Cover of the U.S. paperback version
|Cover artist||Bruce Jensen|
|Genre||Science fiction, Cyberpunk, Postcyberpunk|
|Publisher||Bantam Books (USA)|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|ISBN||0-553-08853-X (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PS3569.T3868 S65 1992|
|Followed by||The Diamond Age|
Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson's third novel, published in 1992. Like many of Stephenson's other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics and philosophy.
Stephenson explained the title of the novel in his 1999 essay In the Beginning... was the Command Line as his term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. Stephenson wrote about the Macintosh that "When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a 'snow crash' ". Stephenson also mentioned a book by Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, as one of the main influences for Snow Crash.
The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah (a re-interpretation of the ancient Near Eastern story of the Tower of Babel).
- 1 Background
- 2 Plot summary and major themes
- 3 Characteristic technologies
- 4 Literary significance and criticism
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
The story begins in Los Angeles in the 21st century, no longer part of the United States. The federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power and territory to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Franchising, individual sovereignty, and private vehicles reign supreme over the landscape (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion). Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts while private security guards preserve the peace in sovereign, gated housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads and all mail delivery is by hired courier. The remnants of government maintain authority only in isolated compounds where they transact tedious make-work that is, by and large, irrelevant to the dynamic society around them.
Much of the territory ceded by the government has been carved up into sovereign enclaves, each run by its own big business franchise (such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong", or the corporatized American Mafia) or the various residential burbclaves (suburban enclaves). This arrangement resembles anarcho-capitalism, a theme Stephenson carries over to his next novel The Diamond Age. As described in both novels and the short story "The Great Simoleon Caper", hyperinflation has sapped the value of the US$ to the extent that trillion dollar bills—Ed Meeses—are nearly disregarded and the quadrillion dollar note—the Gipper—is the standard 'small' bill. Hyperinflation encouraged people to instead use electronic currency which is exchanged in encrypted online transactions and is hence untaxable. For physical transactions, they resort to alternative, non-hyperinflated currencies such as yen or "Kongbucks" (the official currency of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong). Hyperinflation has also negatively affected much of the rest of the world (with some exceptions like Japan), resulting in waves of desperate refugees from Asia who cross the Pacific in rickety ships hoping to arrive in North America.
The Metaverse, a phrase coined by Stephenson as a successor to the Internet, constitutes Stephenson's vision of how a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the near future. Resembling a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), the Metaverse is populated by user-controlled avatars as well as system daemons. Although there are public-access Metaverse terminals in Reality, using them carries a social stigma among Metaverse denizens, in part because of the poor visual representations of themselves as low-quality avatars. Status in the Metaverse is a function of two things: access to restricted environments such as the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club, and technical acumen, which is often demonstrated by the sophistication of one's avatar.
Plot summary and major themes
At the beginning of the novel, the main character, Hiro Protagonist (a pun on the words "hero" and "protagonist"), discovers the name of a new pseudo-narcotic, "Snow Crash", being offered at an exclusive Metaverse nightclub. Hiro's friend and fellow hacker Da5id falls victim to Snow Crash's effects, which are apparently unique in that they are experienced in the Metaverse and also in the physical world. Hiro uses his computer hacking, sharp cognitive skills, and sword-fighting to uncover the mystery of "Snow Crash"; his pursuit takes the reader on a tour of the Sumerian culture, a fully instantiated anarcho-capitalist society, and a virtual meta-society patronized by financial, social, and intellectual elites. As the nature of Snow Crash is uncovered, Hiro finds that self-replicating strings of information can affect objects in a uniform manner even though they may be broadcast via diverse media, a realization that reinforces his chosen path in life.
The protagonist is the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, whose business card reads "Last of the freelance hackers" and "Greatest sword fighter in the world." When Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, he meets a streetwise fifteen-year-old girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard Kourier (courier), and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business (selling data to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA's merger with the Library of Congress).
