“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

I really wanted to like it.  It’s got a funky future setting that is kind of interesting.  But the story is kind of a stretch, even for fiction.  Mainly due to the overarching impression I got that the author doesn’t really understand computers.  As you will see, that really impacts the whole storyline.  (Hmm, I sound really conceited here.  But I feel at least somewhat qualified to make such a statement.  I’ve designed a computer – yes, a very simple one; yes, as part of a class – but all the basic blocks were there.  Something about that activity just really makes it all click – computers aren’t some magical device, it is possible to go down through the layers all the way to the silicon to find out what’s going on; indeed some engineers some where at some time designed all those connections and processes.

But I have digressed, majorly.  My apologies.  Back to “Snow Crash.”)

My first beef is with the Metaverse.  This is “Snow Crash”‘s concept of everything Second Life wished it could be.  (Is Second Life still a thing in our day of Facebook et al?  [Me in 5 years: Is Facebook still a thing in our day of X et al?]  Arg, I did it again.  Sorry.)

So the Metaverse.  Think an MMO.  But the weird part is that the graphical quality of the avatars and sophistication of the virtual homes, clubs and places differs wildly.  Each “thing” in the Metaverse is only as high fidelity as the software algorithms the individual who owns that “thing” has bought or has coded themselves.  This is just really different weird.  Is each “thing” rendered separately on the user’s machine, then uploaded to a central server and propagated to all other users?  I guess you could do that if you had close to infinite internet bandwidth.  The whole virtual reality interface is kind of swept under the rug, too.  When Hiro (the main character is named “Hiro Protagonist”, hardy-har-har) runs or rides a motorcycle or sword fights in the Metaverse, what kind of user interface is he using in reality?  He’s got virtual reality goggles on, but I don’t remember any other description of how he’s “jacked in.”

That said, my criticisms of the Metaverse are kind of unfair.  This book was written in the late 80’s (published 1992) so it was anyone’s guess what the internet or virtual reality would become.  Stephenson probably got way, way closer than most.

But the whole central storyline about the Snow Crash virus is complete baloney.  Because we call a malicious software exploit a “virus”, the author decided that a computer virus was pretty much the same thing as a real virus that infects people.   No, no, no!  Besides crashing computer systems, Snow Crash is a information-vector virus that only programmers can get, by looking at a bitmap of binary code.  The bad guys then can spread the virus to non-programmers via blood transfusions.  Stephenson totally misunderstands the “virus” terminology in the computer sense.  His backstory is that the Sumerian Enki found out how to break an ancient (biological?) Metavirus’s control over humans, initiating the Tower of Babel confusion of languages (really a waking-up for humanity from Metavirus control).   The Metavirus has been rediscovered, and is being put to nefarious purposes.

Anyway, I’ve made it sound like I hated the book, but I really didn’t.  As I mentioned, the future setting is entertaining; although it is a depressing future for America.  The nation is broken into millions of “franchulates” – effectively each business is its own nation – and the remaining Feds are paranoid and obsessed with security.  Think Homeland Security gone wild, with weekly polygraph tests and constant monitoring for all pencil pushing employees.  Pizza delivery is handled by the Mafia, and all government functions have been privatized to an absurd degree.

One final oddity is that the dates in the book don’t really match up.  Hiro was born in 1972 and I’m sure he isn’t older than 40, so I’m guessing we’re in the 2002-2012 timeframe.   But the funkiness of fractured America and some of the technology (ie Rat Thing) seem to me like 50 year or 100 year stuff.  I think the author specified the the dates the way he did so that the fathers of both Hiro and Raven (his archenemy) could have known each other back in Japanese POW camp during WWII.

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3 responses

  1. I agree with you completely — I prefer THe Diamond Age over Snow Crash despite popular opinion. I recommend The Diamond Age highly — amazing characters, intriguing world, etc etc.

  2. Second Life works via an asset server that streams a copy of the assets to the clients. It’s not that it’s on each computer, you view it streaming inworld from the asset server. And I wouldn’t say that the quality of each made artifact differs that much because people are working with the same set of development tools using the same building blocks of prims, sculpties and mesh as they are all called. Some are made with the inworld building program, some with third-party programs like Blender. To be sure, the table an unskilled person like me might make with prims is going to differ in look than what some skilled 3D graphic artist would make on Blender and import on mesh, but real life is filled with variations like that of amateur and skilled so it doesn’t clash or somehow ruin the immersiveness really.

    I think the geek attention to the notion that graphics have to be hi-fidelity to make an immersive sense in a 3D world overplayed — even on the Sims Online with 2D graphics people were very involved and immersed and even creative within the limitations.

    Of course the elements of the story are science fiction. But they are not so far-fetched. Nanobots could be injected into the bloodstream — Ray Kurzweil is one of the technologists who talks about this creepy possibility with his cult of the Singularity.

    What I didn’t like about Snowcrash is the constant slapstick, violent fight scenes. These are boring and don’t always advance the plot line. It was better when he was describing the world and characters and their dramas.

  3. I’ve heard good things about Diamond Age. I’ll have to check it out sometime.

    Interesting point about nanobots … If I remember correctly, Snow Crash had some insinuations that the Metavirus may have ancient alien origins; if so then it could be way more sophisticated than ordinary viruses and be capable of “infecting” machine and organism alike….

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