Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk
More than two decades after its first publication, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash holds a strange, somewhat unenviable position in the hearts of science-fiction fans. There are those who see it as the quintessential cyberpunk novel, one of the very few that does a credible job of highlighting both the cyber and the punk elements of the subgenre. However, others feel that Stephenson’s style is unsophisticated and clumsy and that the novel is slow, bland and predictable. It might seem like these two opinions are irreconcilable but they are not; Snow Crash’s greatest strength is indeed its setting, a world that is both fantastically alien and troublingly familiar but its often uncomfortably too-close-to-home atmosphere cannot really redeem its mediocrity in other areas. Its characters are agonisingly one-dimensional and novel’s middle section is literally nothing more than an extended, painfully long exposition in which Stephenson decides to take his reader through every single bit of his research. In a sense, that is Snow Crash in a nutshell – fascinating ideas and concepts ruined by sloppy, uninspired execution.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the novel’s plot. The story focuses on the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, a pizza-delivering, sword-swinging super hacker and his attempts at thwarting the efforts of the titular computer virus/consumer drug, Snow Crash. The Stephenson’s take on the close connections between religion, language, history and mathematics is more than just creative and very cool, it just might be one of the exceedingly rare cases of an absolutely unique premise. However, Stephenson lets himself down by indulging himself too far; instead of creating a tight narrative centred on these ideas, he dumps this information on the readers unceremoniously in the book’s middle sections which not only kills what little momentum that novel has managed to muster but also ensures that only the most dedicated readers would be able to properly connect the various dots he has left scattered. The prose is filled with strange, virtually unintelligible words, some borrowed from Ancient Sumer while others are Stephenson’s own creations but regardless of their origin, they are able to make the prose even less accessible, just when it seemed that that should not be possible. Even among those who dedicate the time and effort to tracing the method to Stephenson’s madness, the payoff is uncertain at best; the connections and parallels drawn feel feeble and forced. They begin It’s truly a shame too because any other writer with even a slightly more artistic touch could have turned these set of ideas into something truly amazing.
Stephenson’s workmanlike style is problematic in other areas as well; the setting, which is far enough removed from reality to thrill but close enough to be ever so slightly troubling, is never really explored. Again,Stephenson’s world works brilliantly as an abstract set of ideas; the rampant racism, drug abuse and violence are great staples of the cyberpunk subgenre and fit wonderfully under the looming spectre of capitalism taken to its extreme, but when it comes to merging these elements into coherent whole, the novel is utterly dismal. We never really get to see how the various ‘Burbclaves’ (franchisee nations) really worked and are often just told that they exist without exploring how such twisted world even exists. It ends up giving the impression that the author didn’t really think about the specifics of the world beyond that handful of elements.
There is also the matter of the characters. The characters are tricky to discuss, at least in part because of the novel’s attempts at satire, but also because there are times when they actually work better as the one-dimensional buzzwords that they are instead of fully fleshed out entities with agency beyond what is convenient for the plot’s purposes. The satirical elements of Snow Crash are surprisingly subtle, enough so to make you question whether they are intentional, but assuming they are, they are also undeniable. The satire is born largely out of the novel’s awareness of popular action movie clichés and general science fiction tropes but for every bullet it dodges, it acts as a meat shield for a good dozen more. For instance, Hiro Protagonist is nothing more than a walking piece of wish fulfilment; he is a badass sword wielding super hacker, the pinnacle of what every modern man wants to be. Sure, the characters have interesting traits, but none of them really exhibit any sort of depth beyond that and it gives off the impression that Stephenson tried too hard to make them stand-out, without enough thought put into creating characters that feel like real people.
Having said all that, it’s not hard to see how Snow Crash has kept its place in the hearts of those who first read it all that time ago. For a novel published in the 1992, in an era when the Internet was at best an untapped if revolutionary piece of technology, it shows a remarkable degree of precognition. The Metaverse, a online universe, is instantly recognizable to anyone who has played World of Warcraft or Second Life and is a culmination of what Stephenson has done well in Snow Crash – the Metaverse offers liberation from the grim dreariness of his cyberpunk setting and gives him a chance to explore both a world full of reckless abandon (the Metaverse) and a setting that feels restricted by its lawlessness. Ultimately, it feels like Snow Crash would be a great read for those who read science-fiction for the science more than the fiction, for those impatiently endure flowery descriptions of scenes and setting or those who acknowledge, more than appreciate, that writing is an art and not a science.