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Why Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’ needs rebooting

December 12, 2012 · and how to fix it, Book / Movie Reviews 

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a blistering assault of techno-punk babble, metaphoric memetic conspiracy theory, and hubristically confident authorial voice, half-baked into a bun so undercooked it’ll likely stodge up your wind-pipe and throttle you.

But also- brilliantly ambitious, stunningly complex, exciting, hilarious, and (still) so razor-cool you’re likely to embolize your brain on its bleeding edge.

Let’s try to square that circle.

Snow Crash was Stephenson’s 1992 breakout sf debut, which catapulted him straight to stratospheric comparisons with William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, such was its hip density. To its supporters, it predicted a virtual internet (Second Life, AKA the Metaverse), surfed meme theory as that wave became a viral tsunami, forecast the corporatization of the USA, and presaged a boom in Japanophilic manga consumption.

To its detractors its a stonking great turd of bosh cribbed from history books, conspiracy theory nutcases, weapons fetishists, and a neo-liberal’s bizarre imagination. And of course it’s both at once.

Probably it is an appalling oversight in my self-education as a writer of fantasy and sf that I haven’t read Snow Crash until now. I did read Stephenson’s later epic Cryptonomicon, and while it wowed me, it also kind of switched me off. Perhaps something about detached characters, disconnected stories, and just wondering why I was supposed to care about lines of sight in a Phillipines data haven. Huh? I even had a crack at Quicksilver, first book in the encyclopaedically unedited Baroque Cycle, but surrendered 100 pages in, much as I might after 1 page of Finnegan’s Wake.

Then I read Anathem, which left me again awed, put off, and more than a little annoyed, not quite knowing why. I vowed not to read REAMDE, his latest. But Snow Crash, well, why not get in on the ground floor?

Now I see the problem. It’s the baking time.

Stephenson is undoubtedly a very smart, informed, creative wordsmith, but I don’t think he’s ever finished a book the way most writers finish a book. Most writers, and most published books, are a fine mix of their several content matters, smoothied in the blender until the constituent parts have all their identifying edges atomized and made part of the story’s DNA. The book is then of a piece, consistent, and develops at a uniform pace throughout.

Stephenson does not do that. It is incredibly plain what the constituent parts of his story are, because they stick out like bloody stumps, barely cauterized at the edges where they’ve been soldered together. The result is a shambling Frankenstein, all bits and bobs with a loosely interwoven circulatory system barely keeping the cardiogram beeping.

These are the bits of Snow Crash:

- Pizza delivery roadster in ultra-tech delivery-mobile
- Second Life predicting ‘Metaverse’ to goggle into (also predicting X-box Kinect for sword-fighting)
- Deep Sumerian linguistic code theory, pitched as an ancient mind-control virus, with conflux to Babel as religious inoculation
- Cross-pollination of that same virus in a hyper-wired future
- Future tech in numerous guises, including ‘loogie’ immobilizing guns, ‘rat thing’ AI security cyborgs with the pack-minds of dogs, smart spoke-wheels, glass knives, dentata, and nuclear gat guns
- Half Japanese black hacker supreme with major sword skills and a tangled history, called Hiro Protagonist
- Badass Aleut giant with glass knives, a personal nuclear weapon, and a major beef with the USA
- Compartmentalized and corporatized future USA, where corporate DNA is spread through ‘three-ring binders’ in franchise chains

And they are amazing bits. Really, there’s not a bit that’s not interesting, unlike later works which had some large dull stretches. Snow Crash is either high octane pulse-jumping or mind-twisting conspiracy theory, and I stuck with it all the way. But it also seemed half-done. The various sections, all those various ingredients I listed above, function pretty much discretely. They do not merge or blend, except to be overlaid.

Is this even criticism?

How is this a criticism if I say I enjoyed the book?

It felt like reading a mixture of a rabidly metaphorring Angels and Demons-era Dan Brown, intercut with large chunks of the oddest tech and conspiracy sections of Wikipedia, with bits of Digital Fortress-era Dan Brown, sliced with some valley girls meh blog, partially blended, half-baked.

We start with pizza delivery, but don’t go back to it. We do a bunch of other stuff while Stephenson warms up his engines, I barely remember. We read an endless bureaucratic memo about toilet paper allotments in the CIA. The plot about the conspiracy theory kicks in, and for maybe 40 interspersed pages is straight up explained to us by the Librarian. Other items listed above happen, in sequence, rather disconnected.

And our hero, called Hiro, experiences zero change, except to perhaps fully realize what a bad-ass he was all along. Well, OK, thrillers don’t necessarily need that. But thrillers aren’t usually this long either, are they? And Snow Crash is long for a thriller, at 180,000 words. That length with no change can get very samey.

