"There's only four things we [Americans] do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), and high speed pizza delivery"
- Snow Crash
Those four elements -- which could easily be from a Sesame Street "One of These Things" sketch -- set the tone for Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson's latest romp through someone else's low-rent genre.
Stephenson has the ability to go into a social group, scope out the key points that the locals enjoy, wrap it around a speculative plot and then write about it in an entertaining manner. His previous two books (see below) prove that it's not just the C-word ghetto he's able to romp through with relative ease, he's equally at home with college life and ecological terrorism.
Snow Crash is written from a comic book male-geek-as-world saver viewpoint pushed to a point of ludicrousness descended from the tainted loins of Heinlein, Norman and E. R. Burroughs. Our hero, Hiro Protagonist, is one of the "early" hackers of his time, a master swordsman, an expert on Japanese culture, a programmer of many legend, and a super-professional pizza delivery man. Number two hero, YT, is a teenage skatepunk girl courier who fulfills every role from Companion (in perfect "What is it, Doctor?" style) to possible love interest, to dependent not-so-in-distress character. YT's real-world sensibilities are a nice balance against Hiro's amazing range of gee-wow technical abilities, but her character is much less fleshed out than his. Luckily, she only has one "girl-talk" line so often given to female sidekicks: "Hiro, you are such a geek. She's a woman, you're a dude. You're not supposed to understand her. That's not what she's after." (Granted, YT is never presented as the voice of egalitarian reason.)
Hiro and YT are needed by one group of forces who want to prevent another group from unleashing an ancient meme onto the world. Simply put, the evil-doers want to break down the divergent language and thought systems built up during the thousands of years since the fall of Babel -- to be replaced with their own system, of course.
Their tool is a new memetic virus ("Snow Crash") loosed into the world. (As a small consequence, computer programmers and hackers will either be converted to the side of "one tongue" or have their brains fried by the virus itself.) Conflict ensues, complete with motorcycle, car, and boat chases, sex, violence, hacking, high tech gizmos and all the other good things that make the future go around.
The C-word Style
Snow Crash is being perceived as C-word fiction by people I know who have read it. Whether Stephenson intended it to be parody or not is another question entirely. Regardless of intent, it has the most important characteristic of the C-word genre: style. This is the sort of book that should definitely be on the list of any C-word Otaku simply because it's about what they wanna be when they are
finally a part of the on-line world. Hiro's cool, he's got attitude,
his world is cool, it has attitude, the girls (the target audience of
most of this drek is teenage boys) are cool and they do cool guy things, the toys are cool, everything's just so fucking cool it's amazing. Even the bad guys are cool.
There's plenty of proper use of appropriate technology at the
appropriate time, although it doesn't always fit into expected molds. The basic items of 20th C. USA exist in excess. Things work pretty much the same way they do now expect they're more efficient, fast, and deadly. If an item is pushed, it breaks. Beta equipment fails. Manuals are incomprehensible. People run afoul of creeping featurism and malware.
The world of Snow Crash is described in a flowing fashion, details are added as needed or in places where they add a bit of humor. The descriptions, whether they be of the punk/skateboarder subculture; the role and importance of immigrants in US society, or how hackers interact with one another and the world are clear, concise, and well thought out. Many of the future-speak has obvious meaning, instead of being yet another italicized buzzword. Taxi drivers and their ilk speak "Taxilinga," for instance.
The question of parody comes from high profile items within the book and structure of the book itself. Names, for example, often are based on real-world or literary stereotypes: "Hiro Protagonist", "Da5id", "Uncle Enzo", "L. Bob Rife" (a dead ringer for H. Ross Perot, who was still reasonably obscure when Snow Crash was being written). The storyline is the almost obligatory "multiple-independent- characters-brought-together-by- unseen-conflicting-forces-to-
Some of Stephenson's stylistic mannerisms can be a bit intrusive. He occasionally transitions from omniscient narrator to a tight POV narrator with an effect similar to having someone channel surf when you'd rather watch a single show. One redeeming factor, though, is that the narrator also has a sense of humor and a tone similar to someone telling you a story who's suddenly stopped to comment on the story itself.
Stephenson's future is violent, which seems to be a running thread with C-word authors and quite possibly could be considered a necessary element for a work to be considered in this genre. The violent characters, however, are either "villains" or people being violent towards "villains" who've asked for it. Gratuitous violence is missing from both the book, and the future portrayed in the book.
