Snow Crash

From Academic Kids

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Snowcrash.jpg
Snow Crash cover shot, illustrated by Bruce Jensen.

The science fiction novel Snow Crash (1992), written by Neal Stephenson, follows in the footsteps of the cyberpunk novels by such authors as William Gibson and Rudy Rucker, though Stephenson breaks away from the typical "techno punk" stories by embellishing this story with a heavy dose of satire and jet-black humor.

Snow Crash (Stephenson's third novel) rocketed to the top of the fiction best-seller charts upon its release and established Stephenson as a major science fiction writer for the 1990s.

Like many postmodern novels, Snow Crash has a unique style and a chaotic structure which many readers find difficult to follow. It contains many arcane references to geography, politics, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, history, and computer science, which may inspire readers to explore these topics further, or at least consult relevant reference works. The novel explores themes of reality, imagination, thought, perception, and the violent and physical nature of humanity, in the context of a socially-constructed (virtual) reality imposed on a political-economic system in the throes of radical transition.

Contents

Significance of the name

The meaning of the name "snow crash" is explained in Stephenson's essay In the Beginning...was the Command Line, as the term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer:

When everything went to hell and the CPU began spewing out random bits, the result, on a CLI machine, was lines and lines of perfectly formed but random characters on the screen—known to cognoscenti as "going Cyrillic." But to the MacOS, the screen was not a teletype, but a place to put graphics; the image on the screen was a bitmap, a literal rendering of the contents of a particular portion of the computer's memory. When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a "snow crash."

Background

The story takes place in a semi-America of the future, where corporatization, franchising, and the economy in general have spun wildly out of control. Snow Crash depicts the absence of a central powerful state; in its place, corporations have taken over the traditional roles of government, including dispute resolution and national defense. The United States has lost most of its territory in the wake of an economic collapse; the residual remains of the federal government are weak and inefficient and are used by Stephenson for comic relief.

Much of the territory lost by the government has been carved up into a huge number of sovereign enclaves, each run by its own big business franchise (such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong" or the various residential burbclaves). This arrangement bears a similarity to anarcho-capitalism, a theme Stephenson carries over to his next novel The Diamond Age. Hyperinflation has devalued the dollar to the extent that trillion dollar bills, Ed Meeses, are little regarded and the quadrillion dollar note, a Gipper, is the standard 'small' bill. For large transactions, people resort to alternative currencies like yen or "Kongbucks" (the official currency of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong).

The Metaverse, Stephenson's successor to the Internet, permeates ruling-class activities, and constitutes Stephenson's vision of how a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the near future. Although there are public-access Metaverse terminals in Reality, using them carries a social stigma among Metaverse denizens, in part because of the low visual quality of the avatars (the Metaverse representation of a user). In the Metaverse, status is a function of two things: access to restricted environments (such as the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club) and technical acumen (often demonstrated by the sophistication of one's avatar). See Second Life, The Palace, Uru, and Active Worlds. The latter is based entirely on Snow Crash.

Plot

The story centers around Hiro Protagonist, an out-of-work hacker and swordsman, and a streetwise young girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a plank Kourier for a company called RadiKS. The pair meet when Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, and decide to become partners in the intelligence business. The setting is a near-future dystopian version of Los Angeles, where franchising, individual sovereignty and automobiles reign supreme (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion).

The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug, called "Snow Crash" - both a computer virus, capable of infecting the brains of unwary hackers in the Metaverse, and a drug in Reality being marketed through a nearly-untraceable chain of sources. As Hiro and Y.T. dig deeper (or are drawn in), they discover more about Snow Crash and its connection to ancient Sumerian culture, the fiber-optics monopolist L. Bob Rife and his enormous Raft of refugee boat people, and an Aleut harpooner named Raven, whose ambition is to nuke America. The Snow Crash metavirus may be characterized as an extremely aggressive meme.

Stephenson spends much of the novel taking the reader on an extensive, impeccably-researched tour of the mythology of ancient Sumeria, while theorizing upon the origin of languages and their relationship to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Asherah is portrayed as a deadly biological and verbal virus which was stopped in Ancient Sumer by the God Enki. In order to do that, Enki deployed a countermeasure which was later described as the Tower of Babel. The deeper meaning of the novel can be summed up with a quote from William S. Burroughs: "Language is a virus from outer space". The book also reflects ideas from Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).

Unanswered questions at the end: What happens to Y.T.? What is the relationship with her mother like now? What is the nature of Uncle Enzo's relationship with Y.T.? Does her mother still work for the feds? What happened to her mother from the unmentioned parts of her interrogation to when she came to pick Y.T. up? Except for a brief cameo appearance of a much older, wiser Y.T. about two-thirds of the way into The Diamond Age, in which she indicates that she eventually gave up thrashing, had children, and appears happy, we know nothing.

Important characters

  • Hiro Protagonist — As the name suggests, the hero of the novel, a hacker, swordsman, and sometime pizza delivery man.
  • Juanita Marquez — Hiro's old girlfriend from the days when they both worked for Da5id and were developing the software that supports the Metaverse. Both men were in love with Juanita; she married and later divorced Da5id.
  • Y.T. — A teenage skateboard-riding courier who helps Hiro investigate the mysterious metavirus.
  • Da5id — Friend of Hiro, co-creator of the elite Metaverse club The Black Sun. First to fall victim to the Snow Crash virus.
  • L. Bob Rife — All-around magnate, plies the seas in an aircraft carrier with a city's worth of boat people lashed to it (and possibly may have been based on L. Ron Hubbard).
  • Raven — Rife's evil spear-throwing, motorcycle-riding henchman who carries a nuclear warhead with him that is wired to a dead-man's switch. His goal in life is to "nuke America."
  • Dr. Emanuel Lagos — Researcher who discovered the metavirus and foolishly told Rife about it.
  • Uncle Enzo — Head of the American Mafia, which is now also known as Nova Sicilia.
  • Mr. Ng — Head of Ng Security Industries, maker of the security pitbull cyborgs commonly called Rat Things.
  • The Librarian — An artificial intelligence who helps Hiro understand what is going on.

Editions

See also

External links

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