I’ve been on a novel reading tear lately. It’s been really good for me to just zone out on the couch and read for evening after evening. The latest in a string of finished reads was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Now, I may have mentioned that I have attempted twice before to conquer a Neal Stephenson novel only to give up somewhere along the way; once for Cryptonomicon (which I thought was the coolest title, but man, I could not read that thing) and then for Quicksilver (which also was cool, and had Isaac Newton and Pirates and still I put it aside). I can’t explain what leads me to put a novel aside. In the case of Quicksilver I think it was in fact the pirates that did it. Perhaps it was a push too far into the realm of the ridiculous that I couldn’t be bothered to care about. I don’t even remember. Snow Crash on the other hand I did get through, and I was legitimately hooked, but it took something almost half-way through the novel to get me. Maybe that’s been the problem all along.
Anyhow, let’s talk about Snow Crash. Hiro is a hacker who was there at the beginning of a major shift in computer entertainment known as the Metaverse (think a grittier version of Second Life), but who had made some pretty poor decisions on how to deal with the money he made. Cashing out too early he’s broke, and now is delivering pizzas for the Mafia. Oh, and yeah, it’s a dystopian corporate hellhole of a world where corporate personhood has taken on entirely new levels of scary and become kind of Polis / Nation-State entities of their own. A franchise is now also some kind of consulate with its own militia and their own rules of behavior and enemy engagement. I can’t tell if this is some kind of critique of pure Objectivism or just a fun romp, but it straddles a very uncomfortable line.
Anyhow, early on in the novel Hiro is asked by some random shitty-looking avatar in the Metaverse if he wants to try “Snow Crash.” Is it a virus? Is it a drug? What’s the difference? And this becomes the central mystery to the entire novel. What is this virus/drug and why is it turning people into babbling idiots and crashing computers?
Now, this whole plot line wasn’t interesting to me until they started getting into Sumerian mythology.
So something incredibly ancient is wreaking havoc on something cutting edge and incredibly modern. What follows is globe-trotting, metaverse hacking and expository rambling that’s actually kind of cool. It’s got car chases, nuclear weapons, sword fights, punk rock shows, skateboard thrashing and wheels-within-wheels plot. Overall kind of fun.
It did have its down sides. There were chapters early on where plotlines were irreconcilably overlapping each other, and things were happening in the physical world in two different places at once. And some bizarre illogical jumps to other parts of the country (Alaska to California in a day?) for the sake of, well, I don’t really know for certain. And of course a LOT of physically impossible things that were incredibly annoying.
The tone of the novel kind of jumped around somewhere between incredibly intellectual ponderings ala Umberto Eco and ridiculous buffoonery ala Tom Robbins. It felt incredibly incongruous in that way. This is not to say that a novel can’t be smart and silly at the same time. I’m just saying it felt kind of clumsy, in a Dan Brown or Agatha Christie kind of way where experts have to explain to uninformed the fancy, obscure thing that only they have figured out. While the buffoonery made me roll my eyes at times, and the explanatory prose did get kind of pedantic, I kept reading. Which says something.
I think what I’m trying to say is that I liked the idea of this novel. I think it’s got a brilliant premise. But the trappings of it kind of make me go, meh.