Snow Crash

So, Snow Crash, then.

It’s surprising how heavily the experience of consuming something can be skewed by the expectations you carry going into it. For all its acclaim and weight, for its status as a beacon of cyberpunk fiction, Snow Crash is run-of-the-mill wacky dytopian satire, visiting and ricocheting off several cyberpunk tropes too fast to allow any kind of coherence to develop.

But maybe that’s the point.

There isn’t much to the story. Here, let me sum it up in one sentence for you:
(Spoiler, obv. It’s safe to read from the image.)

Megalomaniac media mogul creates cult using a brain virus to take over the world but is foiled by enterprising hacker, spunky kid and rival conglomerates.

All right, there’s a little more to it. The explanation is that the “brain virus” exploits a flaw in the deepest constructs of the human brain, activating a failsafe that overrides all conscious thought (“snow crashes” the brain) and makes it susceptible to carefully administered low-level input, typically in the form of Glossolalia.

Enter a wobbly connection of this virus to the description of ancient Sumer, and its liberation from it by the hacker-priest Enki, who managed to reverse-engineer and lock out these lower levels of functioning of the human brain.

Propping up the above description is the concept of a “metavirus“, an entity that affects any sufficiently advanced system capable of computation by exploiting systemic flaws. A virus that can create and tailor viruses, floating freely across the cosmos. Again, a nebulous and sketchy idea. It was, to say the least, disappointing to not see a mention of Gödel’s undecidability theorem (hypothetically) applied to the human mind. That’s one hell of a hook. Or, perhaps, the concept of a meme, an old idea which described perfectly what Stephenson repeatedly swept under the umbrella term of virus.

It was intriguing, but it lacked any kind of hook, one foot in something known. The main plot was too hypothetical to provide any kind of food for thought. And boy, am I looking for food for thought on these things.

This has happened only once to me

It reminds me of Slouching Towards Bedlam, a fantastic horror themed piece of interactive fiction set in a mental asylum, with steampunk robots and an ominous sense of unspeakable horror. 1

Then there’s the concept the book is best known for. It’s hard for my generation to imagine what Stephenson’s Metaverse meant to the world back in 1992. When Second Life was launched, its creators envisioned it as their metaverse. They even borrowed the name “avatar” for virutal selves. Barring the advanced user interfaces, we’re there, pretty much. 2
It was the single most memorable idea in the book, the one thing you’ll never forget.

Everything except the substance of the thin main plot gets a mention on the back of the book. Mixed in there are large servings of virtual reality, Sumerian myth, neurolinguistics and swashbuckling. Hiro Protagonist gets only about half the attention his name demands. It makes sense. The book is about the wacky world of emasculated governments and of corporations and triads gone out of control. About the Metaverse, the alternate plane of existence that is in constant flux where hackers are demigods. About the bizarre tech, like quadriped dog-cyborg radioactive isotope driven watchmen rat things that dream perpetually of steak and frisbees, live in freon coolers and dash at supersonic speeds. About satire set in a free-for-all slugfest, an anarchy.

In the acknowledgments, Neal Stephenson mentions that this book was originally constructed as a graphic novel. That explains all the weirdness, really. It would have been a cracker of a graphic novel. I went into it expecting a wacky cyberpunk adventure with historical segues and insightful asides, a la Cryptonomicon. It turned out to be a long piece of amusing (sometimes hilarious) satire with a single gripping conceit and several half-baked ones. It packs a hefty punch; not the knuckle-popping crack of a worn, bandaged fist, but the fwump of a bright red glove-in-the-springbox.

  1. Of course, I have my references backwards. SLB came out just a few years ago, and had a very small audience.

  2. In time, too. Events in the book peg the timeline in the 2000s.


  1. Dileep

    You HAVE to put yourself in the early nineties to understand the hype surrounding Snowcrash. I think right on page 2 he gives what I think is the first working description of a GPS enabled dashboard mounted GPS navigation system with road turns superimposed over city maps and audio cues and everything. And he was what? 15 years ahead of his time??
    I’ve heard of people being turned off of Neuromancer because it is “such a Matrix rip-off”.

    • Karthik

      Maybe the post is giving off a wrong vibe. I loved Snow Crash, especially for its little vignettes like the one you describe. I was fussing about the shaky main plot of the book, the severely underdeveloped kill-switch idea.

      Besides, aren’t the early nineties a vague blur?

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