Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book Review: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Fans of this blog may recall that last month I reviewed Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, where I wrote,

There are no words to adequately express how entertaining and fun Ready Player One (RP1) is to read.

 Well, sorry, but I'm about to repeat myself: there are also no words to express how entertaining and fun Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is to read. It's like David Foster Wallace and William Gibson collaborated to produce a beastly crossbreed between Infinite Jest and Neuromancer. The cyberpunk motifs and action are at work like a fission-powered freight-jet, but narrated in the weird, colloquial, hyper-language of a Hal Incandenza soliloquy. It's as though some Bill-Gates-type-guy in the 25th century invented a time machine, traveled back to the present day to observe my reading tastes, traveled further back to kidnap Gibson and Wallace, threw them into an interdimensional prison (which exists outside of time), and forced them to write the precise novel that my own personal literary tastes hanker for. It's like Ready Player One, but better. It's like fucking Christmas.

Paragraph one:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hollowed sub-category. He's got espirit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has a sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telophone books.

This is a description of a pizza-delivery driver.

Let's run through the paces: Snow Crash takes place in your standard cyberpunk global social/environmental-collapse cum virtual-reality world. There is a sexily grungy hacker who fights with his father's katana. There is a precocious teenage female skateboarder who hitches rides by harpooning the backs of moving cars. (If you've read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, you'll recognize her as more-or-less identical to Robin.) There is a mad Russian(-ish) sidekick playing nihilistic power-metal. There are various puppet masters, of varying moral shades. There is a demonic warrior who fights with harpoons and knives. There are robot guard dogs. There are slaughtered skinheads. There's a guy with a glass eye and a gun from hell. People say things like "I can't believe you took a hypercard from a black-and-white person" and "How sweet!" and "Me cop, you thrasher. How you gonna make a case at Judge Bob's Judicial System?" and "Back to work--this is no time for a hard-on" and "But I figure that the Big Wop will be a lot less likely to throw a Stinger through the turbine of my chopper there if he knows his little chiquita is on board" and "Swords don't run out of ammo."

On the other hand, there's also a lot of weird back-plot about, like, ancient Sumerian mind-hackers, or something? We're getting into PLOT SPOILER territory here, but quite a few pages are spent explaining how ancient Sumerians were subjected by the cosmic Meta-Virus (?!) to a sort of hive-language which reduced them to zombie-slaves, but then Enti, an ancient mind-hacker (?!), created a linguistic counter-virus which caused them all to speak different languages (?!) and thus precipitated individuation of human consciousness (?!). This is the historical basis for the legend of Babel (somewhere, there are Christian fundamentalists reading this and applauding). Somehow this lead to the Hebrews, who started the first rational religion (?!), but then it got, like, ossified and stale, so Jesus came to re-inject the language-counter-virus (?!), but the proto-Catholic Church contained it shortly after his death (I'm not even gonna make the ?! anymore, just take it as implied), and then the rise of Pentecostalism around 1900 brought "speaking in tongues," AKA ancient Sumerian hive-language, back to the mainstream, and now the hive language (which is also herpes, or something) is gonna infect all of humanity. Or something.

What. The. Fuck.

Stephenson's Sumarian-virus back-plot is equally bizarre and implausible. I don't just mean literally implausible--this is a work of fiction, after all. I mean it's implausible within the otherwise-internally-coherent universe of Snow Crash. Everything else makes the shimmering psuedo-sense of good fiction. But then Stephenson has his characters make these bizarre, intuitive connections between random historical events, and they turn out to be exactly right. Reading these sections, I felt as though Stephenson himself had begun to speak in tongues, and I just had to plunge through until he started making sense again.

Drawback number two is that the conclusion of the book sacrifices depth for punch. As soon as the reeeeeeally long series of pyrotechnic-acrobatics which serves as the book's (admittedly thrilling) climax is completed, the book stops. Not ends; stops. Shit ceases to explode, a quarter-page is spent describing how nothing's happening, and then there's blank space. Reading this, I felt cheated: I felt like the emotional connection I'd made with the characters (who are pretty well developed) had just been a ruse to get me worked up during the action-packed finale. Imagine if Star Wars: Return of the Jedi had climaxed with the Luke/Vader lightsaber duel and the explosion of the Death Star,...and then the credits immediately rolled. No Han/Lea reconciliation. No hint of Luke's destiny. Just: "BOOM!...(credits)." That's what the end of this novel is like: a climax, but no ending.

Still, this book is amazingly good. Aside from the two problems mentioned above, it's damn near perfect. Reading it, I got used to laughing out loud every few pages. Sometimes this was because something funny had happened, but more often it was sheer glee at the awesome spectacle unfolding before me on the page. My partner knows a lot more about its plot than he wants to, because I interrupted him so often to force upon him updates on what was going on in the book. Really, it's just a geeky, gory, glorious work. It's so, so much fun. I strongly recommend it.

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