I suppose I’m just a little teed off that Stephenson didn’t do a bit more chewing for me, a bit more baking, really completed the work, instead of just serving me a hodge-podge of soldered-together chips and coleslaw. Couldn’t he have made the whole thing a bit more cohesive? Couldn’t he have cut YT altogether?

Now I realize I haven’t even mentioned YT yet, which tells you he probably could have cut her. She’s some hip skater girl, whose story was recently mirrored in the bike messenger movie ‘Premium Rush’, and she kind of tags alongside Hiro for a bit, but not in any important way- more as just another viewpoint character. We don’t need her in any sense beyond broadly exploring the world, at all. Just like we don’t need her mom, or half the stuff in this book. At the very core there is a plot, and it is fascinating, but it’s all in lumps and bumps, with chunks of whatever other stuff took Stephenson’s fancy that day.

So is that bad? Well, I feel slightly annoyed about it. I’m sure the book could be better, and that’s what’s annoying. Could I have done it better myself, no, but probably Stephenson could. So I feel like I’m not getting his best effort, and that’s vexing. I felt it with Cryptonomicon and Anathem too, that I was being fed something that wasn’t really ready, hadn’t risen, hadn’t been blended smooth.

But then, would those stories still be Stephenson if we blended them all the way? Would they actually be better? Perhaps not, perhaps the way they are now, all tangles and string-tie bindings, is part of what has made him famous. In which case, all this is academic. Snow Crash is undoubtedly half-baked, but perhaps this is the only way it could be what it is, perhaps half-bakedness is in its DNA, written in its three ring binder, and Babel-forbid I don’t wanna try and untangle that.

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4 Responses to “Why Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’ needs rebooting
  1. Dr. Downs says:

    Dude? Its a damn good book… Yeah it has a rather complex world… pizza driver, FBI USA nuts, etc. But who knows… that could be possible.

    His Real Life is a Pizza guy who lives in a tiny slum of a home, but it doesn’t quite matter as he spends much of his time in the virtual world (before the days of the Internet) which is very life-like. Things like changing tattoos could be possible in the near future.

    The book can use some updating… even when I read it in 1994, our heros who are living a few decades into the future – are in a store looking at computer with a 9600baud modem to get “online” in the VR world. (They are in a store, as this was before the days of internet cafe and are out hiding)… when I read this, we were already using 38K modems and 56K modems were just hitting the market and were a bit costly. I laughed at that part.

    I recommend Snow Crash for anyone who likes SciFi… Its fun, silly and somewhat on par as to the possible future of online functions.

    I think we REALLY will have the ability to have VR, once they plug our brains to the internet. We are in the early days of Robot hands that can FEEL and tell the human what they are feeling and sending images to the blind.

    In another 20 years, it maybe possible to have functional VR. Man, porn industry is going to make a killing when that happens. I’ll be in my 60s and have sex with 5 young women in their 20s at the same time :)

    • MJG says:

      Dr. Downs, I can’t argue with anything you say. I do think it’s a good book, and I only wish I could get so many blistering ideas down on paper as Stephenson does. VR is an awesome dream- though who knows how much it will screw up the lives of some, perhaps bookish people.

      Or, conversely, set them free?

      I just wish Stephenson would bake and distill his stories a bit more. But then, do I? Perhaps that would ruin them, and he wouldn’t enjoy writing them anymore. Still, I don’t think I’ll be reading any more for a while- just don’t have the patience…

  2. Dr. Downs says:

    Well… look what was fantasy which has become real. Flight, space travel (Gotta get that Warp drive thing working). My first computer was in 1984, a Commodore VIC20. It was plugged into a crappy 19″ color TV and I used a cassette drive to save my little 3.5K programs. In 1980, $1200 got you an Apple II (1Mhz / 24k – 8 colors 320×100?) with a floppy drive. In 1986, $1200 got you a Amiga (7MHz 512mb – 4096colors 640×400) with a floppy drive.
    1996, $1200 got you a Win95 PC (100Mhz / 16Mb / 2GB HD 1024×768 @16m Colors).
    2006, $1200 = XP-PC/ X2 core / 2.4 Ghz / 4GB RAm / 250GB HD.
    2013, $200 = a Cell phone that is almost as powerful as a 2006 computer, but includes a Camera, an HD-Video camera, FM-Radio, Audio Recorder, wireless internet, GPS maping… and its a phone too!
    * (HTC ONE / Samsung Galaxy 4) – a 4.5~ Screen that has the same resolution as my 24″ monitor! – Under a contract)

    I’m guessing by 2016, quad core 3ghz cell phones with 64GB will be the low-end standard. Wireless HDMI will be common. :)

  3. Dr. Downs says:

    (Oops, press SUBMIT too early)

    So yeah, 15~20 years…. VR is reasonable. There is money to be made.

    And yeah… it’ll have the same problem as todays gamers. Those who abuse it… live off the net, never meet actual people. It would be cheaper and easier than that Bruce Willis movie in which most people have Android bodies… interesting movie.

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