Snow Crash differs from many of its ilk in that it addresses the
possible path of the U.S.'s current pro-capitalist society could take. It ranges from being libertarian free market capitalism wish fulfillment to a strikingly insidious criticism of the same. Government of the masses in the future happens via corporate authority. One not only has citizenship in the US, but probably has citizenship in a secondary country, a "BurbClave", or an association with a self-protective bent (the Mafia being a prime example of the latter). These private "nations" act with at least the same sphere of influence, and with more efficiency and force, than the Federal government of today; definitely more than the Federal government of tomorrow which is little more than a nostalgic patriotic tax drain. The US President is introduced in the book with the line: "Then, when no one seems to react, he jogs their memory: 'President of the United States.'"
Franchises fill a vast array of needs in the future. There are the Snooze and Cruise hotels, private security/police of varying affiliations and abilities, organized crime, religions run like fast food restaurants, and cultural nation-states such as "Mr. Yee's Greater Hong Kong" and the white-only "New South Africa". People who buy into such a nation-state usually gain more rights and privileges within that state than US citizens enjoy today.
Is this commentary on our current lifestyle in the US, or speculation on the aftermath of long-term self-examination. Is our grossly commercial franchise culture really this goofy, or does Stephenson think we'll become less self-conscious and take the step of actively playing out the archetypal roles we see in mass culture? Could we learn to crash at a place called the Snooze and Cruise and keep a serious face? Would we, without comment, patronize the mall chain known as the Towne Hall? Could we hang out with friends who really live in a U-Store-It? Would we really go to churches operated as franchises where we we're charged at the entrance? Would we order pizza from a chain whose head is also the grand capo of the Sicilian Mafia? (Instead of some right-wing religious bozo, as we do now!?)
Perhaps, just perhaps.
Stephenson's technology shows that he's put a bit of thought into
both the social aspects of future technological changes and the
changes themselves. He walks a line between the Gibson/Ballard/ Murphy "technology-as-prop" and the Niven/Pournell mecha-fetishist "technology-as-denied-sexual-
Some areas of materials and computer technology have advanced enough to make "smart wheels" and onboard computer/guidance systems an available (but expensive) item for skateboards and motorcycles, while cybernetics seems to have advanced greatly but is only used to build a better watchdog -- the "rat thing". Even skateboard technology is quite complex, with the Kouriers (the skateboarding courier service YT works for) having whole boatloads of gear to drive the modern technofetishist wild with glee.
The most important area of Stephenson's technological world is the "Metaverse": the virtual world where millions of Earth's future inhabitants congregate to do business, entertain themselves, socialize, exert power and influence, and attempt to take over the world. Just about anyone in a technically civilized country can enter the metaverse, represented by an "avatar" of their own choosing, from the cheap, low-res models to any one of the currently popular "beautiful people". His virtual world is well-designed and described, and could be considered a good model for some system to be built in our future. Stephenson acknowledges the human interface writings and individuals that he learned from while writing the story.
The Metaverse is everywhere, and operates 24 hours a day. People connect from around the world , much in the same fashion as people do today on the Internet, UUCP nets, FIDO relays, and what have you. The interface is more sophisticated, the graphics are higher res, but Stephenson hits it on the head with the fact that in cyberspace we're probably going to do the same boring things we do now, but with a lot slicker hardware between us and the folks we interact with.
Stephenson's knowledge of computers almost does him more harm than good as he occasionally falls into a Heinleinian "Let's pause the plot while I give an introductory lecture" spiel. Stephenson can write this sort of monologue with some flair and the subject presented usually has more to do with the plot and less to do with showing off the author's technological expertise. However, it's one thing to have a subtle joke that only the right sort of geek will get, another to pound all humor out of an idea by describing the joke in intimate detail.
Some of the software issues were handled very well, some were not, but even the worst snafus technology-wise were minor compared to screw ups of the masters. The librarian for the worldwide data set was quite well done -- it interacts just fine as if it were a cognizant AI but under pressure would suddenly protest that Hiro wanted it to form an opinion, which it obviously was incapable of doing. Complications and idiosyncrasies of the metaverse were likewise well handled, especially the social/class levels based on the quality of your avatar and of your connection to the metaverse itself. Hiro's role in designing parts of the metaverse, its backdoors, and tales of "the old days" are all consistent with the scope and limitations of the metaverse and the base technology.