The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug called "Snow Crash" that is both a computer virus capable of infecting the machines of unwise hackers in the Metaverse and a crippling CNS virus in Reality. It is distributed by a network of Pentecostal churches via its infrastructure and belief system. As Hiro and Y.T. dig deeper (or are drawn in) they discover more about Snow Crash and its connection to ancient Sumerian culture, the fiber-optics monopolist L. Bob Rife, and his aircraft carrier of refugee boat people who speak in tongues. Also, both in the Metaverse and in Reality, they confront one of Rife's minions, an Aleut harpoon master named Raven whose motorcycle's sidecar packs a nuke wired to go off should Raven ever be killed. Raven has never forgiven the United States for the way they handled the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands (see Aleutian Islands Campaign in World War II) or for the nuclear testing on Amchitka.
Hiro, at the prompting of his Catholic ex-girlfriend Juanita Marquez, a designer of facial expressions for avatars, begins to unravel the nature of this crisis. It relates back to the mythology of ancient Sumer, which Stephenson describes as speaking a very powerful ur-language. Sumerian is to modern "acquired languages" as assembly language is to high level programming languages: it affects the entity (be it human or computer) at a far lower and more basic level than does acquired/programming language. Sumerian is rooted in the brain stem and related to glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues"—a trait displayed by most of L. Bob Rife's convertees. Furthermore, Sumerian culture was ruled and controlled via "me", the human-readable equivalent of software which contains the rules and procedures for various activity (harvests, the baking of bread, etc.). The keepers of these important documents were priests referred to as en; some of them, like the god/semi-historical-figure Enki, could write new me, making them the equivalent of programmers or hackers.
As Stephenson describes it, one goddess/semi-historical figure, Asherah, took it upon herself to create a dangerous biolinguistic virus and infect humanity with it; this virus was stopped by Enki, who used his skills as a "neurolinguistic hacker" to create an inoculating "nam-shub" that would protect humanity by making it impossible to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue. This forced the creation of "acquired languages" and gave rise to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately, Asherah's meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the "Cult of Asherah" continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes and infected women breastfeeding orphaned infants; this weakened form of the virus is compared to herpes simplex. Furthermore, Rife has been sponsoring archaeological expeditions to the Sumerian city of Eridu, and has found enough information on the Sumerian tongue to reconstruct it and use it to work his will on humanity. He has also found the nam-shub of Enki, which he is protecting at all costs.
Hiro makes his way to Rife's Raft, a massive floating refugee encampment built around Rife's converted personal yacht, the former USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. Juanita has already infiltrated the Raft in order to learn neurolinguistic hacking and help overthrow Rife. Y.T. is captured by Rife's followers and is taken to the Raft, where she becomes sexually involved with Raven for a short time and is eventually taken hostage by Rife personally. While hostage, Y.T. delivers the nam-shub of Enki to Hiro, who together with Juanita uses it to save those infected by the virus. Hiro then accesses the Metaverse and foils Raven's attempt to widely disseminate the Snow Crash virus to a collection of the hacker elite. Meanwhile, Y.T. is brought to the mainland by Rife, where she escapes. Rife and Raven proceed to an airport; subsequently they are confronted by the owner of the Mafia Franchise, Uncle Enzo. A battle ensues: A critically wounded Enzo disarms Raven, while Rife is killed and his virus destroyed by Fido; a dog-sized cybernetic guard unit known as a "Rat Thing". Fido had been rescued by Y.T. previously and retained his memories of her. Accelerating beyond Mach 1, Fido propels himself into the engine of L. Bob Rife's plane, destroying the aircraft with Rife on board. The novel ends with Y.T. driving home with her mother, and with hints of a rekindled relationship between Hiro and Juanita.
Various technologies are employed in this fictional world, and help define it. Among these are:
Rat Things, also known as semi-autonomous guard units, are cybernetic personal defensive guards found in and around Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong. Engineered from pit bull terriers surgically augmented with cybernetic components, Rat Things are named for their long, flexible tails.
Rat Things were invented by Mr. Ng, of Ng Security Industries, who was severely handicapped after a helicopter accident in Vietnam. Like the Rat Things, Mr. Ng is also a cyborg.
Rat Things remember their previous lives as dogs. They can also communicate with other Rat Things by "barking" in the Metaverse. Although their minds are largely controlled by their implants, they can sometimes act independently of their programming. When in the Metaverse and not performing guard duties, Rat Things experience running on endless beaches, playing in the surf, eating steaks that grow on trees, and blood-drenched Frisbees floating around, waiting to be caught.
