Book #53: Snow Crash
Snow Crash reminds me a lot of a typical Saturday Night Live episode.
If you know the SNL formula, they start with the strongest skits first. Since the show airs at 11:30 eastern time in the U.S., they schedule the funniest stuff at the beginning, hoping to keep as many viewers for as long as possible.
Around 12:45 a.m., though, and some might argue that it happens much earlier, the stinker skits come out on stage. These aren’t near as funny. They’re sometimes awkward. And, as you sit on the couch while not laughing, you ask yourself, Why did Chris Rock ever leave SNL?
That, in a nutshell, is Snow Crash.
For about 100 pages, I was in love with this book.
Passages like the following jumped off the page:
“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherf*cker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”
Also, this one:
“She’s a woman, you’re a dude. You’re not supposed to understand her. That’s not what she’s after…. She doesn’t want you to understand her. She knows that’s impossible. She just wants you to understand yourself. Everything else is negotiable.”
And this one:
“When you are wrestling for possession of a sword, the man with the handle always wins.”
Then, it was like a terrible SNL skit appeared on my television screen. Instead of funny and interesting, Snow Crash became a rambling, egotistical diatribe on what’s wrong with every single thing in the world—both present and past.
Sumerians were involved. Pentecostal Christians—and their propensity to speak in tongues—got in the mix. There’s a really awkward and totally unecessary sex scene somewhere in there.
Neal Stephenson became the equivalent of an ADD chef who can’t self-edit and, instead of french onion soup, he serves you a soupish liquid with 47 different ingredients.
What’s wrong with a traditional french onion soup, Neal?
Guys, I want to like science fiction. I want to get it. But after Neuromancer and Snow Crash, I’m beginning to think it just wasn’t meant to be.
So what’s the story?
Briefly, Snow Crash is about a pizza driver/hacker/greatest swordfighter in the world named Hiro Protagonist (okay, that’s clever) who stumbles upon a computer virus that doubles as physical virus that basically kills the recipient.
A couple of bad guys—including a fiber optics business billioinaire named L. Bob Rife and a harpoon mercenary named Raven—team up to spread the virus and infect elite hackers throughout the world, via the online metaverse.
Throughout the novel, approximately 18,672 parallels are drawn to the way languages spread. And the way corporate franchises spread. And how religion spreads. And how the virus, and programming in general, originated with ancient Sumerian culture.
If you’re a Pentecostal Christian, you probably won’t like this book. As Neal Stephenson basically equates Pentacostal Christians—who “speak in tongues”—to brain-dead morons. The book is PREACHY, PREACHY, PREACHY.
“Ninety-nine percent of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people’s minds.”
There’s irony here. To Stephenson, or at least his characters, Christians are stupid and narrow-minded. They bow to tradition. Outside of the absurdity of the 99% figure, I thought this mindset was ridiculously condemning and narrow-minded in its own right. Pot meet kettle, Neal.
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget about “the raft.” There’s this massive collection of raft like boats—and real boats as well—tied together. They float across the Pacific, from Asia to the U.S., with thousands of refugees who speak in tongues and spread the “virus.”
In my preview of Snow Crash, I pulled this quote from Wikipedia’s entry about the book’s plot:
Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson’s third novel, published in 1992. Like many of Stephenson’s other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics, and philosophy.”
And that kind of sums it up. I was worried about the book being all over the place, and it was all over the place.
If Neal Stephenson chose to write a novel about baseball, he would tell you about the history of baseball, as well as how it relates to football, basketball, golf, bowling, how Abner Doubleday (who invented baseball) once cursed at a nun, and how the Atlanta Braves were never the same after the Jim Leyritz home run in the 1996 World Series. And, all along, we just want a good story about baseball.
Obviously, a lot of people like this novel. I think web programmers and tech geeks—and I say that with the utmost respect, unsarcastically—would love it. I just don’t get it. What starts out as a fun novel with an awesome premise turns into a slog through layers and layers of linguistics and philosophy and religion and history and all kinds of other stuff.
A friend who read this book says that it seemed like Neal Stephenson had researched a lot of stuff and wanted to find a way to put it all into the same novel. And that he did. He vomited a lot of topics into a relatively small 450 pages.
Here’s a tip if you plan on reading Snow Crash: Whenever Hiro visits the librarian, go ahead and skim through until the next page break—that is, unless you want a lesson in Sumerian history.
Ultimately, I think the bright spots in Snow Crash—Neal Stephenson’s clever writing style, mainly—are weighed down by the topical soup and background noise that distracts from the story.
So despite its fast start, Snow Crash did nothing to help me gain any faith in science fiction. I continue to dislike it.
I guess that’s all I can say.
The Opening Line: “The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category.”
The Meaning: A “snow crash” is both a drug, a computer virus, and a term for what happens when your computer crashes. It’s spread via the “metaverse.”
Highlights: Great opening. The first 100 pages made me think I was going to love this novel. Stephenson is a clever writer.
Lowlights: Everything about The Sumerian culture. Neal Stephenson had topical diarrhea and dumped all of it into the pages of Snow Crash. As I say with any book I don’t like, this might have just not been my proverbial cup of tea. I know a lot of people love this book. I just don’t get it. I felt like Stephenson lost all of his momentum with the story when Hiro begins visiting the virtual librarian to find out everything that happened with everyone in the history of all people.
The Memorable Line: “When you are wrestling for possession of a sword, the man with the handle always wins.”
Final Thoughts: Meh. Such a promising start to this novel. Such a terrible second half. If you’ve read this novel and enjoyed it, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments. Tell me what I’m missing here.