His biggest miss, computer science wise, undermines a major plot element. L. Bob Rife (general purpose antagonist) owns a majority of the network the Metaverse exists in/on. Much of his established power and ability to threaten the world seems to have been gained via tapping the information flowing through those lines. Even in this day and age, the automatic encryption of sensitive data is becoming commonplace, with the automatic encryption of damn near everything becoming equally as common. With encryption comes protection of two sorts: people can't snoop your data, and it becomes quite difficult for people to introduce new data in place of your old.
The flaws in his physical technology are generally minor, but can be glaring if it's the sort of thing you deal with in day to day life. Many of his characters carry around loads of active electronics which would seem to require massive juice to do some of the things they do. Portable computers with substantial computing power and built in wireless high bandwidth networking are going to use significant amounts of power and need to dissipate reasonably large amounts of heat. (Those darn laws of thermodynamics.) Stephenson does make the occasional reference to using a computer in a method that lowers power consumption, but people for the most part wander around using electricity as if they each carried a portable fusion reactor. At the worst of it is the somewhat ubiquitous personal micrometer radar with object recognition and tracking. These wonderful toys never interfere with one another and are incapable of detecting glass.
Last and sometimes least in the C-word genre, we come to plot. In fine detective novel style, we the reader are as in the dark as the characters, we learn the grand plot as they do and are only a step behind them in answering the Big Questions. At times I suspect that the characters know much more of the reasons as to why things are happening than we the reader are told.
Some plot elements border on the contrived -- especially Raven's and Hiro's fathers having been prisoners of war together. A vague mention of it is made early on, then suddenly explained with dialogue between Raven and Hiro in the middle of a climactic chase seen? Or was that another clichŽ being made fun of?
Other characters have hit-or-miss backgrounds. We know little about Hiro's flame, but she helps him save the world. YT's mom, a somewhat important character, never even gets a name. She's mentioned more, and is more important to the plot than minor lackeys like "Glass Eye" and "Luigi".
Things carry through quite well, however, with elements building on one another until at the end we're quite up to speed with a dense plot full of complex devices in a complex world. Even the ending is a humorous twist, based on a insight into the real world of hackers.
Best of all, there are no convenient hooks for a sequel. I shouldn't get my hopes up, because I thought that Neuromancer's strongly worded finish would preclude sequels as well.
Any book that leaves you with questions has something going for it.
The linguistic aspects are quite intriguing: how much of the Neuro-Linguistic Programming/"me" rant is based in reality/history, how much is manipulation for the sake of a story? How seriously should I, a programmer and writer, fear linguistic hackers attempting to take over my mind with one-tongue/babel/mind-control techniques? (We should be more worried about orbital mind control lasers, I suspect.)
Snow Crash is good reading, especially if you're really tired of the whole supercool, supertough, supertech, noplot garbage (ShadowRun novelizations, anyone?) that make up the current C-word genre.
(J. Eric Townsend)
At the core of Stephenson's Snow Crash is the metaverse, a
multiuser object-oriented graphical VR network where Hiro Protagonist hangs out. The metaverse has been compared with Gibson's matrix, but it's different in that it doesn't require a neural interface, and it's a virtual space that was specifically created for human interaction.
Stephenson has brought 'cyberpunk' closer to home, in that this environment is not terribly different from today's conferencing systems or MOOs; what's added is audio and graphics. It's no accident that the interface is so close to today's reality; the book grew in part from research into graphical user interfaces, specifically via the Apple Macintosh guidelines.
Hiro is a world-class hacker and an intentional underachiever; at
the beginning of the story he's delivering pizzas for the mafia, a
line of work that's accelerated in this future where, true to the
cyberpunk meme, the power is in the hands of corporate power
junkies and the real villain is sleazeball preacher L. Bob Rife,
originally from Odessa, Texas. Part Ross Perot, part Billy Graham, part J.R. Ewing, Rife is rich, self-made, and eager to rule the world by coopting the linguistic code that governs the perception of reality, essentially lobotomizing a small but growing army of third world expatriates using the nam-shub of Enki, source code for the 'confusion of tongues' used at the Tower of Babel.
Rife is opposed by a strange coalition...the disaffected Hiro; his ex-girlfriend, the neurolinguistic hacker Juanita; skateboard kourier Y.T., a 15-year-old riot gurrrl whose composure is never
quite shaken; and Uncle Enzo's old-school Mafioso gang, not crooks, just businessmen, if ya know what I mean ("to live outside the law you must be honest").
