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May 10, 2011

Filed under: fiction»litcrit


While I re-read Dune once every couple years, I realized while we were on vacation that there's another favorite sci-fi novel that I haven't read in forever: Snow Crash. Due to reprints issued when Neal Stephenson hit the Baroque Cycle lottery, you can't get a new copy of Snow Crash for less than $10 ($13 for the trade paperback), which I regard as highway robbery, but a used bookstore in Seattle had it for $7, and I quickly found myself buried in it again.

Given that I've hated everything that Stephenson's done since this book, I was frankly worried that it would turn out to be another case of memories tinted by nostalgia, but Snow Crash is actually still pretty good. In fact, I think it's probably still the best thing he's written, and one of the better books of the 90's.

What did Stephenson get right with Snow Crash that he hasn't managed since?

  • There's an female character (a protagonist, no less!) who behaves in ways that are identifiably human.
  • It wouldn't be a Neal Stephenson book without pages and pages of infodump, but they're spaced out and reasonably interesting, instead of being 40 pages on the history of 14th century lending.
  • Characters have (barely) distinct narrative voices--i.e., Y.T. is written in a slightly different dialect than, say, Hiro or the Rat Thing. It's not The Sound and the Fury or anything, but it's at least a cursory effort at a prose style.
  • Unlike Cryptonomicon and Anathem, Snow Crash does not read like a barely-fictionalized series of alt.cypherpunks posts, or as a screed against the hippie who apparently kicked the author's dog.
  • It doesn't take itself too seriously. The main character is named Hiro Protagonist, after all. It's a lot easier to tolerate the book's failings since it's not claiming to be the complete saga of Enlightenment science or anything.
It's easy for Snow Crash to avoid an excess of seriousness because it's basically a satire, and a fairly even-handed one at that. It's a long riff on libertarianism, of course, with its fast-food franchise model of society and accompanying triumph of outsourced globalization. And yet it also takes potshots at big-government bureaucracy (the infamous toilet paper pool memo), at religion (Rev. Wayne's Pearly Gates franchise), and at the worst parts of American consumer culture. Not all of these age well (the Fedland section probably overlabors the point a bit), but the ones that are good are really, really good.

There's an old saying that good science fiction contains one big crazy idea--any more, and it detracts from the story, as the writer struggles to fit in story and readers try to keep up. Snow Crash is the glorious exception to that rule. It's just stuffed with great throwaway ideas and scenes: the Rat Things, Raft Pirates, smart-wheeled skateboards, a kayak-riding killer wielding micron-thick glass knives... Despite being satire, and wild satire at that, a lot of the ideas in Snow Crash are remarkably prescient (especially if you give it a little Nostradamus-like leeway): most notably Google Earth, but its depiction of Internet culture and tribalism is pretty dead-on. Its prediction of network consolidation (via phone companies and cable networks) to form a globe-spanning computer network is not that far off. A gargoyle is just a smartphone user without the fancy goggles. And of course, there's that line about globalization:

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 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:

microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery
...which sometimes these days sounds about right.

And yet, most impressive of all, it doesn't feel particularly cluttered. It feels fast. Stephenson charges through the story at a tremendous clip. It is, and I mean this in the best possible sense, cyberpunk by way of Michael Bay. Yes, the ending is still terrible. Yes, it still spends too much time rehashing ancient Sumerian myths. True, the toilet paper memo is really only funny the first time. But none of that honestly matters in the end. After the final page, what you remember are the explosions.

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