Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: Snow Crash

At last month's Weird & Wonderful discussion of Max Barry's "Lexicon" (2013), we decided we pretty much had to read Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" (1992): "Lexicon"'s core mechanic of neuro-linguistic hacking seems to be borrowed or at least inspired by "Snow Crash", or at any rate from similar sources.

Furthermore, "Snow Crash" is just delightful, really bonkers, and either the apotheosis of the cyberpunk movement or its satiric denouement, one really can't tell. The novel is laughably hard to summarize: the search for the cure to an ancient alien mega-virus that manifests in biological, linguistic/religious, and computerized forms, set in a tech-filled, corporate-franchised/libertarian-anarchic vision of America (and also an elaborate virtual world, the Metaverse), by a hacker-prince/master swordsman named Hiro Protagonist and a 15 year-old skateboard courier named Yours Truly, all of which packaged with a hundred or so pages of Sumerian mythology and a healthy dose of early Christian (alt-?) history; other key players include a mutant obsidian knife-wielding superman named Raven, the Mafia (and they're the good guys!), and a supersonic radioactive pit bull cyborg . Whew! If that doesn't sell you, I don't know what to say. Possible spoilers below!
As with other meetings at City Lit, we started out trying to define terms, get a feel for how the fictional world works. We spent a bit of time talking about the franchise/"Burbclave" world, what that looks like--I think there's some geographical reader perspective stuff going on here.

When I first read "Snow Crash", I thought this world sounded outlandish and futuristic, very science-fictional. Since then, I've spent a decent amount of time in Los Angeles & south Florida, full of weird strip-mallishness, constant highways, and gated communities with their own rules and security--making "Snow Crash" seem, if not prescient, at least deeply cognisant of a certain pattern of Americana. Other parts of the world are strangely absent from the novel--we don't know what New York, Tokyo, London look like, for instance. Hiro & Y.T. spend most of their time in LA, then up the coast to Alaska and out to the giant floating Raft-flotilla. It's a very expansive, horizontal world--even the virtual Metaverse is strongly characterized by distance, the need for fast vehicular transport. Very California, and reminds me of that Baudrillard quote (ain't nobody cyberpunk like Baudrillard--or perhaps vice versa):
Cities are distinguished by the catastrophic forms they presuppose and which are a vital part of their essential charm. New York is King Kong, or the blackout, or vertical bombardment: Towering Inferno. Los Angeles is the horizontal fault, California breaking off and sliding into the Pacific: Earthquake. ("Fatal Strategies", 1983)
Elsewhere--I think it was in "America" (1986)--Baudrillard contrasted NYC, in love with its verticality & density, with LA, in love with its horizontality and distance. That latter feeling is definitely present in "Snow Crash", with lots of time spent in transit.

This discussion made me think about what cyberpunk "looks like"--the visuals I have in my head from Gibson, Sterling, Cadigan etc, and also the aesthetics and ideas in things like Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) or Ellis's "Transmetropolitan" comics (1997-2002). There's this tension between sleek and ramshackle, high-corporate monoculture and over-stuffed urban diversity, between virtual/technological "purity" and a scuffed-up, almost post-apocalyptic world. That juxtaposition, and the presentation of many worlds--different cultures, class and technology levels existing at one time, rather than the homogenous visions of many SF works--is one of the hallmarks and strengths of cyberpunk, and very much present here.

(By the way, "Snow Crash" almost makes it into the category of Mundane SF, a sub-genre that focuses on realism. Alien propagation of the metavirus *might* rule it out.)

We talked for quite a bit about how predictive this book was at the time of its writing. "Snow Crash" is interesting in the way many cyberpunk stories are: it tells a story in the very near-future, and--unlike "Golden Age" science fiction--with a deep awareness of how fast the world is changing, making any "prediction" strongly contingent if not simply laughable.

I actually nerded out this re-read and did the in-world math: we know the age of Hiro's father at the end of WWII, his approximate age at Hiro's birth, and Hiro's approximate age, all of which together let us place the novel somewhere circa...now, actually: roughly 2010-15. So Stephenson was writing this roughly twenty years before the in-world date; more interestingly, he's writing it JUST before much of our modern social/communications technology firmed up their basic shapes.

