What’s Next for Me and My Writing?

What’s Next for Me and My Writing?

Hello all! As you may remember from my last post, I just finished work on my latest novel, the Frost Line Fracture. This book is the third installment in a trilogy known as the Formist Series, which began with the publication of The Cronian Incident in 2017 (followed by The Jovian Manifesto in 2018).

If all goes as planned, the book should be available for purchase by November. And with the series complete, the three books could also be available together as a box set sometime next year. Granted, this is all great, but it leaves me with the question…

What’s Next?

Continue reading “What’s Next for Me and My Writing?”

Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy

Well, it finally happened. After many interruptions, thanks to other books that made it into my reading pile, I finally capped off Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy with All Tomorrow’s Parties. And as usual, Gibson’s combination of high-tech gadgets, low-tech environments, and an assorted crew of characters are all there in full force. And, interestingly enough, I also noticed some decidedly Gibsonian traits that appear in his other trilogies.

For one, there’s that tendency of his where he switches main characters between the first and second novel, then bring them all together again for the third. And then there is his ability to end a story abruptly and in a way that’s both confusing and a little short on explanations. As you might be able to guess, I had a few problems with this book, but none to write home about. Mainly, I thought it was a fitting and faithful ending to his second trilogy, chock-full of insights, ideas, and cool concepts.

The novel takes its name from the song of the same name by Velvet Underground, which was apparently inspired by their contact with the Andy Warhol clique. The story opens in a Tokyo subway station, where the character of Colin Laney (the protagonist of Idoru) is now living in an improvised “cardboard city” with other misfits. Inside this assemblage of boxes, he spends all of his time online, following the exploits of a media baron known as Cody Harwood. Consistent with the effects of 5-SB, the drug that gives Laney his ability to discern patterns of information, he has become obsessed with this celebrity figure. However, he also sees that a nodal point is fast approaching, and that Harwood is at the center of it.

What this node is and what it entails, he cannot say exactly. All he knows for sure is it will change everything, and is set to go down in San Fransisco. To uncover the details of this , and perhaps stop it as well, he enlists help from the people of the Walled City – a virtual environment in cyberspace – Rei Toei (the Idoru), and Berry Rydell (the protagonist from Virtual Light). Meanwhile, Chevette Washington, the bike courier from Virtual Light, is also on her way to the bridge. Her new roommate, a film maker named Tessa, wants to go there so she can do a documentary on the people, how they live, and study the phenomena known as “interstitial places”. Pursued by her jealous ex-boyfriend, she agrees to accompany Tessa and show her around, and maybe reconnect with some of her fellow Bridge dwellers.

In time, and with the help of his hacker friends from the Walled City, Laney learns that Harwood has also taken 5-SB. He too has seen the nodal point approaching, and wants to shape its outcome to his liking. Although it not quite clear what its about, it seems to involve the Lucky Dragon franchise, and their incorporation or nano-assemblers in each of their outlets. In time, Rydell and Chevette arrive on the bridge, which is becoming a tourist attraction, and has a Lucky Dragon located just beyond it, with Rei Toei’s mobile projector. Several men show up and try to kill him, but he is helped unexpectedly by an assassin named Konrad – a man who is ostensibly in Harwood’s employ, but has chosen to switch sides.

After rescuing him from the first assassin, Rydell and Konrad run into Chevette at a club. She takes them her old friend Fontaine’s watch shop, where he and a young boy named Silencio – an apparent mute who is obsessed with researching watches –  take them in. When Harwood is informed that they are holed up and their assassins are dying off, he orders them to set fire to the bridge. Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Laney and his Walled City friends find him and confront him. He manages to escape into the folds, but Rei Toei comes to the little boy and tells him to find a special watch – a task which is in reality a trek to find where Harwood is hiding. They track him down, and he is neutralized.

