Neal Stephenson
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Snow Crash

Bantam Books, © 1992, ISBN #0-553-56261-4
Reviewed October 1996

Snow Crash can be boiled down to three basic elements: First, it features a new take on the concept of a computer virus; second, it's a wonky, never-say-die adventure in the tradition of Douglas Adams, and third, it presents a humorous but deeply cynical view of near-future America. Stephenson devotes roughly an equal amount of the book's 600 pages to each of these elements, which is unfortunate in that they are not equal.

To start with the third point, Snow Crash is set against a United States in which capitalism has run to its logical extreme: The government is nonexistent for the intents and purposes of most people; suburbanites have retreated to cornily-named "burbclaves" armored against the outside world; public utilities (e.g., highways, police and jails) are run by corporations, and the Mafia is one of the more respectable organizations extant. Stephenson plays this whole scenario largely for humor, and unlike, say, in Vernor Vinge's short story "Conquest by Default", it's not at all clear whether Stephenson believes that this is a plausible society.

The first third of the book (more or less) is devoted to exploring this world. The main character, Hiro Protagonist, begins the book as a pizza delivery man ("The Deliverator"), which is a pretty good gag for about 2 pages; unfortunately, it lasts 17. Hiro is then also shown to be an ace programmer who spend much time in the on-line virtual world (the Metaverse), a competent swordsman, an aide to his musician roommate (Vitaly Chernobyl), and half-black and half-Korean. One quickly gets the feeling that Stephenson's rationale for putting many elements in the book is "because he could" - and the rest of Snow Crash never disabuses one of this notion.

I personally found the book quite dull in the early going, and it was a fight to get through to the interesting parts (in the middle third of the book). Stephenson's sense of humor doesn't often coincide with my own, so many of the jokes fell flat for me (there were only a half-dozen or so real guffaws in the novel), and I never got a real sense of plausibility about the setting. Additionally, I have trouble getting interested in virtual reality settings, and I found the interface to the Metaverse (goggles and earphones) seemed a bit silly in their low-tech nature to me.

The main redeeming feature of the first third was Hiro's "business partner", Y.T. Y.T. is a teenaged courier who delivers her packages by flying down the highway on a skateboard attached to cars she hits with a magnetic harpoon. But while her occupation is fundamentally silly, she generally seems a much more real and well-rounded character than Hiro, who seems more cut from the mold of four-color comic books. (Although it is perhaps true to Hiro's hacker nature that he's less interested in and concerned about the people around him than Y.T. is, but that's only a very minor story point.)

Snow Crash really came alive for me in the middle, when the plot stops poking its head quickly around corners and walks into the middle of the room. The basic science fictional element can be summed up thus: Someone develops (or, rather, discovers) a computer virus which can affect the mind of certain humans (in particular, programmers). I instantly tagged this as a neat idea because it removes one of the fundamental obstacles to my enjoying virtual reality-based SF: Suddenly, the virtual world is no longer a safe haven, it's genuinely dangerous. Something in there can hurt you out here.

As I said, though, this virus was discovered, not developed, and that's the other neat thing about it: Stephenson postulates that the human brain is like a computer which can be "programmed". Modern humans run a certain set of programs, but this virus (among others) bypasses the "high-level" programming and works at a much lower level, effectively rewriting our software. Naturally, anyone so affected turns into a gibbering idiot (albeit one who might be reprogrammed to suit the ends of other people). Stephenson does a great job of weaving myth, science and theory together into a plausible concept of how the human mind works, and how humanity developed into its present form.

The final third of the book is the adventure: The villain - pseudo-religious demagogue L. Bob Rife - owns the Raft, a collection of ships tied about a former US aircraft carrier which wanders around the world picking up people from third world countries to deposit them elsewhere. Using the virus, Rife has programmed thousands of psychopaths to swarm the west coast of the US. The adventure focuses on the two main characters like this: Hiro has to get to the Raft, and somehow reprogram the army. Meanwhile, Y.T. is kidnapped to the Raft by Raven, the extremely dangerous warrior/assassin employed by Rife who dreams of destroying the US.

Although the book sometimes lapses back into the sort of just-because-he-can silliness that characterized the first third, the roller-coaster pace makes you hardly care. Indeed, when Hiro finally meets Uncle Enzo - the Mafia leader whose pizza delivery car Hiro had wrecked way back at the beginning - their exchange nearly makes up for that first third.

Ultimately, the book's payoff is satisfying, as many of the loose ends are tied up. Still, I was a bit disappointed that we don't get more of a sense of what comes after the story's climax; instead, the novel just ends. I would have appreciated an exchange between Hiro (who doesn't appear in the book's last 10 pages) and Y.T., and at least some sense that these characters had some direction to head in after the events of Snow Crash. I guess I just like a good denouement.

On the whole, I found Snow Crash a good read, although substantially less than the blockbuster I'd been hearing about for the last few years. I think it could have stood to be quite a bit shorter - leaner and meaner, as it were. Still, worthwhile despite its length.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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