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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.

548px-Neal_Stephenson_2008_crop

Neal Stephenson. He looks like a bald wizard. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Other Stuff

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.

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31 Comments Post a comment
  1. ellemmdee #

    I can’t speak to Snow Crash (never read it), but if you want to read really phenomenal Sci/Fi, read Dune. Frank Herbert’s style is pristine and his descriptions beautiful. It will give you at least some hope for the Sci/Fi world 🙂

    Like

    February 27, 2013
  2. I have to say, as a devoted SF fan, Stephenson really is atypical of the genre, so please don’t give up! I tend to classify his works as hard science literature (and sometimes parody thereof), rather than speculative fiction/sci-fi.
    Obviously you’ve got your reading cut out for you for the next couple of years, but for a better picture of ‘proper’ SF, I would try Philip K Dick, Sheri S Tepper, Paolo Bacigalupi (The Wind-Up Girl is beautiful) and my favourite SF book, Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (but not her other stuff, that’s all a bit trashy). Less random leaping from topic to topic, more questioning humanity through beautifully character-driven stories.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
    • I know the good stuff is out there, but I’ve had bad luck with sci-fi so far. Thanks for the recommendations.

      Like

      February 27, 2013
  3. Totally agree with your assessment. It’s a shame Brother Neal didn’t listen to his editors. The underlying story is exciting and entertaining. His vision of social networks before social networks is truly amazing. However, the philosophical rabbit holes were/are boring and unnecessary.

    I am surprised that you had no comments on the ending. Personally I was totally disappointed. I felt like he built up a great party for me. But upon arriving, I discovered that it is all dudes.

    Coulda been great.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
    • Yeah, by the ending, I frankly didn’t care. I lost a lot of interest in the book throughout the middle portions.

      Like

      February 27, 2013
  4. I read SNOW CRASH in 2011 and really, really didn’t like it either. I wasn’t even enamoured with the writing style like you were (though I like the quotes you’ve pulled), so that compounded with the over-saturation of Sumerian history drove me nuts. I would have just put it down and DNFed it, but it was for a book club so I slogged through.

    I also want to echo theoxfordowl and say that I really enjoy sci-fi but I don’t understand the appeal of this book either. Paolo Bacigalupi is a great recommendation. SNOW and NEUROMANCER are not good places for people new to sci-fi to start, and even when you are a fan of the genre they’re kind of hard to like (though I can’t speak for the latter as I haven’t actually read it.)

    Like

    February 27, 2013
  5. I am also attempting to read the Time 100 list and I would like your thoughts on the list as a whole. For me, I have been mostly disappointed with a lot of the books on the list. Perhaps my expectations are just too high, but I don’t think so. I have read brilliant books, and then I have read some on that list. It’s disappointing really. Not to say they are all disappointing, I loved Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a mocking bird, but I have learned that perspective does not make it fact.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
    • I would say that, for the most part, I’m good with it. I think it’s a nice mix. Snow Crash didn’t belong there. And a book like Dog Soldiers is another weird choice. But, so far, I’ve enjoyed it. There’s only been a few slogs, this being one of them.

      Like

      February 27, 2013
    • Lists of “great books” always reflect the biases of the compilers. I’ve run across lists that have been quite good (meaning they accord with my taste), but the Time list includes many books that I, too, have been disappointed with. I believe one of the critiera of such lists are how accurately they reflect, comment on, or explicate values (literary or otherwise) of the times in which the writers were active. That may or may not be true, depending on how such a compiler conceives of that time period. And it may or may not correspond with a potential reader’s understanding of that period. Or what they feel is important in their own lives.

      Like

      February 27, 2013
      • That is very true, the ability to relate on some level, be it personal or empathetic is part of the process to enjoying a book. It does come down to perspective or perception or what stage of my life’s journey I am entering.

        Like

        February 27, 2013
  6. Teresa #

    I agree with you totally. I am an old sci fi fan and did not think this book worthy of selection. Of the older authors, Asimov is fun. Stanilaus Lem has good think pieces. There are tons of great sci fi books. This is not one.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
    • This is one of the first novels that I’ve really thought had no place on the list. Even books I don’t like, (Mrs. Dalloway, for example) I GET why it was included. But, Snow Crash, I just don’t understand. I’m wondering if hard core sci-fi people would even include this on the list of best science fiction, much less one of the 100 greatest since 1923.

      Like

      February 27, 2013
  7. Sorry you’ve had such bad luck with SF, Robert. I haven’t read Snow Crash or anything else by Stephenson, so I can’t comment on him or this work directly, but it does make me wonder why this book ended up on Time’s list. It also reminds me (unfortunately) of a comment by SF writer and editor Norman Spinrad: “science fiction treats the great issues in a trivial manner, while so-called serious literature applies its great literary powers to the contemplation of the lint in its own navel.” Neither half of that statement is true of all SF or “literary” fiction, but it takes just a few examples that do fit to make people think either or both halves are true.