It's just barely pre-ubiquitous internet, pre-omnipresent cellphones, pre-social media. Although it's written after internet conceptions like those of Gibson's "Neuromancer" (1984) or Brunner's "Shockwave Rider" (1975), it's still before the shape of things was entirely clear; Stephenson's "Metaverse" virtual reality populated by "avatars" and operating in many ways like an actual place of commerce (including "real" estate pricing, utilities, location-specific protocols, etc.) is in some ways strongly predictive of actual trends, as well as inspirational for some virtual worlds and programs (Google Earth is a particularly weird one--Stephenson seems to have predicted, inspired, or scooped both its basic format and its original CIA creation), while in others strangely dated--like requiring an avatar presence in the Metaverse, disallowing teleportation, etc.  To be fair, some of those decisions may have been made to make the world more visually descriptive and cinematic.

Another odd point brought up at group, about why the Metaverse seems so different from the internet--there's none of the anonymity/privacy that characterizes much of the internet today. Your avatar is you, no mystery.

We really liked the concept of "gargoyles"--people who wear a large amount of technology, constantly recording and cross-referencing everything around them--as both something really dorky and also something becoming a reality. Our smartphones are evolving that way fast, and in the meantime we have things like Google Glass or people messing around with "cyborg" rigs--somebody brought up the recent Invisibilia podcast on that subject.

 As with Lexicon, we talked a bit about the "secret history" elements, with some folks comparing "Snow Crash" to conspiracy theories like the Illuminati--at least in its discussion of Sumerian & early Christian linguistic/cult/viral events. Stephenson was reportedly inspired by Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" (1976)--you can see that pretty clearly in the long expository bits between Hiro & the Librarian. Those scenes, by the way--and the group was pretty much in agreement on this--are pretty brilliant in remaining page-turning, or at least not-boring, despite being nothing but historical discussion for almost entire chapters.

Other things we mentioned:
  • Some parallels between Da5id & Hiro with the Steves Jobs & Wozniak.
  • How odd it is that this book doesn't use the word "meme", given that it's a bit after Dawkins coined it in "The Selfish Gene" (1976). Before the popularization of the term, though.
  • A lot of folks at the group found the ending some variant of forced, too neat, too abrupt, etc.
  • Likewise some aggravation caused by the last-minute revelation of Raven & Hiro's connection through their fathers. Personally I really like this, and it also foreshadows the two-generation, WWII-related interconnected storyline of "Cryptonomicon" (1999).
  • America! This book alternates between celebrating and critiquing/caricaturing very American themes; everything is over the top, to the limit, sometimes awesome, sometimes dumb, because freedom. There are a lot of libertarian/anarchic themes here, not un-critically so, and the surviving bits of the US bureaucracy are primarily there for comedic relief (and also a cautionary tale about how quickly the state "justifies" running over individual rights, as well as how easily corrupted the system is).
  • Framing & sequencing issues: maybe I'm getting hypersensitive to this, but there's some weird things going on early in this book, with chapters told out of order. Later, that's dropped, and the novel moves forwards chronologically. Nobody else seemed to catch this, so I guess it doesn't affect the book that much. Also, there are some stretches of time only alluded to, not shown--particularly Hiro & Y.T.'s hang-out, get to know each other time. From what we see, it's a pretty brief relationship, but we're told there is a longer period where they worked together and became more of a team.
  • Race issues. I'm not sure how to summarize this. But there are some race issues here, an issue that nags at me in some other of Stephenson's books, as well. He's got a non-white hero/protagonist (Hiro Protagonist), which is all well and good, and he blasts overtly racist characters within the novel, but also subscribes to some kind of "national/ethnic character" theory--making broad statements about the Nipponese, for example--and has some troublesome stereotyping tendencies (particularly towards the taxi drivers and a few other Middle Eastern groups).
  • Sex issues. I think Y.T.'s great. There is a strange lack of women over-all in this book, though, and a lot of sexist/dismissive characterization of the women we do see--oddly, most commonly from Y.T.'s perspective. A few of us thought the Y.T./Raven sex scene is hilarious, but obviously there are some age issues.
  • The language here is so great! Constantly metaphoric (verging on pataphor), audacious, hilarious. I particularly like the constant extreme metaphor ("a bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest"), the skate-lingo and abbreviations in Y.T.'s world ("chiseled Spam") and the use of stock film tropes ("from there on out, it was just a chase scene").
Really fun discussion!

Some exciting changes for Weird & Wonderful: books are now going to be selected on a quarterly basis, as are all the other book clubs at City Lit. I think that is a swell idea, makes it easier for people to read the books, City Lit to stock them, me to post them on the site...good times. Next selections are "Kindred" by Octavia Butler, and "The Humans" by Matt Haig.

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