SNOW CRASH


Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is one of the most popular and influential science fiction novels of the 90s. Set in the not-too-distant future in a dystopian America dominated by warring corporate franchises, the story centres on hacker, swordsman and ex-pizza-delivery boy Hiro Protagonist as he tries to save the world from a deadly computer virus and I can't be bothered describing any more of the plot because I hated the book.

It was not immediately clear that Snow Crash would not be to my taste. The early chapters are written in a confident, hip patter; the suburb-states, franchise prisons, privatised highways and Mafia-controlled pizza promised a sharp satire on an America that might be.

Sadly, satire quickly gives way to preposterousness. We learn that the 'Snow Crash' of the title is a computer virus transmissible to humans, something to do with ancient Sumerian magic spells, the Tower of Babel, speaking in tongues and other mumbo-jumbo. Suspending disbelief about this stuff is a much greater stretch than suspending disbelief about the 'burbclaves'. The latter can be taken as a statement on certain housing developments that already exist in America; an augmented, grotesque version of reality. The Snow Crash virus, on the other hand, is mystical nonsense with no real-life analogue, and only drags the rest of the story into never-never-land along with it. It's as if the satirist in Neal Stephenson lost conviction, saying "Don't worry, kids! My portrait of America is just as far-fetched and unrealistic as this Sumerian stuff here!"

To make matters worse, the Sumerian stuff is delivered in a long series of unelegant infodumps which take up much of the middle of the book. We get several chapters of Hiro listening to a talking encyclopedia, interjecting every now and then with his own much hipper paraphrases, making it seem like we've wandered into a patronising educational show. Couldn't this information have been delivered in a more creative way?

And so we have a protagonist who spends a riveting hundred pages sitting down and not doing much. Fans of the book might insist that the name 'Hiro Protagonist' is an obvious ironic statement about something, but it could also be a bit of preemptive ass-covering by an author who realises his main character is a cipher. All we ever get to know about Hiro is superficial cool. He's an elite hacker (cool!), an all-round badass, with cool dreadlocks, cool shades, and a pair of shit-cool samurai swords. He has a few stock character motivations (an unresolved ex-girlfriend, extreme perfectionism) but these are unconvincing and never important. I don't really believe he can program either.

'Yours Truly', the other main character, is basically Hiro with a cool skateboard and breasts. (Come to think of it, you rarely see YT and Hiro together.) There's nothing particularly teenage or particularly feminine about this purported teenage girl. In fact she is most notable as a vehicle for the author's own obsession with powerful, dangerous men. It isn't just YT who gets hopelessly charmed by Mafia boss Uncle Enzo; and as for her final tryst with musclebound killer Raven, well that's just the consummation of the author's book-long love affair with the guy. Did anyone else get the feeling that it was not YT, but NS, who was leaping into the sack with Raven?

Raven is a sadistic psycho who specialises in killings like this:

Lagos is lying on the ground, sprawled across the tire track. He has been split open like a salmon, with a single smooth-edged cut that begins at his anus and runs up his belly, through the middle of his sternum, all the way up to the point of his jaw. It's not just a superficial slash. It appears to go all the way to his spine in some places.

and at times it seems the author shares his sadism. After all, Stephenson has taken the time to devise and linger over several more gruesome deaths, and just loves introducing his new kick-ass weapons into the fray (like a nuclear-powered gun that reduces people to a pool of blood in seconds). I never get the sense that he is disturbed by the violent scenes he describes; rather, his fascination with violence comes across as geeky and even a bit lascivious.

Love of violence is par for the course in computer games, and also, it seems, in comics. For this and other reasons, it wasn't a suprise to see that Snow Crash was originally intended as a comic book. Too often, it seems that the author is not writing a novel but describing a few comic panels. There are a number of cumbersome action scenes (like YT's escape from the Fed building and Hiro's run through the Raft) that had me screaming "Just show me the storyboard!" Prose is not the best medium in which to depict fast-paced and intricate action sequences, at least if Snow Crash is anything to go by. It necessarily drags them out, makes them seem complicated or repetitive. Stephenson perhaps realises this, skipping over one action sequence with "That's just a chase scene," but here he's having his cake and eating it. Why describe so many other chase scenes in painstaking detail?

Another device from comics, which in retrospect also irritated me in Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, is the tendency for pat scene-setting, the tendency to introduce a minor character, sum up his life in a few panels, and then quickly discard him. Most often, the characters introduced in this way are thoroughly hackneyed (like the ambitious pizza shop owner or the gullible motorbike salesman) and most often the sequences affect a virtuosity with characterisation that just isn't there. Leaping inside the head of a cliche doesn't impress me.

Of course, it's all supposed to be a bit of fun and I'm taking this way too seriously. Except the fun, for the most part, eludes me. I don't find big guns, 'hackers', skateboards, fast bikes or samurai swords intrinsically cool, as seems to be expected. I don't think sadistic depictions of violence sit very well with a fast-paced, jokey patter. (A patter which, incidentally, got rather strained and tiresome by the end.) Sure, there were some funny turns of phrase here and there -- or rather, turns of phrase that might have been funny in better surroundings -- but I'm not going to laugh at a comedian I find annoying most of the time. As far as I'm concerned, comedy is 90% charisma, and Neal Stephenson just never charmed me.

And the ending is terrible.


index