Laney and Chevette narrowly escape to Skinner’s old hideout at the top of the bridge, where they kill the last of the assassins and wait out the fire. Rescue trucks and airships begin dousing the flames, just in time to save the bulk of the population. Meanwhile, Rei uploads her program to the Lucky Dragon’s database, and when the nanoassemblers go online, they produce endless copies of her! As the nodal point comes and passes, things have changed, though not in the way Harwood wanted, and in a small cardboard box in Tokyo, Laney is found dead by some of his old associates.

Good Points/Weak Points:
Much like its predecessors, this book advances the nanotechnology angle and brings it to an apparent conclusion. In book I, it was nanotech that was meant to be the means through which San Fransico was going to be rebuild after the Little Grande (aka. the Big One). It was also the means through which Tokyo was rebuild after said same earthquake. And many hints were dropped in Idoru that the character of Rei Toei, whose existence is strictly virtual, would be relying on it to manifest herself in reality. Alas, this finally seems to take place in this novel, where Rei uses the nanoassembly units in every Lucky Dragon around the world to produce copies of herself.

In addition, the concept of the nodal point is brought to its climax, where Laney and Harwood, both people who are sensitive to such things, are able to see one which will mean the end of the world. Not in the apocalyptic sense, merely that it will be the end of the world as they know it. From this description it is strongly implied that this will amount to a technological singularity, an event where advancement will speed up to the point where no one can predict the outcome. And given all the mentions of nanotech, it is entirely possible that it will be central to this transformation.

However, as I said earlier, this was not made clear. Much like with everything else at the end, explanations were lacking. What the big change-up involved, how Harwood planned to benefit, and how Silencio prevented that from happening… unclear! And Rei Toei’s involvement, her transformation and what purpose that served, also unclear. In essence, the climax just happens as describes, a few more short (really short) chapters tell what happened to all the characters once it was over, and the story ends. Little epilogue? Little conversation between the main characters explaining what they did and maybe what happened with Rei Toei? People learn the hero’s journey isn’t always an easy one?

Ah, I enjoyed reading it. Like all of Gibson’s work, it did a good job of contrasting high-tech and low, commercial applications and the streets use for them. The disparity of wealth and power also makes it in, as well as the average Joe’s ongoing attempts to subvert and resist it. In the end, Laney (the gifted social outcast), Rydell (the bewildered everyman), and Chevette (the streetwise survivor), all play a role in bringing down a major tycoon who’s only goal is to put himself at the center of the new order. Still, some indication of what that new order was and the meaning behind all his moves would have been nice!

And of course, the Walled City and Rei Toei make it back for their final appearances. Much like in Idoru, they are a shout out to the idea of artificial spaces, artificial constructs, and the line that separates them from that which is physically real. But rather than take a moralistic stance on the issue, Gibson’s approach was clearly towards the anthropological and sociological side of things. Mainly, he sought to show how humanity lives and adapts in an increasingly complex and changing world, and how the process is tied to the issue of control. Whereas everyone is effected by technological change and the social impact it has, it is clear that some are merely adapting whereas others have a degree of control over it.

And as with much of his other works, it is the disparity between the rich and the poor that is most central to Gibson. Whereas the rich occupy the top tier of society in his books, living on the cutting edge of development in comfortable, state of the art environments, the poor wait for development to trickle down to them and use it for their own purposes, meanwhile living in improvised environments made out of what’s available. In the middle, there are the “freelancers” who understand the conspiracies and agendas and do their best to expose them, hoping to do right by all the people who occupy the bottom rungs of society.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bridge itself. Much as with the real life Walled City of Kowloon that inspired it, it all comes down to corporate interests who are trying to destroy, gentrify or commercialize it. Whereas in the first novel, the story revolved around a plot to gentrify San Fransisco through nanotechnology, in the third, those same interests try to demolish the Bridge itself because it is clearly beyond their control. It is only through the know-how and the sacrifice of those who see the larger agenda at work that it is saved, unlike the real Walled City (which was demolished between 1993/4).