One other great character is the mercenary Raven. A giant Aleut
with real attitude, meaner-than-Hell Raven is a source of surprises, especially in his response to Y.T.
Though slow at times, especially in building the historical
perspective with references to obscure Biblical texts, Snow Crash is overall a hot summer read and a swell tutorial for techno-millenialists.
Here is the TEXT POPUP for Snow Crash:
Who the Hell is this Stephenson Guy?
So why haven't we heard of him before? Stephenson's first
published novel was The Big U, set deep within the bowels of university life. It was published in 1984 and was never to be seen again, even with press declaring it a combination of The Illuminatus Trilogy, Animal House, and Catch 22. I kept back a copy from the shelves (selling books and wargames from the back of an obscure gaming store in Louisiana is a level in hell) because of a distributor's recommendation: "It's weird shit, man." Since then, I've found only one other person who owns a copy of The Big U. The friends I've loaned my copy to generally call me up or drop me email to the effect of "This guy is fucking amazing -- where can I find a copy of this? What else has he written?"
According to the bio in the back of Snow Crash, Stephenson's second book was Zodiac: the Eco-thriller, published in 1988. It's described as "quickly developing a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers". I've been on the lookout for this book for some time.
- J. Eric Townsend
Excerpts from Snow Crash
"Daemon" is an old piece of jargon from the UNIX operating system, where it referred to a piece of low-level utility software, a fundamental part of the operating system. In The Black Sun, a daemon is like an
avatar, but it does not represent a human being. It's a robot that lives in the Metaverse. A piece of software, a kind of spirit that inhabits the machine, usually with some particular role to carry out. The Black Sun has a
number of daemons that serve imaginary drinks to the patrons and run little errands for people.
Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they
embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all of the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time.
The tattoo on his forehead consists of three words, written in block letters: POOR IMPULSE CONTROL.
Hiro startles and actually jumps into the air as Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns launch into their opening number,"Radiation Burn." It is a tornado of mostly high-pitched noise and distortion, like being flung bodily through a wall of fishhooks.
These days, most states are franchulates or Burbclaves, much too small to have anything like a jail, or even a judicial system. So when someone does something
bad, they try to find quick and dirty punishments, like flogging, confiscation of property, public humiliation, or, in the case of people who have a high potential of going on to hurt others, a warning tattoo on a prominent
body part. POOR IMPULSE CONTROL. Apparently, this guy
went to such a place and lost his temper real bad.
The franchise and the virus work on the same principle: what thrives in one place will thrive in
another. You just have to find a sufficiently virulent business plan, condense it into a three-ring binder -- its DNA -- xerox it, and embed it in the fertile lining of a well-traveled highway, preferably one with a left-turn lane. Then the growth will expand until it runs up against its property lines.
A speech with magical force. Nowadays, people don't believe in these kinds of things. Except in the Metaverse, that is, where magic is possible. The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. And code is just a form of speech -- the form that computers understand. The Metaverse in its entirety could be considered a single vast nam-shub, enacting itself on L.
Bob Rife's fiber-optic network.
"He believed that Babel was an actual historical event. That it happened in a particular time and place, coinciding with the disappearance of the Sumerian
language. That prior to Babel/Infocalypse, languages
tended to converge. And that afterward, languages have always had an innate tendency to diverge and become mutually incomprehensible -- that this tendency is, as he put it, coiled like a serpent around the human brainstem."
"I wonder if viruses have always been with us, or not. There's sort of an implicit assumption that they have been around forever. But maybe that's not true. Maybe there was a period of history when they were nonexistent or at least unusual. And at a certain point, when the metavirus showed up, the number of different viruses exploded, and people started getting sick a whole lot. That would explain the fact that all cultures seem to have a myth about Paradise, and the Fall from Paradise."
"Snow Crash penetrates the walls of brain cells and goes to the nucleus where the DNA is stored. So for purposes of this mission, we developed a detector that
would enable us to find cell wall-penetrating compounds
in the air. But we didn't count on heaps of empty testosterone vials being scattered all over the place. All steroids -- artificial hormones -- share the same
basic structure, a ring of seventeen atoms that acts like
a magic key that allows them to pass through the cell walls. That's why steroids are such powerful substances when the are unleashed in the human body. They can go deep inside the cell, into the nucleus, and actually change the way the cell functions.
"To summarize, the detector is useless. A stealthy approach will not work. So we go back to the original plan. You buy some Snow Crash and throw it up in the