2015 Reading Journey: Snow Crash

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Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

In late 1994, I remember this being a big seller in mass market paperback in the bookstore I worked in at the time (the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, sadly torn down in late 2014). At the time, I avoided it, not being a fan of the Cyberpunk subgenre at the time. Rather the opposite, really. My tastes have broadened since then, and I felt it worth considering something in that (personally) neglected subgenre as part of the decade tour.

So I jumped in just a few minutes after finishing Howl’s Moving Castle.

The first thing to notice is that the novel is written in the present tense. If that turns you off, best to walk away now, but you will get used to it fairly quickly if you try. Really.

Getting beyond that impression, the first several chapters serve as something resembling character introduction and world set up. Normal, but the problem I’m having here is the omniscient 3rd person narrator constantly info-dumping around the little bit of action actually involved. This narrator seems to feel the need to explain everything from pizza university to the tiniest bit of slang. More than once, I found myself wondering why s/he wouldn’t just shut up and let the story be told. Really, I’ll figure out the slang. Honest.

But it’s a world where governments have lost most of their power and corporations have expanded to take their place, with all of the rampant poverty, advertising, and lack of ethics you might expect. And, in fact, absolutely everything is fragmented and corporately controlled, including the military and intelligence agencies. As a prediction of the future, a clear failure, but thinking about Ursula LeGuin’s definition of SF as thought experiment, it becomes believable.

It’s also supposed to be relatively near future to when written. A few things, like the apparent age of the protagonist’s father and the note of Boeing 777 planes (which had just started production as this book was originally published), seem to take me to somewhere around now.

Info dumps abound, many of them on ancient Sumerian mythology (though there are other topics), slowly turning Enki into an hacker using a “metavirus” that manipulates the deep structures of the brain to set mankind free from its virally programmed origins – of course, he doesn’t figure this out right away, but we get big swaths of things throughout the story and he synthesizes it (across many pages, actually several chapters), and how it relates to the current crisis, for the highest ups of several organizations near the end of the book. Okay, got it, you did a truckload of research for this story and want the reader to know. But that research is supposed to lead us in the direction of understanding that someone has figured out how to tap into that deep structure and rewrite human minds.

There’s your big bad. And as much as I’m going to spoil things except for noting the big eye roll moment, and I’ll just say that has to do with radio astronomy and seems completely unnecessary.

I think it’s also worth noting that the book ends very abruptly. A little clean up to make sure the surviving characters were going to be okay and the world was going to be just a little bit better. Dealing with the fall out, I guess is what I’m looking for. There’s none of that. The bad guys are done, Hiro and his girl are staring off into the sunset, and Y.T. catches a ride home with her mom. I spent a lot of the last couple of chapters wondering how everything was going to wrap up in the few remaining pages. It did, but it didn’t. Resolution but not satisfaction.

Overall Rating: 3 Stars. The present tense is something that might shock your reading sensibilities for the first little while, though that’s just because it’s not used nearly as often as the past. You get used to it. What you don’t get used to so much are the info dumps disguised as conversation and the periodically intrusive omniscient narrator. S/he doesn’t go away but keeps popping up through the whole book, mostly with commentary as the info dumps fade. It’s a stylistic device that may work for some people, but to me it comes across as the author commenting on the coolness of his own story.

But as a thought experiment, the story works. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. I actually come down on the side of like and mainly because of the main characters, Y.T. and Hiro Protagonist (yes, really, but it’s a deliberate choice by the character as a self-promotion tactic). Between the two of them, they make the tale. They drive the action and the action drives them. Working around the info dumps.

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