Ryan's Reviews > Snow Crash

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
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's review
Nov 13, 11

bookshelves: fic-speculative
Read in August, 2011

(***1/2, really)

While the term "cyberpunk" was coined as a genre label for William Gibson and others in the early 80s, it wasn't until Snow Crash (in my opinion) that a writer came along who really embodied the tag. Neal Stephenson is both cyber (familiar with computers, geek culture, and the spirit of hacking) and punk (sarcastic, irreverent, anarchic, and co-opting whatever influences he likes). And he’s got the literary chops to bring the two together.

Snow Crash is a novel that's equal parts messy and brilliant. Brilliant because Stephenson had an almost eerie prescience of many aspects of the future Internet, from its tawdry commercialism, to Second Life-like virtual worlds, to the divide between genuine hackers and dot-com sellouts, to the normalization of frightening levels of surveillance, to people’s escape from reality into online lives and gated communities that cater to their own personal and political preferences. Obviously, no one writing from 1992 was going to get the specifics right, but the gestalt isn’t so far off. And Stephenson’s larger satiric vision of broken-down future America, which has outsourced all of its specialties except movies, porn, software, and pizza delivery, seems even more prophetic in hindsight. The idea of a nation parceled into corporate franchises and an ineffectual federal government, while a large chunk of the outside world slides towards piratical lawlessness (embodied by a giant flotilla of desperate refugees), could be a Tea Party dream run amok.

This book also expresses Stephenson’s considerable wit and sardonic humor at its fullest throttle. Not that he didn’t maintain his madcap style in later novels, but his later works tried to expand his audience beyond graphic novel-reading, DOOM-playing teenagers and undergrads. Readers looking for the less “serious”, more caffeineated Stephenson will find him here.

However, plot and character development are not strengths of Snow Crash, which lacks the maturity and depth of his subsequent books. The story races from one breathless action scene to another, mixed with somewhat forced (though interesting) discussions of a speech-transmitted brain virus called "snow crash", which works like a computer virus and turns out to have been described by ancient Sumerian mythology. The main characters, other than a few defining Cool Characteristics, are pretty thin, and Stephenson’s idea of a hip teenage female skate punk is about as painfully dated and cartoonish as Bart Simpson, right down to her catch phrases.

In my opinion, this is definitely a book to read for its audacious foresight, for its cultural impact, and for putting Stephenson on the map, but as a novel, it’s not quite a masterpiece. And much of its cutting-edge-for-1992 specificity does feel quaint now, unlike the electric glow it still had when I first read it in 1997.
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