Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Bantam, 1992

Rating: D+

When cyberpunk as a subgenre is brought up as a point of literary discussion, the first novel that most people think of is William Gibson’s outstanding and groundbreaking Neuromancer. In general, Snow Crash is next in line, with many members of today’s science fiction readership believing it to be superior to the novel that started the genre. Those people would be wrong.

Snow Crash is the story of an ex-pizza delivery guy named Hiro Protagonist (the name of whom is the first of many utterly stupid things about the novel). The opening few chapters are devoted to talking about Hiro’s pizza delivery practices, despite the fact that he is fired as soon as the “action” starts and it doesn’t really matter in the longer terms of the story whether or not he ever had a job before starting to work solely as a computer hacker. Hiro teams up with a bicycle courier called Y. T. to work in the Metaverse (cyberspace) for money, almost entirely with shady characters. They hear about a new drug called Snow Crash, which affects the users both in the Metaverse and in reality. Naturally, an investigation is in order.

Coherence isn’t really a strong suit of the novel, which rambles on and jumps between many short storylines that don’t seem to really even be connected. Y.T. and Hiro are occasionally together, but spend the majority of the time off in their own figurative words, and it is really difficult to figure out how that they are doing relates to the story at all. Around the midpoint of the novel, Hiro starts having long-winded conversations with a computer construct called the Librarian that teaches him about the connection between ancient Sumerian mythology and overall culture with today’s ideas of religion and viruses. Although it isn’t really plot, and severely violates the rule about showing and not telling, the conversations between Hiro and the Librarian are really the most interesting parts of the novel.

Although both Hiro and Y.T. get more likable as the story goes on, they both essentially fit stereotypes of cyberpunk, to the point of almost being self-parody. Hiro is a generically named part-Japanese cyberspace hacker who wields a katana and fits the role of “street samurai” a la the Shadowrun universe. He’s sort of a cross between Neuromancer’s Case and Molly Millions– the weasely hacker who gets thrown into the plot of that novel, and the badass mercenary who does all the heavy lifting. Y.T. is a courier, which apparently becomes a recurring theme in the genre. She’s a young teenager with a chip on her shoulder that comes across as naive early on but later on makes her more enjoyable as a character for her feistiness. Neither character is particularly memorable or unique, though.

Stephenson is a capable writer of prose but not strong enough to warrant the endless tangents and asides that go on for chapters at a time. Combining the abyssmal pacing with characters that are generally likable but not all that interesting leads one to scratch his head and wonder what all the fuss is about. It is DEFINITELY not the greatest cyberpunk novel, and would not even approach the top five. It is all borrowed aesethetic and self-indulgent rambling. A poor novel at best. It should be read for its significance but its nearly universal renown is a mystery.


The Second Wave of Cyberpunk Almost Isn’t Sci-Fi

Cyberpunk was a huge thing in sci-fi in the 1980s. It kind of took that style that was so purely 1980s and added a healthy dose of  noir, and threw it in a blender with extremely advanced technology involving a world wide computer network that connected everyone and everything. Of course, William Gibson’s Neuromancer started it all, but in recent years it has become clear that Gibson is some sort of other-worldly prophet, as his vision of the internet is essentially true.

That puts today’s cyberpunk (which we are calling second wave cyberpunk as opposed to postcyberpunk which unfortunately implies that the movement is over) in a weird place,  because what would have obviously been part of the genre in the 80s now just seems like real life. In novels like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the setting is a near-future dystopia where climate change and economic collapse have left poor people with only the internet and an MMORPG called the Oasis as a way of getting away from the harsh realities of existance. In the real world, when you drive down the car, you are bound to see a poorly dressed teenager with a stupid haircut driving a 1992 Ford Tempo with his $600 iPad in his lap. High tech and low life is right. Cyberpunk isn’t really science fiction anymore—it’s just the real world.

That said, fiction writers are still dabbling in it. Aside from Ready Player One, there was also Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW series (the first installment of which was reviewed here last week), which heavily involves the internet in the story of a blind girl gaining sight through an ocular implant that ends up allowing her to actually see the internet. Sure, there are aspects in that story that are slightly beyond our own real technology, but it is not nearly as much of a gap as what was present at the time of Gibson’s original masterpiece.

So what is second wave cyberpunk? It no longer really has the implication of lowlifes whose only assets are their tech—it’s more about the general emphasis of technology with the typical science fiction veneer. If the internet is either the primary setting or actually a character in the story, that’s really what cyberpunk is now. Although all science fiction written in modern times dabbles in the internet, it isn’t always the primary setting (as in Ready Player One), or basically a living thing (as in the WWW series). Purists may criticize the explanation but it is what it is. Kids in mirrorshades and green mohawks was fun for a while, but every genre eventually transitions to a different phase. This is it.