1 September 2017

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Posted by Callan Bentley

Well, I did it again: I read another Neal Stephenson novel. As noted in this space previously, I really enjoyed Seveneves, but was relatively underwhelmed by Cryptonomicon. In discussing these other books with friends, Snow Crash was recommended as the ne plus ultra of Stephenson’s style. In terms of coherence of plot and interesting characters and overall satisfaction, Snow Crash is up there with Seveneves, but I would still have Seveneves on the top of the pile because of its explicit science and relevance to the survival of the human race. There was something essential about that which really appealed to me. But Snow Crash is clever and hip and fascinating and feels current in spite of the fact that it’s actually 25 years old (first published in 1992). This book envisioned massively-multiplayer video games, popularized the term avatar, and envisioned a sort of virtual reality Google Earth almost a decade before Keyhole launched. It’s a prescient work on the technological front – perhaps as a result of its own influence on the programming community. Stephenson’s writing is something to behold – it’s so smart and creative. Regardless of plot or characters, his books are worth reading for the writing style alone. His vision of the future is idiosyncratic and fully-developed and provocative. Briefly, the plot of Snow Crash is that a swordsman and computer hacker uncovers a plot to resurrect a sort of “computer virus” that attacks the neurophysiology of the human brain-stem via spoken language or the visual representation of those words. In the history of the novel, this first became an issue in ancient Sumer, and the story of the Tower of Babel was a reaction to this debilitating meme – by breaking the world’s population up into sub-populations with mutually incomprehensible language, humanity was delivered from the unimpeded spread of the linguistic virus. But now that we’ve all converged on binary code as a technological lingua franca, a bad guy wants to release it anew for his own nefarious ends. There’s a lot more to the novel than that: the Mafia is a corporation, skateboarding couriers on the freeway, a diminished United States of America where the President is a bit of an afterthought, cyborg pit bulls that are capable of supersonic speeds, and an Aleut with a grudge and a bunch of glass knives. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and held my interest until the final page. Recommended for beach reading or commuting.