Like other technology in Snow Crash, Rat Things are powered by a nuclear isotope battery, which requires extensive cooling due to the massive amount of waste heat generated. The Rat Things are passively cooled by a system of heat sinks that are only effective when the Rat Thing runs fast enough to move ambient air across the fins. To prevent rapid overheating when stationary, they must remain in their hutches (effectively dog houses), where they are continuously sprayed by jets of refrigerant. Through running, Rat Things are capable of breaking the sound barrier (about 768 mph at sea level), although this is not typically permitted by Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong's "good neighbor" policies due to noise reasons. Because they must be either moving at high velocities or actively cooled in their hutches, Rat Things are rarely seen by human eyes and few people know what they look like.
A fictional type of wheel prominently used on skateboards and advanced motorcycles. They consist of small segments of contact surface mounted on telescoping spokes, allowing the wheel to take the shape of cracks, curbs, and bumps. They have a passing mention in The Diamond Age as being used on a wheelchair belonging to a minor character.
Reason is a railgun in a rotary cannon configuration which fires depleted uranium flechettes. It is mounted to a large, wheeled ammunition box and is equipped with a harness for user comfort, a nuclear battery pack, and a water-cooled heat exchanger. The weapon, created by Ng, was still in beta testing, and suffers a software crash during a battle. Hiro is later able to apply a firmware update, and uses it until its ammunition supply is depleted. It bears, in inscription on its nameplate, the Latin phrase Ultima Ratio Regum, "the last argument of kings".
The Metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix "meta" (meaning "beyond") and "universe" and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.
Stephenson's Metaverse appears to its users as an urban environment, developed along a single hundred-meter-wide road, the Street, that runs the entire 65536 km (216 km) circumference of a featureless, black, perfectly spherical planet. The virtual real estate is owned by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, a fictional part of the real Association for Computing Machinery, and is available to be bought and buildings developed thereupon.
Users of the Metaverse gain access to it through personal terminals that project a high-quality virtual reality display onto goggles worn by the user, or from low-quality public terminals in booths (with the penalty of presenting a grainy black and white appearance). Stephenson also describes a sub-culture of people choosing to remain continuously connected to the Metaverse by wearing portable terminals, goggles and other equipment; they are given the sobriquet "gargoyles" due to their grotesque appearance. The users of the Metaverse experience it from a first person perspective.
Within the Metaverse, individual users appear as avatars of any form, with the sole restriction of height, "to prevent people from walking around a mile high". Transport within the Metaverse is limited to analogs of reality by foot or vehicle, such as the monorail that runs the entire length of the Street, stopping at 256 Express Ports, located evenly at 256 km intervals, and Local Ports, one kilometer apart.
Literary significance and criticism
In his book The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, Walter Benn Michaels considers the deeper theoretical implications of Stephenson's book. Comparing the book with a range of contemporary writers—the fiction of Bret Easton Ellis, Kathy Acker, Octavia Butler, and even Paul de Man and the literary criticism of Richard Rorty—Michaels criticizes the deep claims of Stephenson's book: "And yet, in Snow Crash, the bodies of humans are affected by "information" they can't read; the virus, like the icepick [in American Psycho], gets the words inside you even if you haven't read them." Michaels especially targets Stephenson's view that "languages are codes" rather than a grouping of letters and sounds to be interpreted. Michaels further contends that this basic idea of language as code ("...a good deal of Snow Crash's plot depends upon eliding the distinction between hackers and their computers, as if—indeed, in the novel, just because—looking at code will do to the hacker what receiving it will do to the computer") aligns Stephenson, along with other writers mentioned, with a racially motivated view of culture: that culture is something transmitted and stored by blood (or genetic codes), and not by beliefs and practices. This view entails little to no need for interpretation by people:[improper synthesis?]
