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Snow Crash
Neal Stephenson
Subterranean Press, 488 pages

Snow Crash
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's background shows clearly in his writing. He was born in Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. His own studies included physics and geography.

Stephenson is the author of Zodiac, Snow Crash, and the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age. He also writes with his uncle J. Frederick George under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Stephenson currently lives in the Seattle area with his family.

Cryptonomicon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Quicksilver
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Interview: Neal Stephenson
SF Site Review: Cryptonomicon
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Diamond Age

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Graham Raven

Few modern novels divide opinion among science fiction fans with quite the sharpness of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, the book that blasted him to geek-hero status after its original publication in 1992. Subterranean Press's handsome limited edition re-release seems as good a reason as any to look at Snow Crash with the benefit of hindsight, and ask why it is a sacred text for some but an execrable failure for others.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Snow Crash is flawed; Stephenson's education was as a physicist and geographer and he came to writing from the outside, which may explain why the novel flies in the face of many accepted tenets of literary writing. But I would argue that it is those very faults that made it so appealing to its fan base; even more so than William Gibson's Neuromancer or Bruce Sterling's cyberpunk novels, Snow Crash is ensconced deeply in the "geek canon" -- a set that intersects and overlaps with parts of the SF canon, but which is compiled from a very different set of source code and criteria.

Let's look first at the flaws of Snow Crash, principal of which (as well as the one from which the others stem, to a greater or lesser degree) is its failure to adhere to accepted literary standards. Right from the opening two chapters -- a twenty-two page compressed blaze of third-person narrative, peppered with hyper-real slang and techno-fetish that describe ten minutes in the life of a soon-to-be ex-pizza delivery driver -- Stephenson picks style over substance, and he infodumps with the pulp writer's unsullied joy in knowing stuff.

This trend continues all the way through. Stephenson evidently did masses of research on a number of seemingly disparate subjects, and was so enamoured of what he found that he could not but share it with the reader. In his defence, it's all needed for the plot to work, and weaving it into the story more subtly would have bulked it up way beyond publishable size... but the most common complaint I've heard from those who disliked Snow Crash (and who, in many cases, who were unable to finish it) is that these colossal downloads of data jolt the reader out of the narrative.

Further complaints arise from Stephenson's rambling style -- which, as his subsequent career has demonstrated, was not simply something shrugged on as appropriate dress for Snow Crash alone -- and from the triumph of style over substance. Vivid and lengthy evocations of cartoon cyber-noir locations dovetail with infodumps detailing the functionality and design parameters of vehicles, weapons and other hardware of the future, as well as the fragmented and atomised politics of Snow Crash America. Compare this with Gibson's early output: Neuromancer may ooze re-appropriated noir sensibilities, but Gibson's prose was as lean and spare as his strung-out protagonists, while Stephenson's writing bloats like a night security guard with a donut jones.

Which brings us to Snow Crash's second flaw, namely its political incorrectness. The novel is entirely populated with stereotypes: Mafia cartels and Columbian drug gangs whose operating principles are indoctrination and violent revenge, respectively; a Tokyo rapper with a neat line in Japanglish rhymes; narrow-minded suburbanites and ornery rednecks; a megalomaniac Texan televangelist; masses of faceless Russians "with names ending in -off and -ovski and other dead Slavic giveaways" [pp321]... and the female lead YT, the rebellious and defiantly street-wise daughter-of-a-WASP.

One could make a solid argument that these stereotypes can be considered a realistic portrayal of the sort of attitudes that might well exist in the atomised world stage upon which Snow Crash is set. But with Hiro Protagonist as viewpoint character -- a man who has frequently ended up in fights because of his mixed-race ancestry, and who is well aware of how his father was treated because of his race during the Second World War -- we aren't entirely out of line to expect a little more cultural sensitivity, an acknowledgement of the shades of grey.

Snow Crash is by no means a deliberately imperialist text, however. For example, the core motivation of Raven, Hiro's nemesis, is based on the mistreatment of his race by the American government in the nuclear testing era. So there's an awareness of the problems that emerge from stereotyping and colonialist attitudes at the plot level; it doesn't extend to the writing of the characters. The stereotyping -- not just of race but of gender -- reveals Snow Crash to be a boy's-own-adventure novel at heart, as has been pointed out in detail by critics far more qualified than myself; for a witty, detailed but fair criticism, I heartily recommend Gwyneth Jones' "The Boys Want to be with the Boys".

