Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Journalists recently acted astonished to discover economically disfranchised Americans squatting in storage units. Stringers for various newspapers, websites, and broadcast outlets acted aghast to discover people sleeping in uninsulated concrete boxes without electricity, running water, or sanitary sewers. As the chorus of outrage threatened a truly screeching crescendo, I sat back thinking: these people should read more paperback science fiction.
Any synopsis of Neal Stephenson’s star-making novel must begin by recognizing something a mere plot rundown would miss: this is one damned funny novel. Though not plagued with laugh-out-loud silliness, it hints for readers to avoid taking its concepts too seriously: like, the main character is named Hiro Protagonist. Like, he delivers pizza for the Mafia. There’s your clue that, despite Stephenson’s weighty themes, you’re reading a madcap parody.
Hiroaki Protagonist co-wrote the Metaverse code, a digital reality combining the Internet with virtual reality. But corporate interests control his creations; he delivers pizza and squats in a storage unit. When anonymous forces release a virus, Snow Crash, into the Metaverse, systems begin coding a strange new language. Worse, its effects evidently warp the non-digital universe. Hiro must track Snow Crash to its source before becoming its next victim.
Critics have called Stephenson’s writings “baroque” for their structural intricacy and multiple themes; that tendency shines through here. Stephenson arcs forward, toward an extreme vision of fractured America first presented by cyberpunk novelists like William Gibson and Rudy Rucker. Technology has created massive wealth for the connected few, concentrating power into self-governing “burbclaves,” while mercenaries patrol outside streets. Unless you’re rich, in money or technology, society has essentially failed.
But Stephenson also arcs backward. The language created by Snow Crash sounds tantalizingly familiar, something just beyond the reach of recognition. As Hiro unpacks Snow Crash, he begins finding answers hidden in ancient Sumerian and Israelite mythology. Someone is trying to unwrite the Tower of Babel, returning humanity to primordial unity, but a force older than humanity has infiltrated reality’s BIOS system, jeopardizing the firmware stabilizing all of reality.
Thus, on one level, Stephenson satirizes the bleak, unremittingly self-serious dystopias emerging from America’s Death Valley Days. One scene depicts characters wiping their asses on billion-dollar bills, called “Gippers,” because American money has become worthless against Mr. Lee’s Kongbucks, a private issue currency. This directly mocks William Gibson’s strikingly reactionary take on social change under technological pressure. And it’s still funny even if you don’t get the direct reference.
But simultaneously, Stephenson darkly forecasts a grim tendency for societies that slap dollar signs on human worth. Besides those storage unit squatters, he depicts for-profit police forces waging shooting war on impoverished outsiders, hardening their burbclaves into Green Zones amid urban anarchy; “The Raft,” a floating man-made island of stateless boat people carried along global tides; and “the loglo,” a constant pervasive neon advertising radiance numbing dissenters into compliance.
Stephenson imagines a world where all human activity has been reduced to its capitalist utility. Anything we cannot value numerically has no value; therefore concepts like family, justice, and patriotism surrender to employment, order, and brand loyalty. Without unifying principles, he writes, “There’s only four things we do better than anyone else
musicIn 1992, this was a joke. Not so much now.
high-speed pizza delivery”
Unlike contemporaneous dystopian science fiction (Snow Crash falls broadly into the Reagan-era subgenre called “cyberpunk”), Stephenson also dares address religious issues. In envisioning reality as a complex firmware network, Stephenson necessarily questions the reality of its programmer, and the lengths some believers travel to uncover that programmer’s face. Stephenson’s dark vision of religiosity, merely a satire of Falwell-ish orthodoxy then, bore grim fruit during the George W. Bush administration.
If this book suffers one weakness, it’s surely the ending. Stephenson weaves massively complex elements into his sweeping epic plot; the paperback edition runs to 440 pages. But even at that length, one of Stephenson’s shorter novels, he ends with whiplash abruptness, leaving much unresolved. Maybe that’s deliberate. Maybe he wanted to catapult us back into reality with new philosophical conundrums to resolve. This novel ends still in motion.
More than twenty years after this book debuted, the jarring presence of remarkably accurate forecasts amid almost Monty Python-ish satire gives this book a bracing cold-water impact seldom seen in other well-aged science fiction. Classics by Asimov, Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, and HG Wells stir our imaginations, but essentially reflect their times. Not so here. The chilling familiarity in Stephenson’s social, technological, and religious themes is still all about us.