Part 4 of an occasional series of essays presenting more verbiage on books too much has been said about already

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash

This book just slayed me when it came out, eight years ago... as may be apparent from the name of my website... and I was grooving on it just as much on a re-reading. It's no mean feat to be simultaneously fun, hip, and intelligent.

The usual fan take on the book is "It's fine cyberpunk, especially the part about the Deliverator; but I couldn't buy the Sumerian stuff in the middle, and the ending sucks."

I've always felt that this misses the point. You're not supposed to swallow the Sumerian stuff-- it's a tall tale. Tall tales, you'll remember, are those hoary old rousers with frontiersmen riding on top of twisters, giants stomping out Death Valley, and all that. You don't enjoy a tall tale despite the fact that it's implausible; the implausibility is the point. The greater the author's audacity, the firmer the pull on our leg, the greater the payoff.

On a first reading I didn't cop to Stephenson's borrowing from Julian Jaynes (The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind)-- though even then I knew that he was completely mangling Chomsky's "deep structures". But I'm not sure that it matters. The idea is not to convince you that the Sumerian en Enki was a neurolinguistic hacker, any more than that a likely near-future scandal is the kidnapping of dogs to form the basis of guard robots. Rather, you're supposed to admire the virtuosity of the author's idea-mongering. You don't really need to believe that Sumerian, glossolalia, and hacking are related; but a world in which they are seems momentarily to outshine our own.

Elsewhere, the ideas may seem crazy, but turn out to be quite coherent and even plausible. His notion of franchulates, for instance (Jeez, how does he do this?) is at the sime time hilarious and deep. Stephenson's vision is the first bit of poli sci to take the globalized, post-industrial, cyberlinked world seriously. Since time immemorial, sovereignty has been linked to contiguous swaths of real estate... but during that time we've been limited to agricultural economies and slow communications. (And for the purposes of the discussion even jets are slow.)

In the cyberlinked world, why shouldn't sovereignty tie you only to the people, all round the world, who are most like you? Why join up with the feebs who happen to live in your area, rather than with folks who share your values-- the jetsetters, or the reactionaries, or the culties, or your SCA pals? The business class already senses this, running after money wherever it blows and feeling no loyalty to their home country or people. Suburbs are morphing into gated communities, while the success of Hong Kong and Singapore shows that cities can thrive without a hinterland. European minorities are eager to join Europe not so much out of continental solidarity but in order to dismantle the suffocating claims of traditional nation-states.

Even the window dressing on the idea is deep down reasonable. The cute figureheads (Uncle Enzo, Mr. Lee of Greater Hong Kong, Admiral Bob's National Security) are scientific, right out of Leo Burnett. And in a libertarian world, the Mafia is just another business, with a better security arm than most.

The Metaverse itself is also right on. William Gibson by contrast was lost. "Collective hallucination"? Give me a break. The Metaverse is a set of coding protocols.. yes, speaking as a computer geek, this is exactly how you'd do that.

About the only unlikely feature of the Metaverse is its relentless spatial metaphor. There's no reason for a Metaverse building to be the shape or size inside that it appears from the outside; no reason for transport be limited to monorails and motorcycles; no reason for everyone to be using the same planetary metaphor.

Stephenson never really explains what people do in the Metaverse. It seems that non-hackers mostly just hang around, like the crowd outside Studio 54. And as in Gibson, big businesses have mysterious cyberstructures whose only apparent purpose is to get invaded by hackers. Neither foresaw what could be done in cyberspace, which turns out to be everything except go out for dinner. Cyberspace will very likely be our information, communication, education, entertainment, and market superstructure; stores and publications and airports in Reality will wither like Main Street stores once the Wal-Mart moves in. Even today in New York, the equivalent of a Kourier will come by with your $3.98 package of batteries ordered over the Web.

The characters are great. Hiro is, improbably, a great hacker and a great swordsman, but he has enough dense moments to round out his character, and after the showstopper opening you're on his side. And Y.T. is even better. It's easy enough to take a postmodern Valley Girl and extrapolate to the max; it's hard to make her, at the same time, resourceful, smart, and afraid of no one. At the end, in the scenes between Y.T. and the badass antihero Raven, Stephenson plays neatly with genre conventions. In the old days, the implicit threat was that the heroine would be violated. Y.T. is a post-sexist whose mind has never been warped by any suspicion of inequality. So, instead, she just falls for the big lug. Why the hell not? It's her bod, dude; you got a problem with that?

As for the ending-- it's really not that bad; the author gets the job done; but either someone told him to leave room for a sequel or he got a little sentimental. Why can't Stephenson tell us if Uncle Enzo killed Raven or vice versa? A sequel would not be a good idea anyway, I think. Sequels exchange the brilliant flare of novelty for the banal warm glow of familiarity. A repetitive, sitcommized Snow Crash is almost a contradiction in terms.

After reading the book, though, it's not the end that sticks in my memory. It's a potpourri of moments, thrilling or satirical: The Deliverator. The top ten swordfighters display. Hiro's U-Stor-It. Earth. The way the Mafia guys talk. The view from inside the Rat Thing. Ng, the ultimate gargoyle. The excruciating visit to Fedland. The graveyard daemons.

I once heard a call for diamond-hard sf-- defined as scientifically accurate sf, with a good idea per page. That describes Snow Crash, with one addition: like a diamond, the book scintillates.