Politics aside, Stephenson's characterisation is hard work for the literary reader because his main characters are embodied ideas or ideologies. They're not motivated by their feelings anywhere near as much as they are by their origins and status, and there is little development in the lead characters -- although some of the lesser roles, most notably Uncle Enzo the Mafia kingpin, are at least revealed to be more complex and human than they were initially portrayed. Interestingly, Hiro Protagonist's post-modern moniker is misleading; I would argue that his actions are essentially reactions to the plot, and that YT ("Yours Truly", a name that conjures an ironic narcissism coupled with "American Dream" individualism) actually takes more positive and proactive decisions than he does.

The character flaws are another function of Stephenson's love of ideas; just as in the fictional virtual reality of the Metaverse, where the characters are avatars of their interests and goals in reality, in the fictional reality they are avatars for things bigger and more complex than themselves. It has been said of science fiction that the ideas are the stars of the stories; in Snow Crash, this is quite literally true.

What is also true is that Snow Crash was very timely, very much a Zeitgeist novel. It arrived in 1992, the dawn of the Wired era, when "internet" was as big a buzzword as "social media" and "cloud computing" are now, and when Gibson's ideas about cyberspace were being reshaped by his readers in their own image. As a result, the hacker chic and virtual worlds of Snow Crash slipped neatly into the hyperculture that was cheerfully raving about smart drugs and world wide webs.

Below the surface stylings, the principal thematic concern of Snow Crash is memetics -- the theory that cultural information comes in discreet self-replicating lumps or chunks, and that ideas could be (and are) transmitted in a manner analogous to viruses or genetic code. The theory can be traced back clearly to the now-famous textbook The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, originally published in 1976, but it was only in the late 80s and early 90s that the idea started to gain traction outside a small group of theorists and become an established theory of popular culture. It is interesting to note that Douglas Rushkoff's Media Virus! -- a book that essentially rewrote memetics as a hipster's digital-counterculture manual for what we now readily refer to as viral marketing -- arrives in 1996: four years later, but still long before the big brands and corporations caught on (after a marketing executive stumbled across the Rushkoff book, so legend has it). The street finds its own use for things, as Gibson so neatly put it; but sometimes it finds them before everyone else.

Thanks to what may well be nothing more than accidents of timing and interest, then, it's easy to see Snow Crash as a form of sacred text for the technorati of Generation X's last gasp. The intentional fallacy makes Stephenson look like a technoprophet, and to this day you will hear people describe how Snow Crash "predicted [x]" or "created [y]". It's an easy mistake to make, as [x] and [y] are inevitably some form of web or metaverse phenomenon -- and as mentioned before, Snow Crash is as much an essential part of the bleeding-edge geek furniture as a Linux-based server in the front room and a plot of virtual land in Second Life. It's a cultural mirror: the technorati look at Snow Crash, and they see themselves. Ergo, Stephenson appears to have achieved the one thing any sensible science fiction writer claims they are not trying to do -- predicting the future.

In this respect, however, the cart is being put before the horse. If you've read Snow Crash and spent any time in Second Life, the astonishing similarities between Linden Lab's synthetic world and Stephenson's fictional Metaverse are uncanny: the social and behavioral norms evolved to cope with incorporeal presence; the savvy old hands with their detailed but understated avatars in contrast to the weekenders and tourists with their idealised off-the-rack bodies, for example; or the vast tracts of emptiness where no-one has yet bothered to build anything worth visiting.

But the makers of synthetic worlds read Snow Crash before they were built in this form, and their preconceptions have doubtless had a large part to play in making the metaverse work the way Stephenson described it. Other than Gibson's vision, which is inherently (and quite deliberately) less humanized, what else did they have to base it on, consciously or otherwise? Plus, as Stephenson notes in his afterword, crude Metaverses were already being developed while he was writing the book, and it doesn't take great insight to know that wherever we go -- real or virtual -- human nature cannot help but come along for the ride.

