- Snow Crash
Cover of the U.S. paperback version
Author(s) Neal Stephenson Cover artist Bruce Jensen Country United States Language English Genre(s) Science fiction, Cyberpunk, Postcyberpunk Publisher Bantam Books (USA) Publication date June 1992 Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) Pages 480 pp ISBN ISBN 0-553-08853-X (first edition, hardback) OCLC Number 25026617 Dewey Decimal 813/.54 20 LC Classification PS3569.T3868 S65 1992 Followed by The Diamond Age
Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson's third novel, published in 1992. Like many of Stephenson's other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics, and philosophy.
Stephenson explained the title of the novel in his 1999 essay In the Beginning... was the Command Line as his term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. Stephenson wrote about the Macintosh that "When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set — a 'snow crash' ".
The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah (a re-interpretation of the ancient Near Eastern story of the Tower of Babel).
The story begins and ends in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of what is left of the United States, during the early 21st century. In this hypothetical future reality, the federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Franchising, individual sovereignty and private vehicles reign (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion). Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts while private security guards preserve the peace in gated, sovereign housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads rather than the competitors', and all mail delivery is by hired courier. The remnants of government maintain authority only in isolated compounds where they transact tedious make-work that is, by and large, irrelevant to the dynamic society around them.
Much of the territory ceded by the government has been carved up into sovereign enclaves, each run by its own big business franchise (such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong") or the various residential burbclaves (suburban enclaves). This arrangement resembles anarcho-capitalism, a theme Stephenson carries over to his next novel The Diamond Age. Hyperinflation has devalued the dollar to the extent that trillion dollar bills — Ed Meeses — are nearly disregarded and the quadrillion dollar note — the Gipper — is the standard 'small' bill. For physical transactions people resort to alternative, non-hyperinflated currencies such as yen or "Kongbucks" (the official currency of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong).
The Metaverse, a phrase coined by Stephenson as a successor to the Internet, constitutes Stephenson's vision of how a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the near future. Resembling an MMO, the Metaverse is populated by user controlled avatars as well as system daemons. Although there are public-access Metaverse terminals in Reality, using them carries a social stigma among Metaverse denizens, in part because of the poor visual representations of themselves as low-quality avatars. Status in the Metaverse is a function of two things: access to restricted environments such as the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club, and technical acumen, which is often demonstrated by the sophistication of one's avatar.
Plot summary and major themes
At the beginning of the novel, the main character, Hiro Protagonist, discovers the name of a new pseudo-narcotic, "Snow Crash", being offered at an exclusive Metaverse nightclub. Hiro's friend and fellow hacker falls victim to Snow Crash's effects, which are apparently unique in that they are experienced in the Metaverse and also in the physical world. Hiro uses his computer hacking, sharp cognitive skills, and sword-fighting to uncover the mystery of "Snow Crash"; his pursuit takes the reader on a tour of the Sumerian culture, a fully instantiated laissez-faire society, and a virtual meta-society patronized by financial, social, and intellectual elites. As the nature of Snow Crash is uncovered, Hiro finds that self-replicating strings of information can affect objects in a uniform manner even though they may be broadcast via diverse media, a realization that reinforces his chosen path in life.
The protagonist is the aptly named Hiro Protagonist (Hiro being a homophone of hero), whose business card reads "Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world." When Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, he meets a streetwise young girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard "Kourier", and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business (selling data to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA after the U.S. government's loss of power).
The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug called "Snow Crash" that is both a computer virus capable of infecting the brains of unwary hackers in the Metaverse and a mind-altering virus in Reality. It is distributed by a network of Pentecostal churches via its infrastructure and belief system. As Hiro and Y.T. dig deeper (or are drawn in) they discover more about Snow Crash and its connection to ancient Sumerian culture, the fiber-optics monopolist L. Bob Rife, and his enormous Raft of refugee boat people who speak in tongues. Also, both in the Metaverse and in Reality, they confront one of Rife's minions, an Aleut harpoon master named Raven whose motorcycle's sidecar packs a nuke wired to go off should Raven ever be killed. Raven has never forgiven the U.S. for the way they handled the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands (see Aleutian Islands Campaign in World War II) or for the nuclear testing on Amchitka.
Hiro, at the prompting of his Catholic and linguist ex-girlfriend Juanita Marquez, begins to unravel the nature of this crisis. It relates back to the mythology of ancient Sumer, which Stephenson describes as speaking a very powerful ur-language. Sumerian is to modern "acquired languages" as binary is to programming languages: it affects the entity (be it human or computer) at a far lower and more basic level than does acquired/programming language. Sumerian is rooted in the brain stem and related to glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues"—a trait displayed by most of L. Bob Rife's convertees. Furthermore, Sumerian culture was ruled and controlled via "me," the human-readable equivalent of software which contains the rules and procedures for various activity (harvests, the baking of bread, etc.). The keepers of these important documents were priests referred to as en; some of them, like the god/semi-historical-figure Enki, could write new me, making them the equivalent of programmers or hackers.
