Monday, November 26, 2007

Book Review: Snow Crash

One could subtitle Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash "Cyberpunk meets Robert Heinlein." Cyberpunk, for those of you who are not science fiction aficianados, was born out of a book called Neuromancer by William Gibson. Gibson's book was about hacker criminals living in a dirty, nasty, transnational future. Snow Crash is about hacker criminals living in a dirty, nasty, mega-libertarian future. The best visual representation of this world is Johnny Mnemonic, based on another Gibson story: the physical world has become grimy, the electronic world, as depicted in the clean, wild neon colors of a three-dimensional Internet.

So if this is cyberpunk, what makes it different from Gibson? For one thing, Stephenson's prose is a lot punchier, more prone to slang and profanity and sheer humor than Gibson, who tends to be more "literary" (i.e., he takes himself and his world seriously). I think it is this difference that makes Snow Crash more enjoyable than Neuromancer, which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have picked up four times and been unable to finish. With humor comes a sense of hope, while "serious" literature seems to embrace a feeling of utter doom. Yeah, this future ain't perfect, Stephenson seems to be saying, but come along anyway and see what happens.

So where does Robert Heinlein come in? The future depicted in this book is, as I noted before, mega-libertarian. We're not given a full picture of what has happened, but the Los Angeles depicted here has experienced hyper-inflation, loss of national prestige, and total governmental collapse. As a result, everything has been privatized--even to the point of criminals being able to pay for the type of "accommodations" they receive when captured--except for a small "United States Government" enclave in the middle of Santa Monica. The Department of Defense has split into General Jim's Defense System and Admiral Bob's Global Security, while the CIA has merged with the Library of Congress to become the Central Intelligence Corporation (CIC). Individuals live in "burbclaves," armed, walled suburban communities guarded by private security forces. The court system--if you want it, laws have all but vanished--has become Judge Bob's Judicial System. And, as Stephenson summarizes it early in the book, "There's only four things we do better than anyone else

microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery"

Starring in this milieu is Hiro Protagonist (an excellent audible pun for English majors), a part-time hacker, samurai, CIC agent, and pizza delivery guy. He begins the story by working for Uncle Enzo's CosaNostra Pizza--essentially working for a pizza delivery company that has been taken over by the mafia. His eventual partner is Y.T. a 15-year-old skateboard-riding "Kourier," who delivers parcels by attaching magnetic harpoons to cars and trucks and hangs on like a water skier to get across town. This world is complex, but surprisingly rich in slang, cultural changes, technologies, and toys.

The plot gets going when Hiro is offered "Snow Crash," a computer virus that (not surprisingly) crashes computers but also, surprisingly, damages the minds of the hackers using a crashed computer. Discovery of this drug leads the chronically unemployed Hiro on a chase through L.A. and the Internet (called "the Metaverse" here). The ingredients of this chase include Sumerian mythology, a floating island of refugees towed by a privatized aircraft carrier, and a large Aleutian who kills people with glass spears. There are a lot of fun little bits in Snow Crash, but there is also some serious thinking embedded here. Like it or not, you're likely to be both educated and entertained; and that, I think, is what science fiction does better than any other form of literature.

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