It is little wonder then why this trilogy was seen as a sort of graduation for Gibson, moving from cyberpunk themed science-fiction to predictive social commentary. And while we might not be exactly where Gibson put us (2012 and we still don’t have nanomachines dammit!), the ideas he put forth  in this trilogy are still on our minds. These days, people are practically holding their breaths, waiting for the day when an artificial personality will finally be realized and machines small enough to manipulate matter at the atomic level can be built. And when that happens, we can still expect that the effects will be felt unequally. Some people will be living in seamless building made from carbon nanotubes and run by AI’s, others will be living shanty’s, making appliances out of spare parts. Or, to put it as Gibson once said “the future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.”

So long Walled City, you will be missed!

The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age

Yesterday, I got into one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels, Snow Crash! And, as I believe I mentioned, that was the novel that put Neal Stephenson on everyone’s radar as the new voice of post-cyberpunk. Well, if that novel established that reputation for him, it was his very next novel, The Diamond Age, that cemented it for him. Years back, a friend recommended I check it out. It was the first of Stephenson’s novels I would ever pick up, and since that time, I’ve been pretty much hooked on what he has to say.

In fact, a little over a year later, I picked this book back up and re-read it. It’s narrative, themes and content are rich to the point that you can read it multiple times and still feel entertained, intrigued and even a little blown away. What’s more, the premise of the book, which is of nanotechnology and the effect it will have on politics, economics and human interaction, could not have been more timely. Whereas Snow Crash came to us in 1992 and predicted the rise of internet communities, information control and the breakup of the US, The Diamond Age came out in 1995 and tackled what is sure to be the “technological singularity” of the coming century, the big game changer that will forever alter the course of human development.

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens in the Leased Territories, a slum-like community that exists outside of New Chusan – an artificial island built off the coast of Shanghai. This setting is clearly meant to allude to the European trading colonies of the 19th century, which is something the story comes back to repeatedly. Here, we see Bud, a “thete” (tribeless person) making his way through the world of freelance thuggery, body enhancements and tribal loyalties. This is another ever-present theme of the novel – the sense of ethnic and synthetic tribalism that has arisen now that the nation-states of the world have ceased to exist.

We also meet Nell, the main character of the novel and the daughter of Bud’s girlfriend, Tequila. Through a confluence of events, she finds herself in possession of a revolutionary piece of technology, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is a fully-interactive book meant to educate young girl’s by taking elements of their own lives, combining them with culturally-relevant mythology, and serving as a source of primary education. How she inherits this piece and technology and its role in the story provides the inciting event to the story and helps to introduce the other main characters.

There’s John Percival Hackworth, an engineer who designed the Primer and was trying to smuggle an advanced, illegal copy to his daughter when he was mugged by Nell’s brother, Harv. He is a member of the Victorian phyle, a group of Anglo-Americans looking to recreate a golden age of stability, morality and technological advancement. His activities on the side bring him into contact with Doctor X, a Chinese nanotechnologist and Confucian leader looking to reunite China and free it from foreign entanglements. He manufactures the book for Hackworth, but when he gets into trouble, uses this to blackmail him into designing similar primer’s for the thousands of orphaned Chinese girls he takes care of.

Then there’ Judge Fang, the criminal prosecutor who lives in the Coastal Republic of China and who sentences Bud to death after he’s caught mugging some people. He is also suspicious of Dr. X and is looking to arrest him for what he suspects is human trafficking. However, when he learns that Dr. X has actually created a haven for orphaned girls and is using copies of the Primer to raise them, he comes to enlist with him. Finally, there’s Miranda, a “ractor” (actor in interactive movies) who performs for various clients out of a theater in the Leased Territories. However, her work soon involves performing in the stories of Nell’s Primer, and in time she comes to know her and develops a strong emotional attachment to her.

