Snow Crash

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Snow Crash
Snowcrash.jpg
Cover of the U.S. paperback version
AuthorNeal Stephenson
Cover artistBruce Jensen
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
GenreScience fiction, Cyberpunk, Postcyberpunk
PublisherBantam Books (USA)
Publication dateJune 1992
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages480 pp
ISBNISBN 0-553-08853-X (first edition, hardback)
OCLC Number25026617
Dewey Decimal813/.54 20
LC ClassificationPS3569.T3868 S65 1992
Followed byThe Diamond Age
 
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Snow Crash
Snowcrash.jpg
Cover of the U.S. paperback version
AuthorNeal Stephenson
Cover artistBruce Jensen
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
GenreScience fiction, Cyberpunk, Postcyberpunk
PublisherBantam Books (USA)
Publication dateJune 1992
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages480 pp
ISBNISBN 0-553-08853-X (first edition, hardback)
OCLC Number25026617
Dewey Decimal813/.54 20
LC ClassificationPS3569.T3868 S65 1992
Followed byThe 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).

Snow Crash was nominated for both the British Science Fiction Award in 1993,[1] and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994.[2]

Background[edit]

The story begins in Los Angeles in the unspecified future, no longer part of the United States. The federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs.[3] 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 sovereign, gated housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads 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[edit]

Plot overview[edit]

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 anarcho-capitalist 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.

Condensed narrative[edit]

The protagonist is the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, 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 fifteen-year old girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard Kourier (courier), and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business (selling data to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA's merger with the Library of Congress).

The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug called "Snow Crash" that is both a computer virus capable of infecting the machines of unwise hackers in the Metaverse and a crippling CNS 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 aircraft carrier 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 United States 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 ex-girlfriend Juanita Marquez, a designer of facial expressions for avatars, 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 assembly language is to high level 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 humanity 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 making it impossible 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 breastfeeding 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 floating refugee encampment built around Rife's converted personal yacht, the former USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. Juanita has already infiltrated the Raft in order to learn neurolinguistic hacking and help overthrow Rife. Y.T. has been captured by Rife's followers and is taken to the Raft, where she becomes sexually 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 those infected by the virus. Hiro then accesses the Metaverse and foils Raven's attempt to widely disseminate the Snow Crash virus to a collection of the hacker elite. Meanwhile, Y.T. is brought to the mainland by Rife, where she escapes. Rife and Raven proceed to an airport; subsequently they are confronted by the owner of the Mafia Franchise, Uncle Enzo. A battle ensues: A critically wounded Enzo disarms Raven, while Rife is killed and his virus destroyed by Fido; a dog-sized cybernetic guard unit known as a "Rat Thing". Fido had been rescued by Y.T. before being transformed into a Rat Thing and retained his memories of her. Accelerating beyond Mach 1, Fido propels himself into the engine of L. Bob Rife's plane, destroying the aircraft with Rife on board. The novel ends with Y.T. driving home with her mother, and with hints of a rekindled relationship between Hiro and Juanita.

Characteristic technologies[edit]

Various technologies are employed in this fictional world, and help define it. Among these are:

Rat Things[edit]

Rat Things, also known as semi-autonomous guard units, are cybernetic personal defensive guards found in and around Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong. Approximately the size of an adult Pit Bull, Rat Things are named for their long, flexible tail. Rat Things are made from pit bull terriers, surgically augmented with cybernetic components. Rat Things were invented by Mr. Ng, of Ng Security Industries, who was severely handicapped after a helicopter accident in Vietnam. Like the Rat Things, Mr. Ng is also a cyborg.

Rat Things remember their previous lives as dogs. 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 of their programming. When in the Metaverse and not performing guard duties, Rat Things experience running on endless beaches, playing in the surf, eating steaks that grow on trees, and frisbees floating around, waiting to be caught.

Like other technology in Snow Crash, Rat Things are powered by a nuclear isotope battery, which requires extensive cooling due to the massive amount of waste heat generated. The Rat Things are passively cooled by a system of heat sinks that are only effective when the Rat Thing runs fast enough to move ambient air across the fins. To prevent rapid overheating when stationary, they must remain in their hutches (effectively dog houses), where they are continuously sprayed by jets of refrigerant. Through running, Rat Things are capable of breaking the sound barrier (about 768 mph at sea level), although this is not typically permitted by Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong's "good neighbor" policies due to noise reasons. Because they must be either moving at high velocities or actively cooled in their hutches, Rat Things are rarely seen by human eyes and few people know what they look like.

