I was super excited to read a second novel by Neal Stephenson after absolutely loving Snow Crash. But this novel just didn’t click so well for me. Set in a future society where Victorian values blend with Confucian law and nanotechnology is mainstream, Nell is a young girl being raised as well as can be by her brother Harv, as their mother lurches from one bad relationship to the next. After mugging a scientist, Harv gifts Nell with a stolen book, which was intended for the scientist’s own daughter. The “Young Ladies Illustrated Primer” is no ordinary book, but rather an interactive device that bonds with its reader to become a teacher and confidant throughout her formative years. Nell’s use of the book soon sees her develop into a very accomplished and gifted young woman.
Primarily, this is a story about transformation. Most obviously Nell’s, but also with all the other lives intersecting her own. I think this may be why I felt somewhat distanced from this book – the world in which it was set was absolutely fascinating, but the characters were so mutable that I never really invested in them. I also found this novel to be somewhat more about the sci-fi detail and less about the characters, which is not really my cup of tea. That said, I did find the explanation of early computers and binary code to be so well explained that at times I felt like I almost had a grasp of it.
Snow Crash is one of the best books I have ever read. I feel like buying a copy for every single one of my friends, forcing them to read it while I sit and watch their faces. THAT’S how much I loved this book. Yes, I was the annoying person on the train during the morning commute laughing out loud, and if any of those poor bastards had dared make eye contact with me, I would have probably insisted on reading entire sections out loud.
I didn’t initially think it was going to be for me. I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, particularly futuristic technological stuff, but this story is all about people. Okay sure, a lot of the story was set in the virtual reality Metaverse, but I actually understood what was going on. And why isn’t more sci-fi funny like this? Stephenson obviously loves a good pun and that is definitely the way to get on my good side. The main character’s name alone had me ready to follow this author anywhere.
Plot? I really don’t want to ruin anyone’s discovery of this book, so I’m going to limit myself to part of the back cover blurb:
Exploring linguistics, religion, computer science, politics, philosophy, cryptography and the future of pizza delivery, Snow Crash is a riveting, breakneck adventure into the fast-approaching future.
What really blows me away is that this book was published over 20 years ago and yet does not feel dated at all. How is that possible? In 1992, I hadn’t heard of email, didn’t have a cell phone and my computer was basically a fancy word processor. I am simply astounded.
Read. This. Book. Immediately.
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.
Some time in the future, when nano technology means you can assemble pretty much anything you want in matter compilers, and there aren’t really separate nations any more, so much as various tribes, determined by allegiance rather than race, there lives a little girl called Nell. Her mother is a servant, her father was a low-life thug who died when she was still a baby. Nell grows up in a slum area of futuristic Shanghai, with only a few stuffed toys and her older brother Harv for comfort as they try to ignore the poor treatment from the ever changing selection of dead beat boyfriends their mother drags home.
One day Harv brings Nell a present – an electronic device shaped like a book. The Young Ladies’ Illustrated Primer isn’t just any book, but a piece of near unique technology created for the granddaughter of one of the world’s most powerful men. The engineer who devised it made an illegal copy for his own daughter, wanting only the brightest and most promising future for her. However, on the way home from his illicit mission of copying the Primer, he’s mugged, and as none of the other little hoodlums want what they think looks like junk, Harv gives it to his sister. As Nell discovers, the book addresses itself to her directly, and starts relating exciting stories about Princess Nell and her four special friends, named exactly the same as her beloved toys. More on my blog.