In between all this, we get a full account of what life is like in a world dominated by nanotechnology. In addition to the phyles and “claves” (enclaves) which have replaced the old system of nation states, people also rely on MC’s (Matter Compilers) to manufacture all of their needs. This has freed people from the traditional problems of manufacturing, supply and demand; but there is still the problem of access, as all MC’s require Feeds (lines that connect them to supplies of raw material) and the more desirable items still cost money.

Things come together when Nell, on the Primer’s urging, leaves her home and joins the clave of New Chusan, effectively becoming a Victorian. Meanwhile, Hackworth, once his own people realize he’s being blackmailed, begins playing the role of double agent so he can find out what Dr. X is up to. His efforts soon lead to his disappearance outside of Vancouver, where he is taken in by a strange society known as “The Drummers”. These people operate in underwater compounds located off the coasts of major centers, perform rhythmic, hypnotic dances and engage in ritualized sex. This act, we learn later, is actually for the sake of information exchange, which is done through the transmission of nanomachines contained within their bodily fluids.

These particular Drummers are working for Dr. X, their purpose being to tap Hackworth’s vast knowledge of engineering so he will be able to complete Dr. X’s secret project for him. For years, Hackworth is amongst them, contributing his knowledge (unwittingly) before he finally wakes up and returns to his people. In that time, he finds that his own daughter, who is roughly Nell’s age, has grown up and his people have all but disavowed him. However, his newly acquired knowledge proves quite useful and he is grudgingly readmitted to Victorian society.

Shortly thereafter, Nell is shown to be all grown up and decides to leave the clave of New Chusan and head back to the Coastal Republic, becoming a ractor just like Miranda. However, before this happens, we continue to see her interaction with the Primer. Gradually, it enhances her numeracy, literacy and problem solving skills. Turing machines make an ongoing appearance, and its clear that Nell is being educated on the evolution of technology by being made to understand increasingly complex machines. Eventually, the story culminates with “Princess Nell” becoming the leader of the “Mouse Army”, a army that when freed, becomes an army of young women. As it turns out, this army are the young girls Dr. X was raising who are in contact with her through their own Primers.

All this takes place against a background of increased tensions as the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” (a reference to 19th century China’s “Boxer Rebellion”) are growing in power and threatening to revolt. Shortly before this happens, Hackworth meets with Dr. X one last time to discuss his plans and what’s to come. Dr. X reveals his intentions which take the form of “The Seed”, a nanotechnological device that grows things out of the Earth like a real seed, and does not rely on Feeds the way the Victorian nanotechnological devices do. The purpose of all this was to arm China with technology that is consistent with its “Chi” (Qi), thus freeing them from having to import foreign technologies that are not compatible with their culture.

Things all come together when the Fists mount their final assault on the Coastal Republic. Hackworth is caught behind their lines and Nell and several clients and coworkers are trapped in their building. They fight their way out, but Nell and her companions are saved with the appearance of the Mouse Army. Seems the girls are now grown, like Nell, and have mobilized to find their leader (Nell) and defeat the Fists. Their army defeats the Fist rebellion just as Hackworth and the other characters escape the violence by heading to another “Drummer” compound located off the coast.

However, there entrance into the compound coincides with another act of ritualized sex. During these rituals, the female participant has sex with several male partners in turn, receiving a store of information which they have in their fluids. When it is done, said female usually undergoes combustion from the sheer amount of heat and energy involved in the process. Hackworth and the others are temporarily pulled in by the hypnotic music, but manage to break away just in time. The story ends with them emerging on the shores of the Leased Territory of New Chusan, hearing the bells coming from the Victorian clave in the background.

Needless to say, I-loved-this-book! It’s exploration of science, society, epistemology, technology, and its many cultural and historical references were both profoundly interesting and downright cool! One could also feel the literary inspirations just piling up throughout, ranging from Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells to the Wizard of Oz and other old Hollywood classics. But what I loved best was the profound sense of historicism that made it into this book.

