Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Author Biography


Neal Stephenson was born on Halloween 1959. He briefly lived in Champaign-Urbana, and received a degree in Geography with a minor in physics. He was interested in computers from a young age, switching his original major from physics so he could spend more time on the university mainframe. Stephenson's first novel, Big U, met with little critical acclaim, and in fact went out of print almost immediately. His second novel Zodiac was slightly more popular, but Snow Crash was his first really successfuly novel. Published in 1992, Snow Crash predicts myriad technologies that were almost inconceivable at the time.

Plot Summary


Pizza Deliverator

Snow Crash follows Hiro Protagonist, onetime pizza deliverator for the Mafia, freelance spy, hacker, and concert promoter. His best friend Vitaly Chernobyl rooms with him in a twenty by thirty U-Stor-It: the lap of luxury, relatively speaking. The United States has collapsed as a government, leaving behind only the NSA and the Library of Congress, which have become one and the same entity, collectively called the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIC. The functions of government have been assumed by a number of franchises, blurring the line between city-state and business. Hong Kong, the Mafia, and Burger King all have the same status. Some years before, a brilliant telecommunications entrepreneur named L. Bob Rife had established a worldwide computer network. Hiro meets a young skateboard courier named Y.T, and they agree to share information about a mysterious new drug called "Snow Crash", after one of Hiro's friends, a hacker called Da5id, picks up a computer virus and ends up in the hospital, which shouldn't happen.

---Warning: Spoilers Follow---

Mafia Contractor

Y.T. gets hired on as a courier for a special mission for the Mafia. A Vietnamese near-cyborg named Ng, who works a security contractor, is also hired for the job. Their mission is to get a sample of the new street drug "snow crash", which is kept tightly controlled. Cases of it are linked by radio transmitters to their handlers, and if contact is lost the case self-destructs. The case itself can only be opened by credit card. Y.T. and Ng secure a sample of "snow crash" by means of a complex plan involving a micro-helicopter, liquid nitrogen, and Y.T using herself as bait. The drug is traced back to Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates, a franchise of Pentecostal churches. At a concert he is promoting, Hiro sees Raven, an Aleut with long black hair and a bad attitude. Raven's motorcycle sidecar contains a nuke wired to go off if electrodes in his brain ever stop firing. Hiro gets his retinas scanned with a laser and traces the laser back to a "gargoyle" named Lagos atop a nearby hill, who collects thousands of megabytes of information and sells it to the CIC at discount rates. Some of that information is retinal scans. Lagos rapidly winds up dead, gutted from navel to chin almost to the spine. This should be impossible, because Lagos was wearing bulletproof armorgel, standard in the far future. Hiro's mysterious ex-girlfriend Juanita contacts him with Lagos's files about "snow crash". This file contains a semi-sentient librarian, sophisticated software, and files about modern immunology, advanced neurochemistry, Sumerian mythology, linguistics, biblical archaelogy, and paleoanthropology. Tying these all together is L. Bob. Rife, an all around-entrepreneur responsible for single-handedly bringing the Metaverse to the world.

The Files of Lagos

Hiro eventually pieces together the information from Lagos's files into a unified whole on a cross-country motorcycle trek. Sumerian myths reflect a onetime truth. Ancient Sumerian, the langugage, was a sort of lowest common denominator for language. In computing terms, Sumerian was binary or machine code, the simplest and fastest type of computer language. This binary for the human brain meant that Ancient Sumerian society boiled down to essentially a series of programs that propagated themselves. Even recipes were litanies, which would wire the human brain to go and perform the step of the recipe then return the human and the bread to the temple, where these linguistic program-spells, known as en, were stored and read by priests who were in turn controlled by other en. Enter Enki, the first conscious human. Enki 'wrote', really said, a 'computer virus' for the human mind. This virus blocked understanding of Sumerian, as well as transmitting itself to others. Reflected in Biblical myths as the Fall of Babel, human beings could no longer understand one another instinctively, as they once could. Ever since, human languages have diverged over time. The very nature of human language changed, from an innate ability, hardwired into the brain, to an acquired skill requiring constant practice.