The body that is infected by a virus does not become infected because it understands the virus any more than the body that does not become infected misunderstands the virus. So a world in which everything—from bitmaps to blood—can be understood as a "form of speech" is also a world in which nothing actually is understood, a world in which what a speech act does is disconnected from what it means.— Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History
Rorty's Achieving Our Country uses Snow Crash as an example of modern culture that "express the loss of what he [Rorty] calls "national hope"...the problem with Snow Crash is not that it isn't true—after all, it's a story—but that it isn't inspirational." This lack of inspiration is offset by something else Snow Crash and other works like it offer: "These books produce in their readers the 'state of soul' that Rorty calls 'knowingness,' which he glosses as a 'preference for knowledge over hope' (37)"; this preference for knowledge "contribute[s] to a more fundamental failure to appreciate the value of inspiration—and hence of literature—itself."
Influence on the World Wide Web and computing
While the 1986 virtual environment Habitat applied the Sanskrit term avatar to online virtual bodies before Stephenson, the success of Snow Crash popularized the term to the extent that avatar is now the accepted term for this concept in computer games and on the World Wide Web.
Many virtual globe programs, including NASA World Wind and Google Earth, bear a resemblance to the "Earth" software developed by the Central Intelligence Corporation in Snow Crash. One Google Earth co-founder claimed that Google Earth was modeled after Snow Crash, while another co-founder said it was inspired by Powers of Ten. Stephenson himself has commented on the legacy of his "Earth" program's god's-eye aesthetic in his novel Reamde, in which his protagonist, a game designer, steals the technique from Google Earth:
The opening screen of T'Rain was a frank rip-off of what you saw when you booted up Google Earth. Richard felt no guilt about this, since he had heard that Google Earth, in turn, was based on an idea from some old science-fiction novel.
Software developer Michael Abrash was inspired by Snow Crash's Metaverse and its networked 3D world. He left Microsoft for Id Software to write something in that direction, the result being Quake. The story for the 3DO game Immercenary was also heavily influenced by Snow Crash.
Possible film or mini-series adaptation
The novel was optioned shortly after its publication and subsequent success, although to date it has never progressed past pre-production. Vincenzo Natali, the director of several notable science-fiction films, in particular has remarked against a two-hour feature film adaptation because of a perceived lack of fit with the form; inasmuch as the novel is "tonally all over the place," he feels that a mini-series would be a more suitable format for the material.
In June 2012, it was announced that English director Joe Cornish, following the debut of the 2011 film Attack the Block, had been signed as director of a future film adaptation for Paramount Studios. Stephenson has described Cornish's script as "amazing", but also warned that there is no guarantee the film will ever be made.
- Distributed republic – A state of government used by Neal Stephenson in this and other works.
- Basilisk – A fictional term for a visual pattern capable of affecting a human brain, which bears much resemblance to the Snow Crash virus.
- Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act – the real-life legal foundation for California's ubiquitous quasi-sovereign gated communities parodied by Stephenson as "Burbclaves".
- Neuromancer – A novel by William Gibson written in 1984
- Mustich, James (2008-10-13). "Interviews - Neal Stephenson: Anathem - A Conversation with James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief of the Barnes & Noble Review". barnesandnoble.com. Retrieved 2014-08-06.
I’d had a similar reaction to yours when I’d first read The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and that, combined with the desire to use IT, were two elements from which Snow Crash grew.
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- "Snow Crash depicts a twenty-first-century America in which the needs of entrepreneurs have won out over hopes of a free and egalitarian society." Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 4.
- Note:Arthur C. Clarke's version of adaptive wheels are utilized by the lunar transport which shuttles Dr. Heywood Floyd to the site where the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly TMA-1 was excavated on the moon.
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- A Beginner's Web Glossary Archived August 9, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- Avi Bar-Ze’ev (from Keyhole, the precursor to Google Earth) on origin of Google Earth
- Stephenson, Neal (2011). Reamde. Princeton, N.J.: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-197796-1.
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- Szczepaniak, John (19 September 2012). "Making a Prototype of the Future: The Development of Immercenary". Gamasutra. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
- Peter Hall (25 May 2010). "Interview: Vincenzo Natali Explains How to Crack 'Neuromancer', 'Snow Crash' and 'High Rise'". AOL Moviefone.
- Johnson, Ted (1996-12-02). "Nachmanoff to script 'Snow Crash'". 'Variety'. Retrieved 2009-11-27.
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- Handrahan, Matthew (2015). "Essential read : Snow Crash". Book Club. SciFiNow 104: 84–87.
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