Snow Crash!

Snow Crash!

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.

Snow Crash:
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.

Strengths:
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”)

Weaknesses:
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!

Idoru!

The second installment in William Gibson’s “The Bridge” Trilogy. Looking back, I don’t feel like I did the first book justice with the rather short review I gave it. Not to say that my overall opinion of the book has changed, but I feel like there were elements and angles that I should have delved into a little more. But since this book took place within the same general framework as the first, I shall rectify that here! So much better than re-editing old posts, don’t you think?

Idoru:
What can I say about Gibson’s second “Bridge” novel? Well, for starters, I liked it! It was much more developed and intriguing than the first, to be honest. While Virtual Light was concerned with the sense of post-millennial shock, the disintegration of California and the US and the massive privatization thereof – calling to mind other books by Gibson and Stephenson’s Snow CrashIdoru dealt mainly with the concept of celebrity and the nature of modern media. Although it is set just a few years after the events in the first novel, far less attention is given this time around to either the Pacific west coast or Japan’s experience of the big earthquake. It’s still there, just operating in the background and popping up on occasion to set the scene.

In addition, Kowloon’s Walled City makes an even bigger appearance this time around. In the first book, it is listed as the inspiration for The Bridge – aka. the Golden Gate Bridge that has become a community unto itself. This time though, it has matured into a cyberspace VR construct where people port in and live out their lives in a virtual environment. Like the original Walled City, it is a place for hackers, Otaku, and cyberpunks, people who live on the fringes of society in this day in age. In keeping with all of Gibson’s pre-Bigend novels, this is indicative of the disappearance of the middle class and the emergence of cyber communities as a form of resistance. This tribalistic behavior, taken into the digital realm, is not so much political as it is cultural.

This is best exemplified by the character Chia Pet McKenzie, a teenager who also happens to be a member of the Lo/Rez fan club. Lo/Rez is a Japanese band, a clever pun on Low-res (i.e. low resolution), and the fan site is an international community that communicates via cyberspace. The concept of “nodal points” is also introduced via the character of Laney, a man who is apparently adept at finding these nodes in information patterns. After leaving a company named SlitScan, a media giant renowned for ruining celebrities by exposing their secrets, he is hired because his unique abilities make him useful to anyone looking to find these patterns. These two characters and the plot strands that involve them come together when Rez, half of Lo/Rez, announces he wants to marry Rei Toei, the Idoru (Japanese for Idol). The Idoru is a virtual creation, a holographic person, who is apparently achieved a measure of sentience. Laney is hired to find out, via Lo/Rez’s info, why he could be doing this and/or if anyone is manipulating him (like the Idoru’s people). Chia is similarly flown to Japan to determine the cause of this as well, but on behalf of the fan club. In any case, the two finally find a way to consummate their union by obtaining nanotechnology, apparently so they can fashion her a physical body. This, however, is left open, we never see if they pulled it off or not.

All of this calls to mind several familiar Gibson themes. For starters, the concept of data mining, which makes an appearance in many of his novels. According to Gibson, the character of Laney is a fictitious rendering of himself, his ability being a metaphor for what Gibson dose on a regular basis in order to predict the future. This seems clear enough given that the theme has come up again and again in Gibson’s works (Cayce Pollard, another main character, did much the same thing in Pattern Recognition). Also, there is the concept of AI’s, digital sentience, and the increasingly blurred line between artificial and authentic. In addition, the influence of the mass media, the culture of celebrity, and the massive influence these two things plays on our society is featured throughout this book. In short, it asks the question of why people are obsessed with celebrities, want to be them, what it takes to be one, and why we want to ruin them so badly! It is also quite Warholian in how it addresses how fame has changed over time and how it is the industry that seems to determine who is famous, why, and for how long.

Selling Points:
Overall, I could see why this book was hailed as the book that cemented Gibson’s reputation. There’s a lot going on in this book! One can see many layers of technological, cultural and social commentary, punctuated as always by Gibson’s love of sub-culture, street life, and cutting edge things. In fact, this book was quite influential in the way it predicted virtual personalities, which is something that became quite big in Japan on or around the time of the book’s publication. It was also rather prescient in the way it delved into the kinds of tribalism that have become incredibly common with the internet. On top of all that, his delving into the world of media, celebrity and the dividing line between what is real and fake (exemplified by the marriage of Rei Toei) was executed with his usual subtle genius. That was one of the things I liked best about this novel. At no point was someone saying “You can’t marry a program! It’s immoral, unnatural!” Nor was anyone arguing in favor of it by saying “Look at the world today! There IS no line between real and fake anymore!” Everyone was concerned, most people thought he’d either lost his mind or was being manipulated, but no one came right out and ANNOUNCED it. This is something that people like the makers of S1mOne, who were clearly imitating Gibson, did do (just look at that title! What an obvious binary reference!).

Weak Points:
For one, the open ending. That applied to more than just whether or not Rez and Rei Toei ever achieved a physical union. That much I could understand given that it was the idea of it that was important, the exploration of whether or not it would ever be possible for a human and digital person to cross that boundary. But it also applied to other aspects of the story as well. For one, Laney’s ex-boss shows up deep into the story to blackmail him, and she is apparently disappeared by Lo/Rez’s head of security. We never find out if he really did anything to her or if he just scared her off. The plot thread involving her just disappears like it had become inconvenient and Gibson wanted to get rid of it. Perhaps it comes up in book three, but here, it was like a final act cut-off. This is something this book has in common with Stephenson too, ironically enough; the quick, choppy endings!

