alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 41: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Goodreads’ incredibly short synopsis says: “In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.”

Fellow Pajibans recommended this to me during the last Cannonball, when I related my disappointment with The Flame Alphabet (tie-in: language epidemics.) It was very interesting to read this book so shortly after Ready Player One, because both deal with immersion in virtual realities. I enjoyed having Cline’s version  in recent memory as I read Snow Crash, which, as a predecessor to Ready Player One and a sci-fi/cyberpunk classic in its own right, almost certainly had a huge influence on Cline’s work.

I really enjoyed Snow Crash. There is a lot about it that is kind of silly and fantastical, even for sci-fi, including a basically made-up version of neurolinguistics and quite a bit of would-be futuristic jargon. It’s a tough line to toe, when you’re writing near-future sci-fi, that you run the risk of dating yourself when you invent new terminology and describe specifics about plausible but not currently existing technologies. How much of what you describe actually comes to pass or still ring true? Tech and gadgetry are so ubiquitous that nearly every reader of a book like this will have some kind of experience with it; compare that to other popular sci-fi themes like bioengineering or space travel, where there are a lot fewer ‘experts’ that can critique the realism of the book. All of that is to say that one of the cyberpunk genre’s main themes focuses on common technologies and what possibilities can be extrapolated from that tech in the future, and because so many of us are familiar with that technology, it makes it very easy to nitpick areas where books like Snow Crash diverge from either current or probable reality.

If you’re not especially concerned with your sci-fi being at least somewhat grounded in science and fact, then those types of incongruities will matter very little. For its part, I think Snow Crash constructed a pretty believable virtual reality in the Metaverse, but I found the tie-ins with Sumerian myth to be a little fantastical and ambitious, particularly given the somewhat haphazard explanation of neurolinguistics that bears only a passing resemblance to the actual academic field. That aside, I really enjoyed the scope and execution of the story. The pacing was a little frenetic, but I wasn’t too bothered by it as it heightened the tension and served to underline the hectic nature of life and society itself in the world of the book. The protagonists were not much more developed than avatars in a video game, but particularly given the emphasis on virtual reality, it almost seems appropriate that the reader does experience the book in that video game sense. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but as an overall fan of sci-fi (with piqued interest in cyberpunk as of late) I liked it a lot.

4 thoughts on “alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 41: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

  1. ” kind of silly and fantastical, even for sci-fi” — ummm, a lot of SF is silly and fantastical. It can be satirical, comedic, etc… whatever it wants — why does this surprise you? it’s not all about perfectly predicted futures….

    • Well, okay. I had initially written a lot more to clarify this statement, before realizing that my review was becoming less of a review of Snow Crash and more of a thesis on sci-fi.

      You’re mis-characterizing my reaction to the more fantastical elements of Snow Crash as “surprise”; it’s nothing to do with that. My point, which I kind of alluded to later, is that in my mind, the main thing that differentiates sci-fi and fantasy — which it’s often grouped with — is that sci-fi has foundations in plausibility, or at least in familiar science. So yes, though we often decimate the laws of physics etc. in sci-fi, there is kind of an understanding between the reader and the author that these are advanced technologies that have, one way or another, progressed beyond what we are familiar with now, but they still have their origins in current science. So of course a lot of it is silly and fantastical, but there is also this intangible sense that what we are reading about can be achieved somehow, someday. (This is in contrast to fantasy, which explains its imagined phenomena primarily with magic and the supernatural.)

      I have no desire for sci-fi to predict a perfect future, and I don’t think I ever suggested as much, but the reason that I touched on that in this review is that I have this impression of cyberpunk as dealing with issues that are very close to home, like interconnectivity, virtual reality, and corporate oligarchy. So even if it’s not actually intended to predict the future, it tends to be read that way. That’s what I meant when I said there are a lot more people who will feel like they can critique the ‘realism’ of this type of work and deem it silly, as opposed to sci-fi that trades more on complex physics or biology, where fewer people are experts. My personal critique along these lines was that Stephenson kind of appropriated neurolinguistics to explain the virus and created this version of it that isn’t really neurolinguistics at all. So I think in trying to create this story and tie myth and technology together, he demonstrated great understanding of the technological aspect but not as much of the biological/neurolinguistics aspect. Stephenson probably could have pulled an Asimov and made up a field that had origins in neurolinguistics, but was clearly meant to be an advanced divergent field from that. Had he done that, I wouldn’t have cared as much, but if you’re going to take a real scientific field and use a botched definition of it to progress one of the most important parts of the story, it weakens that contract between reader and author that the author respects science, but is blurring and expanding the boundaries of how we understand it.

      • But, you know, so much of this is subjective on the part of the reader, and clearly all of the above describes the lens through which I read sci-fi, so in my review when I said “If you’re not especially concerned with your sci-fi being at least somewhat grounded in science and fact…” I acknowledge that my nitpicks aren’t universal.

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