My familiarity with Neal Stephenson began with Cryptonomicon, which at the time came much more highly recommended to me than Snow Crash. The former doesn’t quite count as “science fiction”; it was more like a techno-thriller consumed by comp.sci and technological masturbation, with a bit of historical intrigue thrown in for good measure.
Snow Crash, which is really what launched Stephenson’s career (it achieved both critical and commercial success), falls more solidly in the realm of science fiction, but it is a novel which operates on a number of levels. A great deal of verbiage has been produced on behalf of its various subtexts, meanings, influences, and reactions, so I won’t linger too long on any one aspect: further information is there for the taking.
Snow Crash qualifies as a “cyberpunk” novel in the vein of William Gibson’s Neuromancer; it has all the prerequisites: post-collapse society with a weak or nonexistent central government, majority control by large and powerful corporations, an advanced computer network which features neural interfaces, a badass hacker protagonist, and either a general lawlessness or stringent, Big Brother-style control from one or more entities.
When the novel opens, we meet the main character: a tall, half-Asian/half-Black named Hiro Protagonist1—a freelance hacker who carries samurai swords. When we first meet him, Hiro is not hacking (with code or with swords), but instead delivering pizzas for the Mob, which is now a large—essentially legitimate—corporation. These corporations, the Mafia included, comprise much of the “order” in this world, by which I mean they are able to enforce security by way of leveraged economic power (and a good deal of fear). In fact, most corporations comprise their own “nations,” and so a single neighborhood/suburb owned and operated by a housing conglomerate is in fact sovereign territory, requiring a visa just to enter. The United States government has taken a similar path; the CIA is now the Central Intelligent Corporation, the Library of Congress is basically a digitized Apple Store of information, and government property consists of a restricted zone where the CIC headquarters resides.
In Stephenson’s dystopian future, the Internet as we know it is called the “Metaverse”, and it more closely resembles an advanced version of Second Life than anything we know today: Hiro (and others) experience the Internet as a 3D explorable universe, with an incredible density of people and advertisements and audiovisual phenomena. Data transfer is done via “hypercards,” which are virtual objects that download data locally when touched. Hiro was, at one point, instrumental in creating the Metaverse, and we assume that he originally did so in “Flatland”; that is, with a keyboard an a regular two-dimension monitor. Stephenson never really says how programming is done three-dimensionally: the virtual reality of the Metaverse doesn’t really map to actions we might normally associate with computer. You can swordfight, sure, and “download” data in the sense of getting a hypercard. But do you simply sit down at a virtual terminal and program a virtual computer inside the Metaverse? Or is programming somehow abstracted into a physical activity like taking apart an engine? In some ways, Stephenson’s vision of the Internet was remarkably shortsighted.
More interesting is the neat semantic twist that forms the book’s major plot point: it is a virus, in a fuzzy biological2/technological sense; more accurately, it’s a very ancient “brain” virus that affects humans in the deep structures of their grammatical brain. When the appropriate information is transmitted either visually or audibly, and the receiver contains the appropriate deep grammatical structures for it (i.e. that person is a “hacker”) it can overwhelm and destroy that person’s brain. Stephenson, by way of a multipart dialogue between Hiro and the well-spoken avatar of a librarian program, spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the origins of this virus, which dates back to ancient Sumer. The idea is entirely fictional, of course, but the explanation is so thorough that one can’t help but be impressed, as though it were a plausible phenomenon. It’s the sort of thing Dan Brown tries to accomplish and fails because he’s a terrible writer and a gullible idiot3.
There is one significant criticism I must level against the book, of course, and it’s the same problem that plagues Cryptonomicon (and, I might plausibly guess, the rest of his works): Stephenson’s books are heavy on gadgets, technology, history, and explanations, but they are decidedly light on narrative arcs, plots, and character development. So much time is spent explaining the vagaries of the Metaverse and the Sumerian virus and the corporate franchises qua nation-states that it wasn’t until the book ended, abruptly, that I realize just how little had actually occurred within the narrative’s timeframe, and just how little the characters had changed or even particularly grown on me. Nothing of any real note happens to the “villains” and even less happens to the heroes, and nothing much at all is resolved. It would be infuriating if I hadn’t had such a good time geeking out with Stephenson when he wanted to do virtual samurai battles and rail gun fights instead of building any narrative tension worth noting.
- Get it?[↩]
- Using the word “biological” to refer to a virus is somewhat inappropriate, since biology is the study of living organisms and viruses don’t qualify, but I think my point is made.[↩]
- To wit: “The only thing fictional in The Da Vinci Code is the characters and the action that takes place. All of the locations, the paintings, the ancient history, the secret documents, the rituals, all of this is factual.”
– Dan Brown, interview on NPR Weekend Edition, 26 April 2003[↩]