Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
At this point in the twenty-first century, as we sit almost in the middle of the teens, the great wheel of nostalgia has turned. While my love for the eighties is eternal, we, as a culture, have deemed the nineties far enough behind in the rear view mirror to remember fondly, laugh at, and, of course, capitalize upon. (Those Saved by the Bell comics are awful timely, aren’t they?) According to my own completely accurate theory of nostalgia, it takes twenty years for the here and now to transmute into “Remember when?” without making you feel old. We can pretend that the process is speeding up, as VH1 did when they attempted to make I Love The Millenium before the aughts were even finished, but, mercifully, the nostalgia cycle is the one thing that hasn’t suffered from the Internet’s short memory.
But that’s only in the general sense. Certain things date quicker than others, and science fiction is one of the worst offenders. Well, worst—it is the fiction of ideas, so we can hardly blame it for doing what it’s supposed to. But this does lead to some tittering during episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, where we’ve achieved sustained space travel but still keep everything on tape. I personally quite enjoy seeing images of the future as imagined by people in their specific historical contexts, but it does mean it can be difficult to understand just how cool, say, the sliding doors on the Enterprise were when I see doors like that everyday. I’ve called this experience ur-texting in the past, which I run into as a culturally feral child quite often.
The combination of nostalgia and ur-texting makes Snow Crash a very strange read. On the one hand, the characters that populate this novel wear goggles in order to access the vast massively multiplayer online… okay, in order to access Second Life. On the other hand, oh my God, remember when people legitimately wore goggles as a fashion statement? What a time to be alive (says the woman who was a child at the time). It’s certainly not impossible for me to grasp the significance of Snow Crash. Intellectually, I know that it popularized the use of the word avatar to refer to visualizations of our digital alter egos and that Second Life was inspired by the MMO seen here. I know that the major cultural trends of the nineties, including its absolutely infamous cynicism, inform the text.
But for me, all of this melts away in the face of Stephenson’s take on the Tower of Babel. Stephenson, it appears, is infamous for info-dumping, which Snow Crash seems to prove. (The protagonist relies on a digital Librarian, and they spend their scenes telling each other information.) It’s largely a set of slick, dystopian action set pieces strung together by discussion about the Metaverse works (including several paragraphs about three-dimensional models clipping into each other) and the copious info-dumps. To go back to the concept of science fiction as the fiction of ideas, the genre gets away a lot more with being more idea-driven when the ideas presented are extraordinarily interesting. I personally prefer my speculative fiction to be both character and idea-focused—hence my binge watching of Star Trek: The Next Generation—but it does make it easier to swallow a book that would otherwise not be your cup of tea when it at least gives you something to think about.
In spoileriffic short, Snow Crash reveals that the titular virus is a linguistic virus that renders people into gullible automations devoid of free will—except for hackers, which it destroys immediately. Stephenson proposes (while fully admitting that he stands on the shoulders of a great many others) that the Sumerian language was the programming code for the human mind, and the Babel event—whatever gave us multiple languages—was engineered to protect people from having that code being used for great evil. It’s a bit abstract, but it’s also the most relevant to the modern Internet, where memes spread like viruses to the point that “going viral” is a good thing these days. Is there something purer than language, with its hideous capacity for misunderstanding, and is that thing coding on whatever machine you can take to hand, including the human mind? And is there something specifically human about how we spread information?
The characterization is quite thin on the ground. I was most taken with Y. T., a teenage extreme skateboarder who works as a courier (with a K) and spends her time doing her best to investigate what’s happening, protect her mother, and following her own interests. Unfortunately, this comes with the fifteen year old Y. T. sleeping with the thirty plus year old Raven at one point, along with a weird mix of Y. T. understanding and resisting the male gaze while playing to it.
Bottom line: Nostalgia and ur-texting has made Snow Crash hard for me to fathom, but the central idea about language remains as fresh and vivid as ever.
I rented this book from the public library.