As Stephenson describes it, one goddess/semi-historical figure, Asherah, took it upon herself to create a dangerous biolinguistic virus and infect all peoples with it; this virus was stopped by Enki, who used his skills as a "neurolinguistic hacker" to create an inoculating "nam-shub" that would protect humanity by destroying its ability to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue. This forced the creation of "acquired languages" and gave rise to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately, Asherah's meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the "Cult of Asherah" continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes and infected women breast feeding orphaned infants; this weakened form of the virus is compared to herpes simplex. Furthermore, Rife has been sponsoring archaeological expeditions to the Sumerian city of Eridu, and has found enough information on the Sumerian tongue to reconstruct it and use it to work his will on humanity. He has also found the nam-shub of Enki, which he is protecting at all costs.
Hiro makes his way to Rife's Raft, a massive refugee flotilla centered around Rife's personal yacht, the former USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. Juanita has already infiltrated this floating caravan for the express purpose of helping overthrow Rife. Y.T. has been captured by Rife's followers and is taken to the Raft, where she becomes romantically involved with Raven for a short time and is eventually taken hostage by Rife personally. While hostage, Y.T. delivers the nam-shub of Enki to Hiro, who together with Juanita uses it to save the virus-afflicted. Hiro then accesses the Metaverse and foils Raven's attempt to widely disseminate the Snow Crash virus to a grouping of the hacker elite. Meanwhile, Y.T. is brought to the mainland by Rife, but she escapes. Rife and Raven proceed to an airport, where they are confronted by Uncle Enzo (the Mafia kingpin). A critically wounded Enzo disarms Raven, while Rife is killed and his virus destroyed when Fido, a cyborg "rat-thing" who had previously been rescued by Y.T., propels himself through the engine of L. Bob Rife's plane at beyond Mach 1, incinerating Rife and his plane. The novel ends with Y.T. driving home with her mother, and with hints of a future rekindled relationship between Hiro and Juanita.
Various technologies are employed in this fictional world, and help define it. Among these are:
Rat things, also known as semi-autonomous guard units, are the guard force in Mr.Lee's Greater Hong Kong. Rat things are made from pit bull terriers, surgically augmented with cybernetic components. Rat things remember their previous life as a dog. They can also communicate with other Rat things by "barking" in the Metaverse. Although their minds are largely controlled by their implants, they can sometimes act independently against their programming.
Reason is a needlegun-type Gatling railgun which fires depleted uranium ammunition. It consists of a large, wheeled ammunition box, an exaggerated Gatling gun configuration, a harness for user comfort, and a nuclear isotope power system, whose heatsink must be submerged in water. The weapon, created by Ng, was still in beta testing, and suffers a software crash during a pitched battle. Hiro is later able to apply a firmware update, and uses it until its ammunition supply is depleted.
The Metaverse is a fully immersive 3D virtual space, an outgrowth of the Internet. In the Metaverse, users' avatars interact with each other in a virtual world. This allows a man who delivers pizza for the Mafia in LA to win a samurai sword fight with a Nipponese businessman who is actually in his living room in Tokyo.
Literary significance and criticism
In his book The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, Walter Benn Michaels considers the deeper theoretical implications of Stephenson's book. Comparing the book with a range of contemporary writers—the fiction of Bret Easton Ellis, Kathy Acker, Octavia Butler, and even Paul de Man and the literary criticism of Richard Rorty—Michaels criticizes the deep claims of Stephenson's book: "And yet, in Snow Crash, the bodies of humans are affected by "information" they can't read; the virus, like the icepick [in American Psycho], gets the words inside you even if you haven't read them." Michaels especially targets Stephenson's view that "languages are codes" rather than a grouping of letters and sounds to be interpreted. Michaels further contends that this basic idea of language as code ("...a good deal of Snow Crash's plot depends upon eliding the distinction between hackers and their computers, as if – indeed, in the novel, just because – looking at code will do to the hacker what receiving it will do to the computer") aligns Stephenson, along with other writers mentioned, with a racially motivated view of culture: that culture is something transmitted and stored by blood (or genetic codes), and not by beliefs and practices. This view entails little to no need for interpretation by people:
The body that is infected by a virus does not become infected because it understands the virus any more than the body that does not become infected misunderstands the virus. So a world in which everything – from bitmaps to blood – can be understood as a "form of speech" is also a world in which nothing actually is understood (emphasis in the original), a world in which what a speech act does is disconnected from what it means.
— Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History
Rorty's Achieving Our Country uses Snow Crash as an example of modern culture that "express the loss of what he [Rorty] calls "national hope"...the problem with Snow Crash is not that it isn't true – after all, it's a story – but that it isn't inspirational." This lack of inspiration is offset by something else Snow Crash and other works like it offer: "These books produce in their readers the 'state of soul' that Rorty calls 'knowingness,' which he glosses as a 'preference for knowledge over hope' (37)"; this preference for knowledge "contribute[s] to a more fundamental failure to appreciate the value of inspiration - and hence of literature - itself." The Raft, a collection of ragtag vessels bringing poor Asians to California, resembles the "Armada of Hope" described in Jean Raspail's novel The Camp of the Saints (1973), in which a vast flotilla carries a million of India's poor to the southern coast of France; in Rorty's reading, the Raft is emblematic of the final destruction of any sense of community in the United States: "In Snow Crash, the relation of the United States to the rest of the world is symbolized by Stephenson's most frightening creation – what he calls the "Raft"...Pride in being an American citizen has been replaced by relief at being safer and better-fed than those on the Raft."
Influence on the World Wide Web
While the 1986 video game Habitat applied the Sanskrit term avatar to online virtual bodies before Stephenson, the success of Snow Crash popularized the term to the extent that avatar is now the accepted term for this concept in computer games and on the World Wide Web.
Many virtual globe programs including NASA World Wind and Google Earth bear a resemblance to the "Earth" software developed by the Central Intelligence Corporation in Snow Crash. One Google Earth co-founder claimed that Google Earth was modeled after Snow Crash, while another co-founder said it was inspired by Powers of Ten.
The novel was optioned shortly after its publication and subsequent success, although it has never progressed past pre-production. In late 1996, it was announced writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff would adapt the novel for the Kennedy-Marshall Co. and Touchstone Pictures. Marco Brambilla was attached to direct the film. Vincenzo Natali in particular has spoken against a film adaptation due to a perceived lack of fit with the form. 
- Distributed republic – A state of government used by Neal Stephenson in this and other works.
- The Great Simoleon Caper – A short story by Neal Stephenson that appears to take place in the same universe at an earlier time.
- Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act – in California, the real-life legal foundation for the ubiquitous quasi-sovereign gated communities parodied by Snow Crash
- ^ "1993 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1993. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- ^ "1994 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1994. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- ^ "Snow Crash depicts a twenty-first-century America in which the needs of the entrepreneurs have won out over hopes of a free and egalitarian society." pg 4 of Rorty, Achieving our country
- ^ Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo (2005). "All-Time 100 Novels". TIME. http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html.
- ^ Nakamura, Lisa (2002). Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Routledge. pp. 69–70. ISBN 0-415-93836-8. http://books.google.com/books?id=pw0PK97lbrkC&pg=PA69#v=onepage&q=&f=false. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
- ^ Brooker, M. Keith; Thomas, Anne-Marie (2009). The Science Fiction Handbook. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 278–286. ISBN 1-4051-6206-6. http://books.google.com/books?id=uW9xST9UsOIC&pg=PT286#v=onepage&q=&f=false. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
- ^ Wolfe, Gary K. (2005). Soundings: Reviews 1992–1996. Beccon. p. 130. ISBN 1-870824-50-4.
- ^ Westfahl, Gary (2005). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders, Vol. 3. Greenwood Publishing. p. 1235. ISBN 0-313-32953-2. http://books.google.com/books?id=M_3kNDKhxIcC&pg=PA1235#v=onepage&q=&f=false. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
- ^ a b Michaels, Walter Benn (2004). The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 68. ISBN 0-691-11872-8.
- ^ Michaels, Walter Benn (2004). The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 69. ISBN 0-691-11872-8.
- ^ a b c Michaels, Walter Benn (2004). The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 74. ISBN 0-691-11872-8.
- ^ Snow Crash and The Camp of the Saints
- ^ pg 5 of Rorty, Achieving Our Country.
- ^ A Beginner's Web Glossary
- ^ Avi Bar-Ze’ev (from Keyhole, the precursor to Google Earth) on origin of Google Earth
- ^ Q&A With J (James) Allard for ComputerPowerUser.com
- ^ Johnson, Ted (1996-12-02). "Nachmanoff to script 'Snow Crash'". 'Variety'. http://www.variety.com/vstory/VR1117466053.html?categoryid=38&cs=1. Retrieved 2009-11-27.
- ^ Hall, Peter. "Vincenzo Natali Talks 'Neuromancer', 'Snow Crash' and 'High Rise'". http://blog.moviefone.com/2010/05/26/vincenzo-natali-talks-neuromancer-snow-crash-and-high-rise/. Retrieved 2 November 2011.
- Snow Crash publication history at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Neal Stephenson's web site
- Audio review and discussion of Snow Crash at The Science Fiction Book Review Podcast
- Science Fiction Inventions From Snow Crash
- Snow Crash at Worlds Without End
Works by Neal Stephenson NovelsStephen Bury Short stories Essays
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