information on the Sumerian tongue to reconstruct it and use it to work his will on humanity. He has also found the nam-shub of Enki, which he is protecting at all costs since it can counter the virus. After making their way to the Raft with the help of the Mafia, Hiro and Y.T. set about trying to find the Enki tablet so Hiro can upload its nam-shub to the Metaverse.
However, their efforts are frustrated somewhat by the presence of Raven, a massive Aleut freelancer who is in possession of his own thermonuclear weapon (which he acquired from a Russian sub and intends to use on America). He is helping Rife because of a score he wants to settle, being the child of people who endured exposure to two nuclear bombs (Hiroshima and nuclear testing in the Aleutians).
In the end, Hiro engages Raven in a virtual battle in the Metaverse while Y.T., Uncle Enzo and his men are forced to take down Bob Rife. Hiro manages to successfully upload the “nam-shub” of Enki, the world is saved, and Rife is brought down. There is also a brief side story of a budding romantic relationship between Y.T. and Raven, but that doesn’t work out in the end. She’s a young girl, he’s a homicidal, giant maniac… what can you do? Also, Hiro gets back together with Juanita and just about everyone lives happily ever after.
In a previous post, I believe I compared Gibson’s Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge Trilogy, to this story, and for good reason. Both stories took place in an America where the country had become Balkanized, marked by privatization, major corporations and weird religious sects. The themes of hyperinflation, hard-living, overcrowding and urban sprawl were also consistent. And finally, the main characters – one a freelance agent and the other a delivery girl – were virtually identical.
However, when it comes right down to it, Stephenson’s take on the whole thing was better. His mix of satirical wit and social commentary was far more effective at critiquing the process whereby America is becoming increasingly privatized and polarized in terms of wealth and power. His fictional money, “Ed Meeses” and “Gippers” – the trillion and very rare quadrillion dollar note – were a nice very touch; and his use of “franchulates” in the story, a clear reference to gated communities, was nothing short of brilliant. His concept for the Metaverse, a virtual environment contained in cyberpace, and the spread of computer viruses also predicted several developments that would be taking place with the World Wide Web up to a decade later.
On top of all that, Stephenson managed to weave a great deal of history, philosophy and a fascinating take on neuro-linguistics into the story. Essentially, he demonstrated how human language and programming language are similar, when viewed in the right light – language is to the human brain what software is to the hardware. In addition, the story was replete with clever tidbits of history – WWII, the Vietnam War, nuclear testing, Biblical myths – and some rather hilarious twists and plot devices. “Reason”, a miniature Gatling gun used by the Mafia as a heavy-duty persuader, takes the cake for me (“I’m sure they’ll listen to Reason”)
However, it was also the mythological elements of this story which kind of brought it down in a way. While the allegorical similarities between programming language and spoken language was fascinating – as was the exploration of its biological and psychological aspects – one could not help but feel that the line between literal and figurative was being overstepped. In short, the idea was brilliant when considered from a metaphorical perspective – i.e. that the Babel myth might accord to some primordial event whereby language and human psychology became more complex.
However, the story is clearly presented in literal terms, the reader being told point blank that there really was an Tower of Babel-type event just a few thousand years ago that confounded our language, that made us what we are today and beforehand we were all slaves to social programming. Kind of seems a bit odd, but that’s Stephenson’s thing, using satire that is at once brilliant and at the same time a bit hokey. One can never tell where one ends and the other begins.
The only other weakness, and this is something Stephenson is a bit notorious for, is the ending. Stephenson himself laments that this is something he’s become known for, largely because he feels that its a jinx that’s haunted his subsequent work. Basically, he writes odd endings, ones that feel cut off and sudden. In Snow Crash, that is certainly the case. After a long chase scene, which ends when Rife’s helicopter is brought down by a dozen Kourier harpoons, Y.T. simply says goodbye to Raven (flips him the bird) and then calls her mom to tell her she’s coming home.
An additional chapter where Hiro gets to meet up with his friends in the Metaverse and reunites with Juanita would have been a good addition. Much was made of how his friends, hackers like him, were being specifically targeted by Snow Crash since they were the biggest threat to Rife’s plans. Given all that, it would have been nice to show how they all came through the crisis, not to mention a final romantic scene between Hiro and his ex. Similarly, it would have been nice to see Y.T. actually make it home, her give her usual reassurances to her worried mother (who works for the feds), and for her to see her romantically challenged boyfriend, maybe realize he was okay after all the time she spent with Raven. Just saying…
But overall, Snow Crash was an awesome read and a real tour de force for me. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, or is just intrigued by history, hacking, computer science, and gritty science fiction. It’s got it all, and some pretty cool departures for the philosophically inclined along the way!