31 January 2006

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Going into this I have to admit that I am 100% hooked on Neal Stephenson. I think he's a bit younger than me and for that I'm thankful, for he may be around to write more books for a long time.

Snow Crash is far from his latest, but it's his latest for me. I've read a few of his others: Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. These are all excellent, as far as I am concerned. And so was Snow Crash, even if I may be so bold as to say that I can see the progress Mr. Stephenson has made since 1992 when he wrote this novel.

For a pretty good summary of Neal Stephenson's life and works so far, see Wikipedia.

As for Snow Crash, I'm glad to be an amateur critic. A professional wouldn't be able to take the time to read a 13-year-old book and then write about it in his column, he'd be too busy reading the latest stuff and forming opinions about it. But for me there are no such restrictions; as far as I know my readers are few (if any) and if they have come here to keep up on the latest trends in literature they are already sorely disappointed.

This was one of the most entertaining books I've ever read. Its vision of the near future (very near now, 13 years later) is provocative yet humorous enough to avoid extreme grimness.

Its protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (good heavens), is a hacker living in California in some undisclosed future year. He becomes aware that there is a very serious threat to both the "metaverse" and the real world from a virus called "Snow Crash," a reference to a blanked-out computer screen showing only what (in the old days of broadcast TV) used to be known as "snow."

In this whirlwind story he befriends a 15-year-old skateboard "Kourier" named YT, a street-wise young girl with an arsenal of high-tech weapons that she uses in pursuit of her profession -- which is basically delivering messages and packages by "pooning" vehicles and being towed at high speed through the maniacal jungle that California has become.

Other important characters include Uncle Enzo, head of the MAFIA; L. Bob Rife, televangelist and corporate emperor; Raven, an Aleut with a motorcycle, glass-tipped spears, and a nuclear warhead; Ky Nguyen, a bionically enhanced veteran of Vietnam; Da5id, friend and wealthy hacker who is injured by Snow Crash (it can crash both computers and programmers, as the latter have brains that have come to terms with digital language); and Juanita, Da5id's ex-wife, an object of Hiro's admiration and would-be affection, and religious mystic.

Did I use the word "whirlwind" already? Yes, I did. It was inevitable.

The story leads Hiro on a crazy chase, trying to run down and destroy L. Bob Rife and the evil virus that he's about to unleash on both the real and virtual worlds. Action takes place both in the "metaverse" (sort of a graphically-enhanced super-realistic Internet where people are represented by "Avatars," and interact with others according to how the metaverse code is written. NB: Hiro P. is one of the coders of the metaverse, an advantage not to be overlooked.) and in reality -- although the question is begged: which world is less real?

There is sword-fighting, love-making, motorcycle riding, and lots of heavy speculation about the significance of Sumerian myth and stories from the Old Testament as they might pertain to the present day. Hiro comes to the conclusion that the myth of Babel is really a story of salvation, when humans were freed from bondage to a type of machine language control that is never completely suppressed. It comes out at times in history as glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as in the Pentecost, and Southern tent-revival meetings. Snow Crash is a virus written in this very old and powerful language, and it threatens to enslave the world, or at least California, to the whims of L. Bob Rife.

If you like computers and have ever thought about any of this stuff, read this book. If not, read it anyway. Stephenson is very habit-forming. His later stuff is nothing less than fascinating and I regret that I did not begin this project until I had read the abovementioned books. He is obviously very well-versed in all manner of history, and has given a lot of thought to the progress of humanity through the ages.

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