January 4th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Snow Crash* by Neal Stephenson

I don’t know know much about hard science fiction, but I think Neal Stephenson’s *Snow Crash* might be the closest I’ve come to reading some. The structure and plot of the book depend heavily on real–or reality-based–scientific propositions, and the writing is highly logical, research-based, and dense. I believe Scott chose this book to give to me (please correct me if I’m wrong, SW) because Stephenson, possibly unlike some others of his breathren, is a very vivid, fun writer, and *Snow Crash* is at times wildly exciting, hilarious, and even a bit sexy.

The story starts with the Deliverator, a pizza-delivery-person named Hiro Protagonist–half-black, half-Asian, entirely brilliant computer programmer but too alienated and independent to work with others. So he is an aggressive vigilante style pizza guy zooming through the franchulates of what was once Los Angeles.

Oh, did I mention that *Snow Crash* is set in some other version of reality than ours? It’s not the future: the book was published in 1992, and I think that’s about when it is set. At least, at one point we learn Hiro is 30, and at another, that his father was a WWII veteran, so it would seem 1962 is about the latest he could’ve been born. But it’s a far advanced version of 1992, where the twenty years between then and now seem to have already happened: people spend copious time on the internet (called “the metaverse” here), within there are programs called “Earth” and “Librarian” that do almost exactly what GoogleEarth and Google do now. But it’s also a seemingly post-apocolyptic America, where there are no laws, most suburbs are run by commercial enterprises, and the rest by the mafia. It was very confusing and I never really worked out what the recent history of Stephenson’s universe was.

It didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, though. Let’s go back to that first scene–it’s brilliant. Actually, it’s probably the best part of the book but we’ll get to that. This 20-page zoom through the burnt-out remains of LA in a mob-owned car is full of new ideas and new words, my favourite of which is “loglo”–the yellow glow of the all the illuminate logos on a commercial street. Neat, huh? It took a second reading to realize that the first half-dozen pages have no action at all–just hyper-kinetic descriptions of the wild, Mafia-run world in which Hiro Protagonist lives and works and drives really fast.

But then Hiro gets fired from his job for reasons that mostly pertain to his colleagues, who are a crazy ethnic stereotype of idiotic Eastern Europeans (there are lot of ethnic and sexual stereotypes in the book, which are annoying but not really worth discussion), and who never appear again. Nor does the job appear again, though a lot of what we learned about the mob is useful. However, the problem with this scene is not one I realized until afterward I’d finished the first reading and started again–Hiro never behaves in this way again, never does anything that coincides with, reflects, or refers to this period of pizza delivery. It’s a cool stunt, a neat thing to read and likely to write, but it could’ve been much shorter and allowed the real action of the book to get on.

One thing the scene does accomplish is to introduce the other main character, YT (Yours Truly), a skateboard courier who harpoons Hiro’s car (which is what the skateboard couriers of the future do to make time) while he’s struggling to deliver that pizza. When Hiro does something very stupid–drives into an empty swimming pool–YT helps him out and delivers the pizza at the last possible second, drawing her to the attention of the mob bosses.

YT is a 15-year-old girl and, unlike Hiro, a truly cool and fun character with an interesting backstory and definite personality. She is also a skateboarder, on a futuristic board (“plank”) that his millions of tiny feet instead of wheels, and which can skim over gravel, turf, and prone people. I *love* reading about skateboarding, and these scenes are awesome.

Unlike YT, Hiro never becomes a real character; he remains a vehicle for advancing story, as perhaps you would expect of someone named Hiro Protagonist. That’s what I’m not certain of–it’s certainly clever of Stephenson to make his hero/Hiro a blank cypher decorated with heroic awesomeness, but it’s kinda frustrating to read and I could never figure out if Hiro’s blankness was on purpose. Sometimes Stephenson seems to be making fun of sci-fi heroics, like when Hiro tags along on a murder investigation, running up a hill easily because “his legs are in incredible shape from sword-fighting.” That sort of teen-girl swoon writing is funny, or really bad–I’m not sure which.

However, this isn’t something I had a problem with as I read–the first half of the book moves very fast and is funny, interesting, and pretty exciting. Then…dadumdadum…we get to the part with the research. Oy vey, I’ve never seen anything like this. Hiro gets wind from an old love interest (who then disappears for 100s of pages) that various corporate and religious interests have become linked in a nefarious way that has something to do with the ancient language and culture of Sumer. He pursues this by doing what any of us present day folks would do–looking it up on the internets.

And then the book reproduces everything Hiro discovers. It’s not digested, it’s not worked into the narrative–it’s a big Wikipedia entry, broken up with action sequences (he has to take breaks from the research to do more interesting stuff). In Stephenson’s Metaverse, they’ve progressed beyond reading for them selves to a “Librarian Daemon” who speaks the information to you, but it’s not a like an actual character–it’s like Wikipedia in quotation marks.

My knowledge of Ancient Sumer ain’t what it ought to be and in large part I couldn’t figure out whether Stephenson had made up the more outlandish bits of the research or not. I wondered, if he had gone to the trouble of writing his own history of a civilization, why he didn’t present it in a more engaging manner, and if it wasn’t original, why he didn’t trust us to go read the encyclopedia ourselves if we were interested.

In the end, it would seem that the material is all real, because that digital librarian is always remarking on whom he’s quoting, and the in the acknowledgements the author states “most of the words spoken by the Librarian originated with [historians and archaeologists] and I have tried to make the Librarian give credit where due, verball footnoting his comments like a good scholar, which I am not.”

Which just goes to show that different people want different things from a novel. I certainly did not want 50 pages of relentless info-dumping, but that might be my fault. In all honesty, though I maintain as I always have that I am not stupid, I had a very very hard time following all the research and then a second section that worked over that material as a kind of metaphorical template for the present action. What were all those Russian Orthodox folks doing in Oregon? Why did Hiro’s long-lost love get an antennae implanted in her skull? Was Asherah a person? Why did the Mafia turn out to be the good guys…or did they?

Nevermind, the ending’s brilliant. I didn’t understand all of it by I don’t care–it was fantastic. All that running around on boats, and some really cool scenes with YT, proving when Stephenson gets interested in developing a character (pretty much only the one in the whole book), he does a great job of it. The action was amazing–helicopters, glass knives, oil tankers, heroic self-sacrifice and bitterly learned lessons, a posse of skateboarders, it was insane.

I have never been so divided on a book, I don’t think–so much to love, so much that made me want to stop reading. There’s no saying this author can’t write–obviously he can, but sometimes chooses not to? Or something. Whatever, I had fun, though the book took me two weeks to read and I fell asleep a few times. I would like to read another book by Stephonson, though preferably a shorter one.

This is my 12th and final book for the To Be Read 2011 challenge. Better late than never.

3 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews *Snow Crash* by Neal Stephenson”

  • Ariel Gordon says:

    Stephenson doesn’t HAVE shorter books. (I started Quicksilver, the first book of his Baroque Cycle, but let it fall away at about page 600 of 917…)

  • Rebecca says:

    Oh dear, maybe not then. I was very proud of myself for finishing the 460-page *Snow Crash,* but that’s probably about my limit.

  • Scott Watson says:

    Yes, the reason I recomend the book as he is one of strong SF writers who (early in his career) won the battle with expostion more than other SF writers. That said, once Snowcrash took off, he seemed to lose to his researching in his later books (which do get quite big). I could argue that putting your research into your novel to its determent is not a SF only problem. :)

    The exposition does serve a purpose in the sense it emmerses you in a sea of data without giving you important information. A feeling I think happens a lot in the information age.

    Glad you enjoyed the book!

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