Snow Crash

by Neal Stephenson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Despite what you might have been told, science
fiction books have a lousy track record at predicting
the future.  But let's be grateful.  Who really wants
aliens to invade the earth, asteroids to hurtle toward
our planet, or mutants to take over our inner cities?   
Do you want Big Brother watching you?   Or
"firemen" burning down the
local Barnes & Noble?  If
you could pick a story to
come true, you are advised to
choose a Harlequin romance
or Hollywood rags-to-riches
tale, while bypassing most
of the classics of science
fiction and fantasy.  

Yet every once in a while, a
science fiction author hits the
mark, whether through deep
wisdom or just dumb luck.  Jules Verne anticipated to
an uncanny degree the later Apollo space program in his
1865 novel
From the Earth to the Moon—even to the
extent of picking a launch site near Cape Canaveral,
choosing a crew of three astronauts and describing with
reasonable accuracy the size of the space capsule and
duration of the journey.  The word "robot" came from a
1920 play by sci-fi writer Karel Čapek..  Aldous Huxley
anticipated cloning and genetic engineering in
Brave New
World (1932).  The term "cyberspace" was invented by
William Gibson in his novel
Neuromancer (1984) which
also went a long was toward outlining its ramifications,
including firewalls and hackers.  

Eight years after
Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson published
Snow Crash (1992), which further explored the concept
of virtual reality, his book's release coinciding with the
launch of the World Wide Web.  Indeed Stephenson
anticipated the later evolution of both the web and sci-fi
books with remarkable prescience.  
Time magazine would
eventually select Stephenson's novel as one of its "All
Time" (pun apparently intended) English-language
novels
which despite the name was not "all time" but
only included titles dating back to 1923.  Even so, this
placed Stephenson in the elite company of Faulkner,
Hemingway, Woolf, Fitzgerald and other literary lions.  

Don't be misled by the company he keeps. Stephenson's
campy, lighthearted tone is worlds away from
Absalom,
Absalom!
or Mrs. Dalloway.   But the "lost generation" of
Hemingway's
The Sun Also Rises might not be too much
of a stretch.  In the world of
Snow Crash, citizens live in
"burbclaves," work at "franchulates" and spend their
spare time in the virtual reality "Metaverse."  Stephenson
populates his book with disillusioned young people who
learn how to work the system without ever becoming
compliant cogs in its operation.  

You don't need to dig deep here to find the secret
meaning.  The novel's protagonist is even named
Protagonist
Hiro Protagonist, to be specific.  He starts
out, in chapter one, as pizza deliverer for Uncle Enzo
and CosaNostra Pizza.  Could we get any more obvious?  
In time, Protagonist discovers the impending threat
posed by the spread of "Snow Crash"  through the
Metaverse
think of "Snow Crash" as a cross between a
computer virus, a narcotic and a cult.  This is something
more than your usual MacGuffin, even as it serves as a
springboard for adventures on land, air, sea and cyber-
space.  Along the way, our author mixes in doses of hip-
hop, geek talk and Sumerian mythology.  A few years
after the publication of
Snow Crash, Stephenson would
start writing big, bloated novels that ramble through
centuries the way a flâneur strolls through the Jardin du
Luxembourg, but even at this early stage one picks up on
his nervous energy and willingness to stretch the story to
bring in the most disparate elements.   

In addition to the inherent appeal of its extravagant story,
Snow Crash has gained some renown as the original source
of the now commonplace concept of an online
avatar.  If
not for Stephenson, only Hindu deities might possess
avatars, but our author made it possible for everyone on
Facebook and Twitter to follow in the footsteps of
Vishnu and Shiva.  Here is the relevant passage from
Snow Crash, describing a cyberspace avatar:

"He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part
of the moving illustration drawn by his computer
according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic
cable.  The people are pieces of software called avatars.   
They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to
communicate with each other in the Metaverse....If you
are ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful.  If you've
just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing
beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup."

At this stage of his career, Stephenson could still make
his points with a light, irreverent touch
in a manner
somewhat reminiscent of the late Kurt Vonnegut. "When
you are wrestling for possession of a sword," he writes,
"the man with the handle always wins." Or: "There's
only four things [Americans] do better than anyone else:
music, movies, microcode (software), high-speed pizza
delivery."  Some of the funniest sections of the book do
little to advance the plot—the interlude about Japanese
rapper Sushi K's attempt to build a following in Los
Angeles may be my favorite part of the book—but
demonstrate that Stephenson doesn't need to go high-
brow to show off his talent.  

I'm Sushi K and I'm here to say
I like to rap in a different way.

So I will get big radio traffic
When you look at demographic

Sushi K research statistic
Make big future look ballistic

Speed of Sushi K growth stock
Put U.S. rappers into shock.....

Snow Crash
was praised early on by a disparate cadre of
supporters, including Timothy Leary and William
Gibson, but not everyone saw a future classic when
first peering into this novel.  Upon its initial release,
Kirkus Reviews scorned Stephenson's book: "The flashy,
snappy delivery fails to compensate for the uninhabited
blandness of the characters. And despite the many
clever embellishments, none of the above is as original
as Stephenson seems to think. An entertaining entry that
would have benefited from a more rigorous attention to
the basics."  Even as the book became a cult classic, a
backlash set in from academics and the literary elite.  
Philosopher Richard Rorty weighed in with an intriguing
dismissal:  "Novels like Stephenson's...are novels not of
social protest but rather rueful acquiescence in the end
of American hopes."  Summarizing this position in the
context of his critique of Rorty, Walter Benn Michaels
explains that such a perspective implies that "the
problem with
Snow Crash is not that it isn't trueafter
all, it's a story
but that it isn't inspirational."

The fact that such interpretative stances toward fiction
are not uncommon hardly compensates for their
reductionist heavy-handedness.  If "inspirational" is the
measuring rod for our stories,
Jonathan Livingston
Seagull
would be superior to Madame Bovary and Paulo
Coelho would outrank Dostoevsky.  For all its unhinged
and campy elements,
Snow Crash is an important book.  
It anticipated many of the elements of the world we
now inhabit, and what it lacks in psychological depth it
more than makes up for in brashness and vitality.
True, the very success Stephenson had in predicting the
future means that many elements in this novel will no
longer surprise or shock us—hackers bringing down the
CIA web site or flash riots caused by Twitter are familiar
headlines in the current day.  But Stephenson hardly
needs cyberspace wonders, when his panache and
storytelling skills work so well on that old-fashioned
throwback known as the printed page.
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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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