And of course, some familiar old patterns also emerge in this book and have become apparent in this trilogy as well. The first pattern is one I’ve seen in every Gibson book I’ve read yet: having one man and one woman as main characters and either hooking them up, or pairing them off with secondary characters. Some examples include Chase and Molly in Neuromancer (who hooked up with each other), Hollis and Milgrim in Zero History (who had separate hook-ups), Chevette and Rydel in Virtual Light (together), and now Laney and Chia (separate). Mind you, I’m not calling this a weakness. In fact, most people would call it a convention; interesting stories need some degree of romance to keep them from being totally dry! But it does seem just the slightest bit repetitive this time around. He also switches main characters in the second book in this trilogy, which he did with the Bigend Trilogy too, but not the Sprawl one for some reason.

Overall, a good book and a fun, fascinating read. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in classic sci-fi or who, like me, is interesting in charting the course of cyber/post-cyberpunk literature. You see? This is the kind of treatment Virtual Light should have gotten! I’ll be sure to be this thorough from now on!

Of Great Sci-Fi (and other non-affliated) Quotes:

alien-worldRecently, I’ve taken to posting quotes by the great science fiction authors on twitter. Most are from the authors I draw the most inspiration from, others are just from people I admire and who offered some wisdom along the way. Like a true nerd, I keep these things in a file on my computer, adding to it every time I find a new one or think up one myself. Might sound odd but I find it useful, it offers fresh inspiration and perspective whenever I’ve hit a wall or am not sure how a piece of writing is turning out. Today, I thought I’d share a few of the gems that have really inspired me over the years. To be fair, some of them are not science-fiction related, or even by authors; they’re just moments of brilliance captured in an utterance. Here are a few:

“We sit atop a sort of anthill of technologies. At the bottom there’s fire, and growing cereal grains, and learning to store cereal – all those things that people have to store edible energy and start building cities. Not that we’re the crown of creation; we are at the crown of technological creation at any given moment.”
-William Gibson during an interview after writing “Pattern Recognition”

“It’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information.”

“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…”

“When I began to write fiction that I knew would be published as science fiction, [and] part of what I brought to it was the critical knowledge that science fiction was always about the period in which it was written.”

“. . . the street finds its own uses for things.”
-Other tidbits from Gibson, who’s nothing if not prolific in his observations!

“The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
-Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”

“Ronald Reagan has a stack of three-by-five cards in his lap. He skids up a new one: “What advice do you, as the youngest American fighting man ever to win both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, have for any young marines on their way to Guadalcanal?”
Shaftoe doesn’t have to think very long. The memories are still as fresh as last night’s eleventh nightmare: ten plucky Nips in Suicide Charge!
“Just kill the one with the sword first.”
“Ah,” Reagan says, raising his waxed and penciled eyebrows, and cocking his pompadour in Shaftoe’s direction. “Smarrrt–you target them because they’re the officers, right?”
“No, fuckhead!” Shaftoe yells. “You kill ’em because they’ve got fucking swords! You ever had anyone running at you waving a fucking sword?”
-Stephenson, “Cryptonomicon”. One of the funniest written passages I’ve ever read, and fitting because it puts Reagan in his proper, historically accurate place!

“I just think talk of suffering should be left to those who’ve actually suffered.”
-Jack (a First Nations former student I knew. As soon as he said it, I knew that I had just heard one of the smartest things ever said by anybody, anywhere, ever!)

Of Sci-fi and speculative fiction

I love science fiction, always have, always will.  But it’s the kind of science fiction that I love which I think is an important distinction. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that sci-fi comes in two varieties: classic and commercial.  The classical kind is the traditional variety that people take seriously, like H.G Wells, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, and Alastair Reynolds (These are just some of my favorites, they are by no means the only authors who were great at establishing sci-fi as a serious literary form.)

Commercial sci-fi, by contrast, is your basic stuff that owes much to the original masters but really didn’t follow in their footsteps.  Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Gate, et al (awful lot of stars in there!) are all examples of this.  This isn’t to say I didn’t like these shows, I grew up on Star Wars after all!  But to be honest, I never really found them particularly inspiring.  In all honesty, when it came to my own writing, they were more an example of what NOT to do.

Also, credit must be given to a friend of mine who once said that science fiction really isn’t a genre at all, it is a vehicle.  A vehicle who’s purpose is to deliver a message.  What that message is and how it is conveyed is what I think differentiates classic sci-fi from the commercial type.  Without a doubt, Frank Herbert’s Dune was the most inspirational work for me in that it delivered so much, and did so in a way that was both profound yet subtle.  He didn’t have muppet-style aliens who’s sole purpose was to reflect on humanity, he wasn’t preachy, his characters weren’t one-dimensional and his plots were never quick and tidy.  Characters were complex, his commentary was challenging, and his universe was rich and developed.

He was one of the greats that got me into writing sci-fi. Originally, back when I was still in school, I thought it might be cool to write a science fiction series.  I always loved drawing futuristic worlds and sci-fi stuff, but mainly I wanted to create my own universe. After reading his series, it occurred to me that I could turn my own ideas into short stories or even a full length novel.  I’ve crafted one full-length, called Legacies, and several shorts that are either set in the same universe or are completely independent. Since that time, I’ve also delved into some work that is a bit more contemporary, set in today’s world but with a sci-fi feel and spin.

The topics I like to cover are human evolution, extinction, exploration, colonization, society, technology, the cutting edge of things, and yes, even extra-terrestrials.  The longer I am here, the more I hope to post and share.  Hope y’all like what I have to offer! Enjoy!