Tuesday, April 19, 2011

the last book I read

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

It's some time in the 21st century in what used to be Los Angeles, and Hiro Protagonist is delivering a pizza for the Mafia. Just another ordinary night, then, really, except that owing to a series of cock-ups Hiro is left with an impossible delivery schedule to fulfil and, failure to deliver a Mafia pizza on time being unthinkable, takes a reckless shortcut through a residential area and plants his car into a swimming pool.

Meanwhile skateboard courier Y.T. (aka Yours Truly) has harpooned the back of a fast-moving vehicle as a means of hitching a high-speed ride to her next destination, only for it to take an unscheduled detour through someone's garden and pancake into a swimming pool. She delivers the stricken driver's pizza for him, and in the nick of time, too, earning Mafia boss Uncle Enzo's eternal gratitude.

Despite this good fortune Hiro gets the sack and has to fall back on his other area of expertise: computer hacking. Any hacker worthy of the name spends a lot of time hanging out in the virtual reality cyber-world of the Metaverse, and it's here that Hiro encounters the Snow Crash virus. Now obviously computer viruses aren't new, but this one is unusual - it seems to infect people's avatars by firing a stream of binary data into their eyes, and it also has some unpleasant real-life effects as well, like turning your brain to mush. When Hiro's hacker chum Da5id is reduced to a vegetable by the virus Hiro takes it upon himself to investigate, assisted by Y.T., with whom he's gone into partnership as data gatherers for the Central Intelligence Corporation, the corporatised commercial version of the former CIA.

So where did Snow Crash come from? And what's it for? Well, strap yourselves in, as this is where it gets a bit complicated. Hiro's ex-girlfriend (and Da5id's ex-wife) Juanita is a language scholar and reckons it's something to do with ancient Sumerian mythology and the Tower of Babel. Sure enough groups of people start turning up who seem to be able to speak in tongues, including a group who live on the lawless surroundings of The Raft, a giant floating city made out of the remains of various sea-going craft and assorted debris that is slowly orbiting the Pacific gyre and currently nearing the western coast of the former USA. It seems to be partially under the control of computer communications mogul L. Bob Rife, who may or may not also be in possession of the nam-shub that is the antidote to the virus - the suggestion seems to be that the original virus was transmitted via the Sumerian language, and that the Tower of Babel incident was an attempt to avoid infection by ensuring no-one could understand each other.

Anyhoo, Hiro and Y.T. make their separate ways to the Raft, along with various other parties who seem to have an interest - one of whom is a scary Aleut kayaker and harpoonist called Raven, who is in the slightly disturbing habit of carrying a nuclear bomb around with him, programmed to go off if he should be killed. After some exciting real-life boat chases and swordplay around the Raft (Hiro, as befits his Japanese ancestry, is an expert and deadly swordsman) it becomes clear that Rife has employed Raven to be the bearer of the Snow Crash virus, which he is going to release into an assembled crowd of hackers inside the Metaverse in a sort of cybergeddon. There then follows a Tron-style motorcycle chase through the Metaverse in which Hiro attempts to thwart Raven, while back in the real world Y.T. struggles to escape from Rife's thugs with a bit of help from kindly old Uncle Enzo, who's taken a bit of a shine to her after the pizza incident.

If you're going to call your principal characters Hiro Protagonist and Yours Truly then you've already put yourself in the red a bit in terms of your readership's goodwill and suspension of disbelief, so it's to Stephenson's credit that this doesn't really count against him too much. Furthermore any novel as cyberpunk-y as this is going to have to withstand comparisons to William Gibson's seminal Neuromancer, especially when it echoes some of the tropes so closely - battered but capable male character, spunky, attractive but slightly wild and dangerous female character (Case and Molly in Neuromancer, Hiro and Y.T. here, Rydell and Chevette in Virtual Light as well), rampant commercialisation and commodification of just about everything with the associated shrivelling of anything resembling countries or governments in the sense that we know them, strong Oriental influence (mainly Hong Kong and Japanese here), and of course lots of virtual reality/matrix/Metaverse cyber-shenanigans as well. Again, this really doesn't come out too badly - it's not as good as Neuromancer, but it's pretty good. The back cover blurb says "Neuromancer crossed with Vineland" and that's probably quite apt - Gibson's grimy techno-futurism with the nasty dark cut-throat bits taken out and replaced with some Pynchonian silliness. I mean, plenty of people still die, but it all seems fairly cartoonish and inconsequential, and it's no-one we really care about; there's also the suspicion that this is a knowing satire of cyberpunk rather than being played entirely straight - Y.T.'s semi-sentient skateboard and Mr. Lee's cyborg security system consisting of super-fast nuclear-powered armadillos are pretty silly when you stop to think about them.

The story really only drags during the lengthy bouts of exposition wherein Stephenson reveals that he really has done lots of research about Sumerian mythology, and by jiminy he's going to make sure you know it. Things run into a bit of a brick wall at these points, which is doubly irritating because, interesting though some of it is, it's largely an irrelevant plot MacGuffin anyway.

Despite all that, Snow Crash was rated as one of Time magazine's 100 best 20th-century novels, as was Neuromancer and a couple of others in this series. Incidentally while Neuromancer (published in 1984) is generally accepted as being the source of the words "matrix" and "cyberspace", or at least their adoption into popular culture in the context they're now generally used, Snow Crash (published in 1992) is supposedly the source of the word "avatar" in its modern meaning, i.e. a digital representation of one's physical self.

As an aside, I was able to nod sagely to myself a few times during the Sumerian exposition sections, particularly the bits referencing El and Asherah, because I'd caught an episode of the BBC's Bible's Buried Secrets a few weeks back wherein the rather foxy Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou talked us through where the committee of myrrh-crazed goatherds who wrote the Bible got their ideas from. That the Judeo-Christian myths contained in the Old Testament are a syncretic mish-mash of a selection of much older (and in many cases polytheistic) myths is pretty uncontroversial stuff, but that didn't stop the red-faced retired colonels at the Daily Mail getting all aerated about it (not to mention a few other loons). I suspect that their main objection was not so much the content, but that it was delivered by someone with the bloody cheek to be a) young b) a woman and c) possibly slightly foreign.

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