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. This book is like a sacred text for some (like the guy who recommended this to me) and an execrable failure for others (like me). The book is definitely flawed but it does have some good parts, even though they are rare. 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.
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.
“I just saved your fucking life, Mom. . . . You could at least offer me an Oreo.”
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.
“Well, all information looks like noise until you break the code.”
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 info-dumps 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.
“This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them.”
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.
“We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.”
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.
Supposing that originally there was nothing but one creator, how could ordinary binary sexual relations come into being?
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.
It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists.
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.
When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode, high-speed pizza delivery
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.
Software development, like professional sports, has a way of making thirty-year-old men feel decrepit.
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.