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Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson


Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems odd to call a book a "classic," after it's only been out for 20 years. Yet, Snow Crash was incredibly influential, both in SF and the SF fandom community. It's practically a requirement before one can call oneself a geek. And yet, this is my first time reading it.

I finally read it with a book group. I didn't give myself enough time to read it, which didn't turn out to be as much of a problem as I thought. Others in the group found it inaccessible, and had stalled before the 100-page mark. I'd found it too dense to read at my usual pace, and I actually got up to do the dishes to get away from it, once. But, I was only 40 pages shy of the end by the meeting, and I finished it that night.

The book is about Hiro Protagonist, a computer hacker and pizza deliveryman and the greatest living swordsman. At least, that's what his business card purports, and how ironically he means it is up for interpretation. The story starts with an exciting pizza delivery, with Hiro up against ten minutes left on his 30-minutes-or-less counter, twelve miles to go, and a smartass Kourier named Y.T. (short for "Yours Truly") stealing his momentum. Sadly, the pizza delivery stuff, exciting as it is, never comes up again. Instead, Hiro goes into a virtual reality, Stephenson's imagining of a future internet in 1992, and talks to a library for the next 300 pages. It's as exciting as reading Wikipedia.

There are other events going on, but the Library sections so dragged down the narrative that I can't blame my fellow readers for abandoning this book. There's no immediate connection between Sumerian myth and a virus that landed Hiro's friend and former boss, Da5id, in the hospital. But Hiro sure makes a valiant attempt to interrogate the Library until it gives him every bit of trivia on the subject. I might not have minded these intervals if I'd known what tidbit Hiro needed to get that ah-ha moment. Instead, it reads as two people having an involved conversation about something about which I know nothing, and care even less. They were words better used on character motivation and internal monologues, neither of which Stephenson seems to believe in.

This is most apparent when Y.T. meets Raven, an assassin who rides a cool black motorcycle. She falls for him right off the bat, and I'm left with the unsettling notion she did so only because chicks fall for bad boys. And she'd been doing so well, until then.

For all its innovation, Snow Crash is dated. It explains concepts modern readers are familiar with, like we've never heard of them before. I suppose Stephenson is one of the reasons they're part of the zeitgeist, but that didn't make paragraphs of description of connecting to the internet and using programming languages any less tedious.

None of the above means I didn't like the book. It's just that it's far less accessible than I'd been led to believe. I'd hate for someone just starting out in SF to pick this up, looking for the literary equivalent of Star Wars. It's dense, which means it's also packed with philosophy, social commentary, and shining a light on modern ills. The book group was reminded of
  Ready Player One

, with the character escaping a dire background into an online community where he's adored, and I certainly saw the influence. I saw more parallels to   Jennifer Governmen

, where everything is privately owned and Nike stages shootings over its shoes to generate hype. The financial collapse and open ownership by the Mafia seem to be direct ancestors of Max Barry's vision of a world where we're so owned by corporations, we change our names based on employment.

On a quick read-through to get this book read in time to discuss it, I felt like a lot of its commentary was drowned out with a plot too bogged down with infodumps to explore those points. Maybe, with a bit more time to read it, I would feel differently. Or maybe, without that motivation to finish it, I wouldn't have bothered to find out. Who knows?

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