Novel * Neal Stephenson * Infocalypse * 1992
The first thing you should know about Snow Crash is that the primary character’s name is Hiro Protagonist. It’s that kind of book. Now, I happen to think that’s just dumb enough to be funny; however if you can’t deal with that kind of thing, perhaps look elsewhere. Also, why do you hate fun? I will quickly add that there is much, much more going on in Snow Crash than silly meta jokes (although to Stephenson’s credit, Hiro is totally the kind of dork who would take this kind of name and think it’s cool). It’s got layers, man. There’s a convoluted plot that somehow unfolds logically and at a controlled pace. There are memorable and (mostly) natural characters to add personality and life to a story about a fractured and damaged America. Oh, and speaking of which, you want social commentary? All that biz is totally here and delivered in a way that doesn’t come off as preachy or obnoxious. That’s because Stephenson’s voice in this novel is offhanded, energetic, and flippant while still retaining a sense of gravity. It’s a goddamned achievement, and I’m super jealous of his ability to pull this off so well.
Okay, so Snow Crash is great and everyone should read it, but what is it about? That’s… tricky. The novel opens with Hiro delivering a pizza. Right up front the book is moving flat-out, dumping information on you in the guise of quirky language. The simple act of delivering a pizza demonstrates the nature of the future in which this novel takes place. The government is an afterthought, and nearly every aspect of society is managed by private corporations. The country is a series of franchises. Each housing subdivision is a semi-autonomous city-state, run by a major corporation. Roads are run by one of two corporations, and each have their strengths and weaknesses, as dictated by the market. Hiro delivers pizzas for The Mafia, which is now a conglomerate that franchises out loan services and operates CosaNostra Pizza, Inc. There are no longer any laws, exaclty, although security is handled by various firms depending on the scale of your security needs. Since laws are pretty much irrelevant, if Hiro fucks up and delivers the pizza late – like one second past thirty minutes – he’s a dead man. This is a thing that almost happens, however he is saved by a 15 year old skater chick named Y.T. She’s a Kourier, which is to say she delivers things at high speed. She helps Hiro on whim, thus spurring a partnership between the two and kicking the plot off.
The power players in this new world are a small group of CEO’s who run most of the aforementioned companies. When Y.T. saves Hiro’s life, which is to say when she completes his pizza delivery and gets the pie to its destination before the thirty minutes expire (a PR disaster on a grand scale), she is noticed by Uncle Enzo, who runs the company. In addition to Uncle Enzo, there is an assortment of other bosses who all appear to be troubled by a rogue member of the ruling class, a guy named L. Bob Rife. He is the monopolist who controls the bandwidth. As such he controls the information, and this is where everything gets weird.
Once Hiro loses his delivery job after trashing the Mafia’s car, he must fall back on his primary skill (other than sword fighting), hacking. He’s one of the first-generation programmers for the Metaverse (which is essentially a virtual reality Internet), and is highly skilled. Alas, he doesn’t work well with others, and since corporations run the world, there isn’t much room for a freelance hacker. Still, Hiro is at home in the Metaverse, and still knows a good many people in the industry. These people include his former friend and boss, Da5id, as well as a former co-worker and girlfriend, Juanita. Hiro promptly steps unwittingly into a big old conspiracy that revolves around a drug named Snow Crash, Sumerian mythology, viral linguistic theory, and religion. Oh, and there’s a wild card named Raven who is a massive Aleut that rides around in motorcycle and has a hydrogen bomb neurologically linked to his brain that is set to go off in case of his death. Speaking of which, Raven is really excellent at killing people in the most brutal ways possible. I’m probably forgetting some things, but it’s a complicated book.