    I shudder to think how you’re going going to react when you get to Pynchon but then (a) I have a bias against his writing and (b) he’s a fave of the literary community.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
    • I can’t speak to Gravity’s Rainbow, but I have read The Crying of Lot 49 and remember being okay with. Read it in college, so it’s been awhile. Anyway, maybe I’ll try Dune or Ender’s Game when this is all over with.

      Like

      February 27, 2013
      • Ender’s Game was one of my favorites. That’d be a good one to start with. I didn’t feel that Card lived up to the promise of this with his subsequent books in the series, though.

        Like

        February 27, 2013
      • I’ve ranted enough about Lot 49. I won’t do it again. Definitely support you checking out Dune. Another from that era that’s considered a classic is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz.

        Like

        February 28, 2013
  8. Wow! There’s a book I know I can cross off my list to read. Thanks for the public service!

    Like

    February 27, 2013
  9. My husband also likes Asimov.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
  10. I appreciate your remarks on Snow Crash. Several years ago I tried to read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, and slogged through 200 pages before I realized it wasn’t worth while. I know that many people loved Cryptonomicon, but it seemed to me page after page of filler. There seemed to be little character development, little action, and little science fiction. I hope you find something worth while in the genre. I enjoy it quite a bit, though much is poorly written. One has to search for the best books. For me, the attraction is the attempts many authors make to create or imagine future worlds–looking to the consequences of scientific research today on what the world may be like tomorrow. Sometimes this is very good, sometimes very bad. And I also find that much of science fiction reflects current values in society. Back in the 40s and 50s, sci-fi was often optimistic, but as the promises of technology faded, sci-fi writing in turn became darker. Based on your review, I believe Snow Crash would be a good novel for me to avoid. Sounds like it contains many of the same stylistic techniques that doomed Cryptonomicon for me.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
  11. Snow Crash does some interesting things, but I think you’re right when you say there are too many things going on at once for it to be a tight story.

    I’m an avid SciFi and Fantasy reader, and this one didn’t do it for me. If you’re looking for suggestions from those genres after you finish the Time list, Dune by Frank Herbert is an excellent novel, and so is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I know another commenter said they didn’t like the sequel novels in the Ender series, but Speaker for the Dead is an excellent book that I would probably say I prefer over Ender’s Game. Another fantastic SciFi novel is Foundation by Isaac Asimov. For Fantasy novels I would suggest looking into The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan or A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin. Those are the two biggest Fantasy series of the past 20 years or so and they’re both very good. I’m a bigger fan of The Wheel of Time, and I would also suggest it first because it’s a finished series.

    Like

    February 27, 2013
  12. I’m a big fan of Stephenson, and I enjoyed Snow Crash. However, I agree it’s not his best. My personal favorite is Anathem, followed by The Diamond Age.

    Like

    February 28, 2013
  13. I like the idea of your blog. It’s a great challenge reading a book to its last word, especially when you feel like the book is letting you down. Sorry to read you didn’t enjoy Snowcrash as much. It’s important to separate Snow Crash and Neuromancer, two novels that fall under a post-modern look at SF, though, from other classical titles that have been canonized in the genre. I recommend staying away from Cyberpunk titles like these two if you’re looking to define the genre, as they both represent a period of SF literature that sparked around the advent of computer tech and embraced the punk scene. A turn-off for some people.

    If you want to give SF a second chance, I highly recommend Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Frank Herbert’s Dune (previously mentioned) as novels that exceed the bounds of the imagination! Anything by Canadian writer Robert Sawyer is good, too (Mindscan comes to mind, pun intended). He reminds me of Michael Crichton, just as a SF writer. Don’t give up! SF is a playground for scientific thought and “what if” scenarios. It may come off as far-fetched, especially when considering the mass-media market, but there are some real gems to be read when you find them.

    Like

    March 14, 2013
  14. I’m reading through Snow Crash right now, and while I do have to agree with you on how the snappiness of the writing really winds down later on (to my lament), I will say that having background knowledge on the topics Stephenson addresses makes his works immensely more enjoyable.

    I’m a Linux programmer and linguistics nerd, so I find even his more technical passages fun – I like the way he constructs the setting of the Metaverse, etc. – but if it’s not accessible to the layman, I wouldn’t call it good writing.

    In other words, it’s amazing if you can relate to what the hell he is talking about. In the larger arena, that’s a really, really bad way to write, IMHO. A semi-guilty pleasure for me.

    Like

    June 1, 2013

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