Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a book that requires some warning for unsuspecting readers: it’s so wacked out and demented that it’s beyond over-the-top and way beyond anything you can take seriously. The book works because you eventually realize that Stephenson’s approach suits the future that he is talking about. By throwing literary caution to the winds, Stephenson somehow hits on an effective voice for a freaky, violent world. Nobody else has written a book quite like this, and Stephenson himself never wrote a sequel.
It’s like the history of cyberpunk encapsulated in one book. Cyberpunk was a segment of science fiction that could be found in the works of writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in the 1980s. There was cyberspace (a term invented by Gibson), there were lots of tech-wise/criminally-minded people, and there was Gibson’s famous saying, “The street finds its own use for technology.” In other words: no scientists in white lab coats, just a gritty future. Sterling declared cyberpunk dead almost immediately after it began, and rightly so, since other writers were copying Gibson’s style and not striking out on their own idea-wise.
And then along comes Snow Crash in 1992. Stephenson threw all of the cyberpunk elements in a blender and turned it to the highest setting. But the book was the dying gasp of the species, and Stephenson never tried to revive it again. I’ll say a few words about his post-Snow Crash career below.
Hiro, a thirty-year old computer hacker and sword-fighter, delivers pizza for the Mafia, not quite the same business as it is now, as we discover in the amped-up opening sequence. Y.T., a teenage girl and thrasher extraordinaire, helps him out in a pizza delivery gone wrong, and thus a partnership is born. Hiro is out to solve the problem of Snow Crash, a new drug on the market which causes most people to lose the ability to speak anything except nonsense syllables. However, Snow Crash causes hackers to go into a coma or die. Where is this drug coming from? Y.T., who becomes friends with Uncle Enzo of the Mafia because of the pizza incident, has her own angle on the problem, as she runs deliveries and gathers intel.
Stephenson includes virtual reality, ancient Sumerian history, motorcycle chases, gunfights and swordplay, and a ton of nasty and hilarious insights into the bizarre America of the future.
I liked Y.T., the trash-talking, arrogant youngster who steals every scene that she’s in. For example, when she arrives at the Mafia’s local HQ to deliver a package to Uncle Enzo, here is what she says as she pulls up at high velocity on her plank: “‘Y.T.,’ she says. ‘Young, fast, and female. Where the fuck’s Enzo?'” (165). The ensuing conversation between Y.T. and Enzo is one of the most interesting in the book, as they agree on many issues and bond as friends.
I have called Stephenson’s prose demented. As some back up for my argument:
When they get closer to the overpass, it becomes a lost cause trying to drive at all, the thrashers are so thick and numerous. It’s like putting on crampons and trying to walk through a room full of puppies. (120)
Stephenson has some scenes of extreme carnage, often from the wackiest perspective. Later in the book, Y.T. has to escape from a heavily guarded Fed building, and she has just activated an electrical personal security device:
Both of them hit the floor like a sack of rabid cats. There’s only one of these guys left, and he’s reaching under his jacket for something. She takes one step toward him, swings her arm around, and the end of the loose manacle strokes him in the neck. Just a caress, but it might as well be a two-handed blow from Satan’s electric ax handle. (311)
You can either dismiss this as pure crap or fall under Stephenson’s spell. He uses the same wacked-out approach to convey information, but he has trouble conveying background information in digestible parcels. Especially bad is the passage near the end where Hiro has to explain the entire plot of the book to Enzo and two other powerful people. Most of the book maintains its high-gloss narrative momentum but not here.
After Snow Crash, Stephenson wrote a book called The Diamond Age, which at first seemed related – it’s about nanotechnology, neo-Victorians and other great futuristic stuff – but proved very different than Snow Crash and frustrated many of his new fans. Next up, he wrote Cryptonomicon, which described code-breaking and cryptography during WWII. His most recent works are a trilogy called The Baroque Cycle, made up of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World; this trilogy went even further back in time to the historical period of the early 18th century. He’s won many awards for this trilogy and found new fans.
I’m glad Stephenson didn’t fall into a rut of Snow Crash dimensions. It’s tempting for a writer to repeat what’s been successful; Stephenson is one of the lucky ones who has always done whatever he wanted and been successful at each stop.
There’s this great interview with Stephenson from Wired a little while ago. For all of you too lazy to read it here’s the best part:
A decade after Snow Crash, how do you feel when people still refer to you as cyberpunk?
Oh, it’s a great label. You get to wear black leather jackets and mirrored shades and be hip and cool as long as cyberpunk is hip and cool. But I think I’ve been recategorized as post-cyberpunk, so that’s over.
Is cyberpunk over?
The best I can muster is that for a while, information technology was incredibly important, yet it had been ignored or gotten wrong by science fiction. There was this vast terrain of virgin territory, and there was a land rush. Now the revolutionary nature of that technology has become familiar. To make the obligatory social criticism kind of comment here, the bursting of the Internet bubble has proven that information technology is just another technology. ”
Thanks Ron! There’s also some funny stuff on Stephenson’s website when someone asked him who would win if he was in a ninja battle with William Gibson….