Take for example the repeated allusions to 19th century China, a time marked by rapid change, growing resentment, and attempts at cultural revival. Stephenson’s predictions for the future played a key role in this respect, predicting that China would split between the interior and the coastal regions, that Communism would be denounced as a “Western philosophy” and the country would return to the state of division and confusion wherein it would be vulnerable to foreign influences. The concept that it would also need or want to find its own way, that it would desire technology that was compatible with its sense of culture, was also very interesting.

In addition, the actual references to historical periods – 19th century China, the original Boxer Rebellion, Confucianism, the Cultural Revolution – were also VERY interesting. As was his explanation of how the moral relativism of the previous century (i.e. 20th) is what led to the creation of the Victorian phyle, a group built on the idea of discipline and moral absolutes (much like their predecessors). His exploration of cultural differences, and how some were “better than others” was also though-provoking, though its not entirely clear if this was a rhetorical or a firm statement.

I was somewhat confounded by this last aspect of the book. True, Stephenson’s predictions have so far been wrong, rather than experiencing collapse and division, China has taken to the path of rapid industrialization and privatization that is likely to make it a solid, albeit polarized and radicalized, competitor in any future world. In addition, I was not entirely clear on whether or not he believed in the idea of cultural superiority, namely how through a commitment to hard work, repression of emotion and the imposition of moral strictures. However, I do believe the point here was meant to be rhetorical and allegorical. Mainly, I think he meant to show how history is full of repeats, how the pendulum swings back and forth and how technology can have a regressive as well as progressive effect on cultures. And in this respect, he was quite apt!

This is not to say that I didn’t love the technological aspects too. Holy crap were they cool! Feeds, Matter Compilrers, nanomachines, rod logic, nanomaterials, etc etc etc. It was to have a profound influence on my own writing as well!

I’ve already mentioned one of the main weaknesses of the book, and that is the predictive aspects which felt like they missed. But as I indicated, it’s not exactly a weakness. Nevertheless, for anyone who was old enough to remember the nineties and has seen what’s become of modern-day China, the notion that they would regress to a revamped 19th century version of themselves, or indeed that they would look backwards for solutions instead of forwards, seemed a tad off. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20 and you can’t exactly fault an author for making predictions that didn’t come true. More often than not, these things are meant to illustrate a point, not as valid predictions they would stake their career on!

And this really was not the big weakness of this book, which was (once again) the ending! As I mentioned in the previous review, Snow Crash established Stephenson’s reputation for writing awkward endings. And this book cemented that too! This time around, the ending was even more truncated and odd, the reader being left with the feeling that not one but several chapters were being left out! For example, what became of Nell and the other main characters? Did she stick around in China to lead the Mouse Army, did the country reunite, and what became of Hackworth and his fellow Victorians once they washed up on shore? What happened with Dr. X’s plans for the Seed? Did China become a powerhouse in its own right like the Victorians, Japan, Hindustan, et al?

There was plenty of room for things to still go wrong and several key decisions that felt like they still needed to be made. In addition, readers were given the distinct impression that Miranda and Nell would come together in the end, but this really didn’t happen. Like everything else, I guess we were meant to imagine what would take place next, being left with a cliffhanger of sorts. Still, even the last sentence felt like the closing scene out of The Sopranos, where everything just ends abruptly and no one has any idea what’s supposed to happen.

The story can also be a bit hard to follow at times and feel a bit hokey. This latter part can easily be forgiven simply by reminding oneself that this is Stephenson, a man who mixes wit, satire and genius so freely that it can oftentimes feel a bit comical. But the complexity of the story and narrative is somewhat more daunting. This is one of the reasons I re-read the book, hoping it would be less vague the second time around. I was marginally correct.

Still, these weakness hardly detract from what it a work of genius and in my opinion, a thumping good read! For anyone interested in what the next great technological leap will look like, or who’s interested in a futuristic tale full of cultural/philosophical/technological/psychological and educational departures, I strongly recommend this novel!

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.

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!