Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson  |  Finished: 15th September 2010  |  Back to library

Snow Crash

When you read Snow Crash you’re dealing with two distinct things. The first is a piece of socio-technological conjecture and near-future prediction. The second is a novel. The former works, but the latter doesn’t.

The former aspect works because Snow Crash is a well-realised and fairly prescient picture of a world that contains a kind of virtual overlay, something that didn’t really exist when it was written. But today’s real world has the web while Snow Crash has the Metaverse, and the two are similar in many ways. The Metaverse in Snow Crash is a lot more exciting than the web but it’s also much more limiting. When you move from one information space to another you have to walk or, if you’re a hacker, drive a really fast motorbike. Imagine the entire internet was encountered using the user interface paradigm of Second Life and you’re getting close. But this is a fairly trivial thing. Stephenson’s Metaverse exists, and the main difference between Snow Crash and the real world is that, in reality, the Metaverse is a sub-set of the internet while in the book it’s the whole thing. And the Librarian is a neat anticipation of Wikipedia, although once again its implementation is different (a virtual boffin as opposed to a document-based website).

Of course, if you rewrote Snow Crash and made the Metaverse work like the real internet, you’d lose a lot of dramatic tension and you’d have a far shorter novel. Hiro Protagonist (yes, that’s the name of the main character) wouldn’t have as many sword fights and his witty exchanges with the Librarian would be replaced by endless Wikipedia binges in which he’d probably end up reading about narhwals with no idea how he got to that page.

With the sexier virtual-reality aspects of the Metaverse gone, you’d be left with not much more than the second aspect of Snow Crash, the novel itself. Unfortunately this isn’t really up to much. Most of the plot is predicated on the idea of a linguistic virus, whose origins in Chomskyan grammar and Biblical archaeology are explained by the Librarian (the personification of Wikipedia) in huge sections of clunky exposition. The protagonist, Hiro, is simultaneously a master hacker and dropout slacker, a combination of traits that doesn’t hang well together in the character. Gibson’s “street samurai” archetype shows up too, in the form of a sassy fifteen-year-old courier on a high-tech skateboard.

When the characters and the central plot devices are brought into play, I think the novel falls apart a bit, but it’s not a disaster. The opening couple of chapters are well-constructed and the dual pace of the narrative is an interesting device. But in the latter third Stephenson seems to struggle with the world he’s created. Everything has to rest on the shoulders of the three or four main characters, which is always a problem when the story being told is supposedly global in scope. Eventually it comes down to a knife-fight on a runway, in the mould of Hollywood action movies – a shame for such an initially ambitious novel.

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