Re-reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson a little over a year after reading it for the first time was not only fun, but necessary. Snippets of the book from my first reading had been coming back to me for the last year or so, but so much happens in the space of 469 pages that I was remembering separate plots of the book as belonging to entirely different novels. That isn’t to say, however, that the book is especially confusing, or even complicated. It is, however, dealing with a lot of big, esoteric ideas, and Stephenson’s genius shows itself in his ability to expound on all these ideas in detail without slowing the story down. The exposition and explanation is as entrancing as the fast-paced plot.
Cultural Significance of Snow Crash
This book also has a great deal of cultural importance. It popularized (though it did not originate) the use of the term “Avatar” to indicate a digital form of oneself. If you have ever typed the wrong email into Gmail, you probably got a response from Google’s Mail-Daemon, “Daemon” being another term popularized by the novel, this time referring to a piece of code that replicates an aspect of human behavior. For example, letting you know when you have sent an email to a Gmail.com address for the hundredth time.
Stephenson keeps a few threads in tension at once in Snow Crash, and it’s a joy to see him do it. The skeleton plot involves a hacker named Hiro Protagonist, who has proclaimed himself the greatest sword fighter in the world, and his interactions with a teenaged Kourier named Y.T., as they uncover a mysterious plan to take over the world through language, religion, and technology. At the center of the world of Snow Crash is the idea that brains are like hardware and ideas are like software. Languages shape the neural pathways of the brain. Some ideas can operate like a virus, implanted through language, processed in the brain, and spread to other hosts. The idea may have a few flaws, but in the novel, it all winds up being a rather convincing explanation for how ideas propagate through history. It is also a rather convincing explanation for how Sumerian religion, computer hacking, and language are all related.
The ancient civilization aspect of the novel delves into the role of a man named Enki, who is remembered in Sumer as a God, and his role in fighting another figure named Asherah and her plans to control the world through religious rituals that control people’s minds. Enki and Asherah both are Neurolinguistic hackers, people who can string together syllables that code the deep part of the brain in order to control people. Asherah has created a virus that spreads through words as well as through a literal illness.
Enki created a “Nam Shub” to confuse people’s language and keep them safe from Asherah, a “Nam Shub” being a string of syllables which help you program the mind. Hiro, in the future, is dealing with a new Asherah cult which is trying to debilitate hackers by exposing them to a Snow Crash bitmap. This bitmap accesses the deep structures of their brains, which are able to think in binary code, and basically fries the system.
The Viral Cycle in Snow Crash
I have to be honest about the fact that this book has some personal significance to me. A friend of mine, who was involved in the Milwaukee DIY music scene, turned me on to the book. He liked it enough that his post-rock band recorded a song titled “Snow Crash.” I read it a semester into seminary, and I partially credit this book for my decision to study Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern culture. The book’s treatment of the Deuteronomists spurred a fascination with their work.
As Hiro realizes that the Babel story exists in different forms across time and place, the reader is let in on the fact that Hiro is Enki. In other words, this issue of viral influences and anti-viral attempts to contain them is an ongoing cycle in history. It also invites the reader to consider the viral influences in their own lives. The Deuteronomists were somewhat successful in their time, but their efforts have to be replicated to fight the new incarnation of the virus.
Ultimately, this is the source of the novel’s most provocative claims and insights. When my friend finished reading Snow Crash, he passed it on to others. Other people in our circle kept talking about it and reading it. The novel itself became a part of the viral cycle, or anti-viral cycle, depending on how you utilize the book’s content. This review theoretically constitutes its own perpetuation of the book’s virus/anti-virus. Snow Crash is a book that sticks with you for some time. After all, I have spent part of this review attempting to persuade my readers that the premise of the novel is convincing.
The Imprisonment of Total Liberty
The world that Hiro and Y.T. operate in is also really interesting. There are no laws, at least not in the US. The landscape is run by Franchises, which are quasi-national entities that operate for profit and have their own laws and security measures. People live in semi-independent “Burbclaves” which they choose based on their values. It is appalling but not surprising that many choose ethnically segregated places of residence.
Basically, in the world of Snow Crash, you are fully free to do as you please, and fully imprisoned by the freedoms of others. Stephenson's take on total liberty is fascinating, and grants his novel a Wild West feel at times. Characters are held accountable to themselves for the most part, required to establish and live by codes they create for themselves. Perhaps without the ancient culture and language content, there would be more time to explore this world beyond the confines of our two protagonists, but sadly, that is not the case.
I also found the use of slang to be oddly poetic. I think that attempts at humorous voice or new linguistic charms can be annoying. Only one in 50 authors has the linguistic foresight of Anthony Burgess. Most attempts at it end up distracting from the story at hand, in my view. We can think about Stephenson’s use of new slang this way, Y.T. is a fifteen-year-old doing a dangerous job (she delivers high value packages on a skateboard) in a world with no laws. To drive the point home (no pun intended) she wears a dentata, which is a needle filled with narcotics inside her vagina. It’s obviously there to stop sexual assault. Faced with such danger, Y.T. and her Kourier comrades take Gen X slang to extremes. The only thing to do in a world of absurd danger, it seems, is to respond with absurdity of your own.
Familiar Yet Alien
Stephenson’s real gift is that he makes that absurdity manageable. As alien as this world is from ours, it feels disturbingly familiar. The absurd nature of it doesn’t hide his message or distract from the plot as a whole. Instead, it makes for a delightful and engaging adventure through history, the human brain, and the computer world of the Metaverse. Fans of the novel might notice that I have left out some aspects of the book. Hopefully, fans will recognize that trying to discuss the entirety of the novel in one review is like trying to summarize 4,000 years of religious thought and computer science into a 500 page paperback novel. Buy this book, read it, sit on it for a year or two, and read it again.
Snow Crash weaves virtual reality, Sumerian myth, and many concepts in between into the the gigathriller of the information age. Snow Crash is a mind-altering romp through a bizarre future America that is eerily recognizable.