Jesse Whitehead's Reviews > Snow Crash

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
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Sep 20, 10

Read from August 20 to September 02, 2010

Some books are important. This is an inarguable fact. Like bacon and ice cream (not necessarily together – though I have done that). Not all important books are popular. For example, Moby Dick was one of the least liked books when it was released – critics hated and nobody bought it. Fast forward a hundred years and we have Star Trek that can’t seem to go for more than fifteen minutes without quoting from it – apparently it becomes even more popular in the future.

Snow Crash is one of those popular books that is also important – or an important book that is also popular. Its importance isn’t immediately clear without context. Much of our current Internet technology has been inspired by the technology in this book. Perhaps as a sign of its importance to the programming nerds almost every business in America has a domain server named Snow Crash.

I’ve observed something else about this book.

People love mediocrity. The biggest movie ever made (disregarding inflation) is Avatar – a study in average story telling with mediocre writing and good-enough acting (but truly powerful special effects so I guess it had something). Last year’s summer blockbuster was Transformers 2 – a decidedly less than mediocre movie (I hold that this is the worst movie ever made but I don’t have time to get into that). Harry Potter and Twilight completely destroyed previous book sales records, Eragon succeeded by lifting whole scenes out of other fantasy stories, the new Hunger Games books have recently become a phenomenon by retelling a story that’s been told in science fiction until it seems cliché.

In fact seldom does something that is truly excellent catch the public attention and hold it. There are thousands (millions?) of Firefly fans that discovered the show was brilliant too late to save it from being cancelled after only 11 episodes.

Of course there are exceptions. The original E.T. (I know nobody likes this movie anymore) is one of the greatest movies ever filmed – every shot is from the point of view of a child, the writing and acting and direction are near perfect – and it spent nearly a year as the number one movie in America when it was released. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular series of books ever printed.

The books and shows and movies that get the most attention seem to be, more often than not, truly unexceptional.

Unfortunately the exceptions to this rule of media mediocrity can fall in the other direction as well. Sometimes something truly horrible becomes popular and shakes my faith in the good judgment of the common man. I offer for an example the more than $400 million dollars that Transformers 2 made last year.

Alas, such was Snow Crash. Nothing in this book inspires the reader to keep reading. It alternates between silly, boring and textbook while never trying very hard to actually accomplish anything other than sacrifice abstruse phrases on the altar of prose.

The main character is named Hiro Protagonist – really – and he is not only the most brilliant hacker the world has ever known but he is also the worlds greatest sword fighter and carries his katanas everywhere. If that doesn’t sound too bad don’t worry, it gets worse.

The story is constantly being brought to a halt by pages of explanations and descriptions of technology, the companies that control and develop them, the reason for their invention, who invented them, what they are capable of, etc. Hardly a page goes by without this kind of blatant lecture on made-up technology. But it doesn’t stop there. Every time a number is mentioned which happens to be a power of two (2,4,8,16,32, etc) that fact has to be pointed out in the text. I kept thinking that it must be really important at some point for us to understand 2 to the nth power but it never had any bearing on the story.

At the end all the technology discussed in such detail gets used in reverse order in a couple of pages – almost like the author was purposely going back down a list to justify all the pages of banal explanation he provided earlier.

Neal Stephenson obviously did mountains of research for this book, which in this case is a bad thing. It seems after all that research he felt like he had to put all of it in his book, in order to justify the time he spent. The middle three quarters of the book read like a compendium of research on Sumerian culture – which it is, and it’s quite interesting – the book needs to be two separate books, one about the research, one about the story. Or he could do like Tolkien did and put it all in an appendix or four.

The things that Neal Stephenson does in this book are groundbreaking. Before the Internet existed he imagined a world where people communicated through the Internet – he even got the name right – using virtual reality goggles, and custom designed avatars – in fact he was the first person to use the term ‘avatar’ to refer to a computer character counterpart. This is one of the few books that I’ve ever read that accurately portrays programming and computer interactions.

The prose struggles to be clever by using twisty phrases but fails by being over long and boring. Also, did I mention that this is confusing? I don’t know if this is a prerequisite of all cyberpunk but all of it that I’ve encountered feels like this. I never know what is going on.

I can’t really recommend this book. It has obviously had its mark on society – hence the plethora of servers named Snow Crash – but in the end it fails as entertainment, which is its intended purpose. The theories that it proposes for the Babel effect – Infocalypse in the jargon of the book – are interesting to think about but hardly worth the effort of dragging yourself through this opus of purple prose.
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09/02/2010 page 471
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