Reason[edit]

Reason is a railgun in a rotary cannon configuration which fires depleted uranium flechettes. It is mounted to a large, wheeled ammunition box and is equipped with a harness for user comfort, a nuclear battery pack, and a water-cooled heat exchanger. The weapon, created by Ng, was still in beta testing, and suffers a software crash during a battle. Hiro is later able to apply a firmware update, and uses it until its ammunition supply is depleted.

Its name derives from the Latin phrase Ultima Ratio Regum, "the last argument of kings" (i.e. violence), which King Louis XIV of France had cast on his nation's cannon, forcing his opponents to "listen to reason."[citation needed]

Metaverse[edit]

The Metaverse is a fully immersive 3D virtual space, as it evolved from the Internet. In the Metaverse, the avatars of users interact with each other in a virtual world.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Snow Crash established Stephenson as a major science fiction writer of the 1990s. The book appeared on Time magazine's list of 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923.[4]

Some critics have considered it a parody of cyberpunk[5][6] and mentioned its satiric or absurdist humor.[7][8]

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."[9] 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"[9]) 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:[improper synthesis?]

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, 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[10]

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."[11] 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)";[11] this preference for knowledge "contribute[s] to a more fundamental failure to appreciate the value of inspiration - and hence of literature - itself."[11] 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;[12] 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."[13]

Influence on the World Wide Web and computing[edit]

While the 1986 virtual environment Habitat applied the Sanskrit term avatar to online virtual bodies before Stephenson, the success of Snow Crash popularized the term[14] to the extent that avatar is now the accepted term for this concept in computer games and on the World Wide Web.[citation needed]

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.[15]

Software developer Michael Abrash was inspired by Snow Crash's Metaverse and its networked 3D world. He left Microsoft for Id Software to write something in that direction, the result being Quake.[16] The story for the 3DO game Immercenary was also heavily influenced by Snow Crash.[17]

Possible film or mini-series adaptation[edit]

The novel was optioned shortly after its publication and subsequent success, although to date it has never progressed past pre-production.[citation needed] Vincenzo Natali, the director of several notable science-fiction films, in particular has remarked against a two-hour feature film adaptation because of a perceived lack of fit with the form; inasmuch as the novel is "tonally all over the place," he feels that a mini-series would be a more suitable format for the material.[18]

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.[19]

In June 2012, it was announced that English director Joe Cornish, following the success of his debut 2011 film Attack the Block, had been signed as director of a future film adaptation for Paramount Studios.[20] Stephenson has described Cornish's script as "amazing", but also warned that there is no guarantee the film will ever be made.[21]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "1993 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-10-24. 
  2. ^ "1994 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-10-24. 
  3. ^ "Snow Crash depicts a twenty-first-century America in which the needs of entrepreneurs have won out over hopes of a free and egalitarian society." pg 4 of Rorty, Achieving our country
  4. ^ Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo (2005-10-16). "All-Time 100 Novels". TIME. 
  5. ^ Nakamura, Lisa (2002). Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Routledge. pp. 69–70. ISBN 0-415-93836-8. Retrieved 2009-12-05. 
  6. ^ Brooker, M. Keith; Thomas, Anne-Marie (2009). The Science Fiction Handbook. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 278–286. ISBN 1-4051-6206-6. Retrieved 2009-12-05. 
  7. ^ Wolfe, Gary K. (2005). Soundings: Reviews 1992–1996. Beccon. p. 130. ISBN 1-870824-50-4. 
  8. ^ 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. Retrieved 2009-12-05. 
  9. ^ a b Michaels, Walter Benn (2004). The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 68. ISBN 0-691-11872-8. 
  10. ^ Michaels, Walter Benn (2004). The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 69. ISBN 0-691-11872-8. 
  11. ^ a b c Michaels, Walter Benn (2004). The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-691-11872-8. 
  12. ^ Snow Crash and The Camp of the Saints
  13. ^ pg 5 of Rorty, Achieving Our Country.
  14. ^ A Beginner's Web Glossary[dead link]
  15. ^ Avi Bar-Ze’ev (from Keyhole, the precursor to Google Earth) on origin of Google Earth
  16. ^ Valve: How I Got Here, What It’s Like, and What I’m Doing
  17. ^ Szczepaniak, John (19 September 2012). "Making a Prototype of the Future: The Development of Immercenary". Gamasutra. Retrieved 6 August 2013. 
  18. ^ http://blog.moviefone.com/2010/05/25/interview-vincenzo-natali-explains-how-to-crack-neuromancer/
  19. ^ Johnson, Ted (1996-12-02). "Nachmanoff to script 'Snow Crash'". 'Variety'. Retrieved 2009-11-27. 
  20. ^ "Joe Cornish signs up for 'Snow Crash'". 'Deadline'. 2012-06-15. 
  21. ^ Leo Kelion (2013-09-17). "Neal Stephenson on tall towers and NSA cyber-spies". BBC News. 

External links[edit]