Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review of "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash is a novel by Neal Stephenson. The story follows two characters, Hiro Protagonist, a down-and-out computer hacker working as a pizza deliverator, and Y.T., a teenage girl who works as a courier. They join forces to battle the creators of an intellectual virus in a capitalist dystopia. Published in 1992, it predicted many computer-based phenomena and coined several terms.

It surprises me that it took me this long to pick it up. Snow Crash is highly regarded in the geek community and I have received several recommendations. I recall that Pyramid Magazine, normally strictly a gaming magazine, was so enamoured of this book in the 90's that they dedicated several pages to reprint a selection. I had very high expectations when I opened it. No, it is not the godlike masterpiece that I had expected, but it was still quite good.

Stephenson's strength is his prose. There is a memorable, clever metaphor or simile on practically every page. The first chapter, in particular, is perfect. It is perfectly exciting. It is a perfect introduction to Stephenson's dystopia. It is perfectly clever. The first chapter is a godlike masterpiece and it's a shame that the rest of the book is merely very good. But the book can hardly be faulted for not being able to measure up to itself. Can it?

The universe itself is fascinating. It is a computerized version of Reaganomics, down to the fact that the insanely-inflated bills have pictures of his cabinet members on them. The US government has essentially vanished, leaving North America in the grip of powerful corporations and the Mafia. Beneath this chaotic capitalist free-for-all is a virtual reality universe called the Metaverse. The Metaverse is kind of like what might happen if Second Life took over the entire internet: a place where each person who logs on has an "avatar" (a term invented by Stephenson, I believe), can access programs and own virtual real estate. It is fascinating to watch the characters navigate through this mess of a universe, which is ripe for adventure.

I mentioned that this book is good but not godlike. The exposition drags it down. Entire chapters of this book are devoted to Hiro talking to a computer-librarian about ancient Sumer, Enki and Asherah. How many chapters? A conservative guess is four. These chapters are a flagrant violation of "show, don't tell" and really do go on and on. Snow Crash experiences a disappointing lull about half-way through in which Hiro and the Librarian blab at each other. Frankly, during this lull I began to think about reading other books and wondering if I should bother finishing Snow Crash. It's not that these chapters aren't interesting and fascinating in their own right, but they are too much of a good thing.

Thankfully, Hiro eventually pulls himself out of the virtual library and starts doing things again. From there the story returns to its former quality. The ending is quite satisfying.

Snow Crash is prophetic in the number of technologies and terms it coined or anticipated, and is a great read besides. Don't be like me and put off reading it for years.
4 bimbo boxes out of 5

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