If one were to distill Snow Crash down to a single vital metaphor, well, good job ruining the experience for yourself. However, in the interest of (almost) brevity, the most prevalent idea behind the novel is that of the virus. This model is used at various points in the novel to describe how religions, languages, and societies propagate amongst humanity. The entire plot of the novel is based on this concept. Once events move all the action to The Raft, we’re given a massive information dump on this very subject, which I’ll spare you here. If I have a criticism about the book, it’s that these exposition moments act as prolonged sand-traps in an otherwise quick-paced narrative. Stephenson gets a pass here, because he’s dealing with esoteric and unusual concepts that need explaining (not to mention that the rest of the book moves so breathlessly fast that the occasional pause is kind of welcome). That said, I’m actually more interested in his use of the viral metaphor in regards of the setting, rather than the plot. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I’m more interested in the world of Snow Crash than all this talk about Sumerian gods and metaviruses and whatnot. The payoff at the end, for me, is how Stephenson ties in the overall ambitions of L. Bob Rife, who is the human stand-in for unabashed, runaway capitalism, with the aforementioned weird religion/language/brain virus stuff. Block quote incoming:
“The franchise and the virus work on the same principle: what thrives in one place will thrive in another. You just have to find a sufficiently virulent business plan, condense it into a three-ring binder – its DNA – xerox it, and embed it in the fertile lining of a well-traveled highway, preferably one with a left-turn lane. Then the growth will expand until it runs up against its property lines…. The people of America, who live in the world’s most surprising and terrible country, take comfort in that motto…. They have parallel-parked their bimbo boxes in identical computer-designed Burbclave street patterns and secreted themselves in symmetrical sheetrock shitholes with vinyl floors and ill-fitting wood-work and no sidewalks, vast house farms out in the loglo wilderness, a culture medium for a medium culture.”
First of all, I cannot express how jealous I am of the term “loglo.” It’s perfect, and it’s a crying tragedy that it doesn’t get used more often. Secondly, I had to condense down most of this passage because Stephenson has never lacked for words, although to his credit I kind of want to quote half the damn book, so. As for what the quote itself says, I find it to be an astounding observation. Suburbia has always felt gross to me, it exudes a dim feeling of unease. Its very in-between-ness, neither city or country, is off-putting. Passages like this help explain those feelings. Granted, Snow Crash takes the idea of franchise ghettos to an extreme, but their roots are very much planted in reality, easily observed just by living in America. Like suburban living, this model is somehow both a natural extension of American expansion and a horrifying artificial construct designed to maximize profit and minimize independent thought.
This marginalization of culture and a thinking population is the goal that is absolutely being sought after by the primary antagonist. L. Bob Rife, a cable television magnate, has already secured the infrastructure necessary to control the world’s information. As such, this has arguably made him the most powerful person on the planet. Yet, just because he controls the cables and fiber optics – the bandwidth – doesn’t mean he’s in complete control of the information, because he still has to rely on the programmers to make everything work. Rife feels that programmers have no right to the information in their own brains, and that’s how the whole Sumerian metavirus plot works into the overall narrative. Rife is after total world domination, pretty much. Another block quote:
“He wants to be Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look, it’s simple: Once he converts you to his religion, he can control you with me [or deep brain ‘programming’]. And he can convert millions of people to his religion because it spreads like a fucking virus – people have no resistance to it because no one is used to thinking about religion, people aren’t rational enough to argue about this kind of thing. Basically, anyone who reads the National Enquirer or watches pro wrestling on TV is easy to convert. And with Snow Crash as a promoter, it’s even easier to get converts.
“Rife’s key realization was that there’s no difference between modern culture and Sumerian. We have a huge workforce that is illiterate or alliterate and relies on TV – which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite – the people who go into the Metaverse, basically – who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages.”
Okay, so sick burn on America, got that, but the sentiment is still sound. Rife has uncovered the ability to program deep brain functions, which he is only able to do because society has devolved enough to allow it. In embracing suburbia, we’ve embraced suburban thinking, and that’s what allows Rife to so brutally exploit the population. The only thing preventing him from succeeding is the ingenuity of a couple of hackers (Hiro and Juanita), the resources of other major franchise owners (Uncle Enzo, Mr. Lee, and Ng), and the wildcard antics of true independents (Y.T. and Raven). In the end, of course, Rife’s plan is thwarted and he totally dies. Yet the underlying problem is still there, and everyone accepts the status quo as inevitable. There aren’t any pure motives here, and all of our principal characters are acting in near total self-interest. That, of course, is the world that they’ve either built (in the case of Uncle Enzo) or have been born into (Y.T.), so not realizing how freaking horrible everything is shouldn’t come as a surprise. Still, for the reader the almost blasé attitude most of the characters have after the downfall of Rife is disconcerting. There’s no real redemptive arc, at least insofar as the state of the world is concerned. After the events depicted here, it’s presumed that Hiro and Juanita will hook up for a while, and probably Y.T. will continue being sassy. The other corporate masters will, if anything, strengthen their grip on their own domains. I don’t know about you, but the status quo in Snow Crash doesn’t strike me as ideal.