Of course, there were other visions of cyberspace to choose from among the SF canon... but few had anywhere near the market penetration of Neuromancer and Snow Crash, with the end result that those are the blueprints for cyberspace for readers who may well not consider themselves to be science fiction fans. Which brings us to Snow Crash's second success, which flows from its prophetic air -- influence. And while Stephenson has certainly inspired some writers of SF (though far from universally so, thanks to the literary failings discussed above) it is beyond the traditional sphere of SF literature that his influence extends; most crucially the games designers and coders, but graphic artists and 3D modellers too, who didn't take an aesthetic from Snow Crash so much as they took a sense of possibility. In a post-modern inversion of the romance of the frontier, the Wild West of the metaverse was written about first, colonized second.

The greatest success of Snow Crash, however, is that it's fun... for a certain type of reader, at least. In defiance of all the rules and protocols of science fiction writing, Snow Crash is like crack for geeks precisely because it doesn't do things the way they're supposed to be done. The break-neck opening chapters, those massive infodumps on Sumerian religion, information theory and everything else were -- from my perspective at least -- a vertiginous rush the first time through, and I still get a kick out of them now after maybe six re-reads. Sure, Stephenson's just telling me stuff instead of showing it to me through the characters. But he's telling me interesting stuff -- and that gets him a free pass in my world.

Snow Crash also mirrors the technologies it features so strongly. This at least we can say was partly deliberate; Stephenson's afterword states that it was originally conceived as "a computer-generated graphic novel," and the graphic novel is a format more in tune with the post-modern topography of culture: hinging on reference and symbolism, but remixing them like the samples and found sounds of hip-hop and techno music, an approach analogous to the cut-and-paste functionality of word processing (which Gibson, cranking out the first vision of cyberspace on a manual typewriter, may not have grasped so intuitively as Stephenson tapping away on his Apple Mac).

There is still a certain prescience to the format of Snow Crash, though, in that it is written in a manner that mimics the reading habits of internet habitués. Assessed from this angle, the literary flaws become the hooks that ensured its success among techno-hipsters: the infodumps can be thought of as hyperlinked Wikipedia articles, spliced into the text due to the limitations of the print-on-paper medium; if you could read Snow Crash in a web browser with the infodumps excised, the instinct would be to search up the information in another window as it became relevant. The stereotyped characters become nodes on a network of ideas; they don't need to be fully rounded personalities, because who they are is not as important to the story as what they are -- the ideologies and attitudes they encapsulate.

Snow Crash is about the destruction of hierarchy: the US Government portrayed as an atrophied, toothless and irrelevant bureaucracy; the climactic shattering of L Bob Rife's pyramidal army of brainwashed acolytes; the free-agent clout of Raven, the one-man nuclear superpower. The world of Snow Crash tends toward a rhizomatic structure: small independent nodes and sub-networks, interlinked and interdependent, with no central governance. Snow Crash is a story about the failure of autocracy and hegemony, and the rise of emergent systems. Snow Crash is a blueprint for the internet; this is why it speaks truth and passion to those who have colonized the internet like a promised land.

But again, we must veer away from the intentional fallacy -- we must assume that authors simply write stories, and that we uncover patterns in them like Rorschach blots. Indeed, I'd be a fool not to admit that my interpretation is at least partly a product of my own mindset; as mentioned above, Snow Crash (like all fiction) is a mirror in which we see ourselves. But we can see Stephenson in there, too, and that is where the novel's true power comes from. I've read advice from many authors and editors that suggests the best books are written by those who write for themselves. Snow Crash is beloved by geeks because it was written by a geek, rather than written by someone who was first and foremost a Writer of Literature, and that argument holds when transposed on to Stephenson's entire body of work.

Stephenson is what we Brits might refer to as a "Marmite writer" -- you either love his work or loathe it, and what one reader hates is -- more often than not -- what the next adores. But most of all, Snow Crash defends the oft-repeated (but rarely supported) notion that "SF is inherently about the time in which it is written", which is why it will always remain a defining novel for the generation who drove the first virtual wagon trains deep into the digital frontiers.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Graham Raven

Paul Graham Raven does a ridiculous number of things, including publishing the near-future SF webzine Futurismic, developing and managing websites for various authors and agents in the genre field, and online public relations for the UK's foremost boutique genre publishing house, PS Publishing. He also answers tedious and easily-Googled questions about Naval history at his day-job in a museum library, reviews SF novels and music by hirsute tattooed lunatics, and spews the contents of his brain and browser bookmarks onto the web at the Velcro City Tourist Board .

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