Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

20 August 1999
Categories: From the armchair

coverTalk about ironic. I had almost completed what I thought was a pretty good review of Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash (“snow crash” is a term for when a computer crashes so fundamentally that the video driver can’t draw anything but static to the screen, resulting in a look similar to the snow of a poorly tuned TV). Then the lights went out. Of course I hadn’t saved in nearly an hour, and lost the whole thing.

What is it about the genre of cyberpunk that always makes it so dark? I mean, the original cyberpunk author, P.K. Dick, usually reserved the darkness for his themes. At least you got the feeling that the sun had a chance to shine once in a while. But then they turned one of his stories into Blade Runner, and cyberpunk has been gloomy ever since.

It’s obvious, even without reading the author’s notes on the back page, that Snow Crash was written during the late Reagan/Bush era while listening to loud, depressing music. The society of the near future has collapsed, governments have dissolved, inflation is so rampant that billion-dollar bills are chump change, and corporations rule everything. America (the “United States” is just one more corporation) is divided into fenced-in, cookie-cutter “burbclaves,” each with its own philosophy and laws, and the streets are lit with the “loglo” of innumerable corporate logos. The most popular rock band is Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns, and the “Metaverse,” Stephenson’s less-abstract version of William Gibson’s cyberspace, is purely black except where development has occurred amid the vastness.

But atop this slate Neal has layered massive doses of humour, fun, and not a few really bad puns—such as the main character, a half-Japanese called Hiro Protagonist. Pizza delivery is handled by the Sicilian Mafia, and Uncle Enzo himself will personally apologise to you if your pizza takes more than thirty minutes… then your delivery guy will quietly disappear. The Metaverse has built-in subroutines that allow its original developers (including Hiro and his hacker friends) to drop safes, anvils, and various other Tex Avery props on their adversaries merely by uttering a word. The climactic battle of the future is fought between two anachronisms, a katana-wielding samurai and a harpoon-chucking Aleutian. And the leads, Hiro and the 15-year-old chick skateboard courier, Y.T., move through their dismal world with such aplomb and wit that Snow Crash is a joy to read despite the post-apocalyptic undertones.

And man, the attack dog/security robots known as Rat Things totally rock. Read this book, at least so you have a chance to know Fido.

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