Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I’m likely to give myself a headache trying to summarise this novel for you, partly because there’s a lot going on in it, and partly because I don’t fully understand it all. Think Blade Runner on steroids. Visually, the novel conjures similar imagery to the said Ridley Scott film, but there’s a lot more weird and wacky stuff going on. The principle character is Hiro Protagonist, who is an elite hacker, pizza delivery boy, and “the greatest sword-fighter in the world” (the last, I discovered, is not included in jest, which makes the story even weirder). Hiro’s side-kick is Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), a gutsy fifteen-year-old girl with attitude who who works as a kourier (typo intended). In this world, kouriers ride around on souped-up skateboards, making their deliveries by pooning (i.e. harpooning) passing vehicles in order to get from place to place.

In this strange future, there is another hidden world, called the metaverse. It’s basically a visual version of the internet, where users jack in and walk around with 3D virtual versions of themselves. (This kind of thing is already happening today, called Second Life, although the version in the novel is somewhat higher tech.) The worst thing that can happen to someone in the metaverse is that your character gets kicked out (for instance, if Hiro Protagonist should happen to lop off your arms with his virtual katana), and so you have to reboot your computer in order to get back in. Unfortunately, something bad happens to Hiro’s friend Da5id (heaven help the audiobook performer; I certainly have no idea how to pronounce that) in the metaverse. Da5id looks at a bitmap image marked “Snow Crash.” The image not only kicks him out of the metaverse, it send the real-life Da5id into a coma.

The weird thing about Snow Crash is that it only affects computer programmers, not regular folk. Hiro figures out that this is because programmers have opened up new pathways in their brains, having learned how to program. This makes them susceptible. Interesting idea. From here the story branches out into ideas about how language and thought are interrelated; parallels in ancient Sumerian religion; visual and linguistic viruses. The story gets complex, and I found that I was better off just letting it run rather than questioning the validity of some of the philosophical stuff. I simply adjusted to the fact that I was about 70% clued into what the story was about, and whatever went over my head I let go over my head.

I liked Snow Crash a lot in the beginning. I liked how funky it was. But by the time I got a third of the way through, I started wondering when some genuine characterisation and human drama were going to shine through. The answer is never. What became clear was that the characters are simply hip and cool automatons for this hip and cool world. Substance is crushed under style every time. Nevertheless, I kept going. On the religious side of the story, I was disappointed to hear the author tossing in a pointless tidbit denying the resurrection of Christ.

I persevered, because I had invested too much time and energy to quit. The only thing worse than a bad book is a bad book that you don’t realise is a bad book until you’re halfway through it. You never feel clued into why the characters are doing the things they’re doing; you never get any real sense of what’s at stake in the story until near the end.

When I read the author’s afterword, it clicked with me what was wrong with the storytelling style. Neal Stephenson explains that Snow Crash was originally developed as a graphic novel (one that never got finished due to it being a computer-generated graphic novel, back when computers weren’t quite up to such a monumental task). Certain kinds of stories suit a visual medium (movies or graphic novels), while certain kinds of stories suit words. If you doubt the validity of that, look at how many superhero movies and comics there are, compared to how few novels. Snow Crash may have worked better as a graphic novel. It was a bad decision to transcribe it to a different medium, and it shows.

On world-building, I’ll give Neal Stephenson a round of applause. Snow Crash presents a highly imaginative and detailed future world. On storytelling and characterisation, thumbs down.