The Raft

Hiro ventures onto L. Bob Rife's Raft, a flotilla of ships circulating the in the pacific, bringing immigrants in search of a better life from the Third World to the California coast. These immigrants are known as Refus. The Raft is a lawless, sprawling, entangled mess of boats of all sizes, all connected eventually to the aircraft carrier piloted by L. Bob. Rife himself, which has only a tangential influence on the actual navigation of the Raft. Hiro is pursued by L. Bob. Rife's agents aboard the raft, who have antennas wired directly to their brains. Juanita, Hiro's ex-girlfriend, is on the raft. They steal a sumerian tablet containing the mythical nam-shub of Enki. Juanita has learned to speak Sumerian, and covers her ears to avoid losing that ability. Hiro reads the tablet, which breaks L. Bob. Rife's link to his minions. Conscious humanity is saved.


Themes


Snow Crash is a hugely complex sprawling piece of literature. Covering the nature of language, the rise of human sentience, the purpose of society, masculinity, loyalty, what it means to be human, and an assortment of other themes, Snow Crash was extremely interesting to read.

Language

Language in cyberpunk novels is almost disregarded, generally speaking. In Snow Crash, each character gets their own distinct manner of speaking. Every character speaks in their own distinct style, and there are several offshoot languages, including Taxilinga.
The plot of Snow Crash implies that modern conscious humanity, sentient thought as we know it, is a side effect of a legendary hacker crashing ancient Sumerian society. Different reviewers either love or hate this plot point.

The Purpose of Society

Snow Crash takes a skeptical eye to the purpose of society. The government has collapsed, leaving only information-collection agencies. Curiously, everyday life remains completely unaffected. Corporations, called franchulates, have become minor nation-states, without affecting industry or quality of life for the majority of people. In other dystopic literature, such as Jennifer Government, this is also a common theme. Hardly a pro-government stance, but entirely expected for a cyberpunk novel. L Bob Rife has replaced the government as "the man", the corporate monolith.

Masculinity

As is typical for a cyberpunk novel, the characters aren't overly masculine. Hiro Protagonist is skinny and works with his mind, not his hands. The most traditionally masculine characters are in fact the Mafia boss, who runs a pizza chain.

The Nature of Humanity

Snow Crash has quite a lot to say on what it means to be human. Ng, the Vietnamese security contractor, is actually not quite human in the traditional sense. Severly injured, he spends his time ensconced in a sac of electrocontractile gel, controlling the van he inhabits with voice commands. Most of his consulting is done online, and many people never realize Ng is actually basically a cyborg. The main villain, Raven, is actually also not quite human. He's an Aleutian mutant, with almost supernatural speed and strength, as well as being, practically speaking, unkillable.

Debate


There is some debate over whether the predictions in Snow Crash came true because Neal Stephenson originally had the idea and they were merely implemented by other people or whether they were truly predictions. Google Earth, Second Life, and the Internet all have their clear predecessors in Snow Crash. Google Earth in particular is almost identical to the Earth program developed by Stephenson's CIA, although there are other motivations behind Google Earth.

Analysis


Snow Crash is a complex novel, dealing with the nature of humanity, including the past and the future. It's view of the future is positive, with certain reservations.
The history of humanity is revised, leaving most history unchanged. The Deuteronomists, authors of the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, aren't motivated by religious reasons but instead by a desire to restrain the Asherah virus. Snow Crash's alternate history really begins to diverge from our own by about 1985, give or take a decade.
Snow Crash is interesting in it's take on humanity. Artificial intelligence plays a minor part in the novel, as it's set in the near future, but what AI there is is advanced. The Librarian, bundled with the Asherah files, is quite sophisticated and capable of learning from past experience, if not . Stephenson takes a scientific approach to AI, underlining the essential non-humanity of the Librarian not by giving him a robotic voice, but by taking care to avoid any intuition on his part. The Librarian is fundamentally just a computer program. He is a sophisticated. AI is then brought down from an idealistic technology soon to be perfected and replace us to a tool of humanity. This view of AI as a tool of humankind is essential to futurist thought, because without this idea, humanity will be exterminated at the hands of our robot overlords sooner or later.

References


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