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Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson's third novel, published in 1992. Like many of Stephenson's other novels it references history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, 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'".

Snow Crash was nominated for both the British Science Fiction Award in 1993, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994.

Background

The story begins and ends in Los Angelesmarker, which is no longer part of what is left of the United Statesmarker, during the early 21st century. In this hypothetical future reality the federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Franchising, individual sovereignty and private vehicles reign (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion). Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts while private security guards preserve the peace in gated, sovereign housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads rather than the competitors', 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 various residential burbclaves (suburban enclaves). This arrangement resembles anarcho-capitalism, a theme Stephenson carries over to his next novel The Diamond Age. Hyperinflation has devalued the dollar to the extent that trillion dollar bills — Ed Meeses — are nearly disregarded and the quadrillion dollar note — the Gipper — is the standard 'small' bill. For physical transactions people resort to alternative, non-hyperinflated currencies such as yen or "Kongbucks" (the official currency of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong).

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 an 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

Snow Crash, UK version cover shot


Plot overview

At the beginning of the novel the main character, Hiro Protagonist, discovers the name of a new pseudo-narcotic, "Snow Crash", being offered at a posh Metaverse nightclub. Hiro's friends and fellow hackers fall 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 skills to uncover the mystery of "Snow Crash"; his pursuit takes the reader on a tour of the Sumerian culture, a fully-instantiated laissez-faire 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.

Condensed narrative

The protagonist is the aptly-named Hiro Protagonist (Hiro being a homophone of hero), whose business card reads "Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world." When Hiro loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, he meets a streetwise young girl nicknamed Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who works as a skateboard "Kourier," and they decide to become partners in the intelligence business (selling data to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA after the U.S. government's loss of power).

The pair soon learn of a dangerous new drug called "Snow Crash" that is both a computer virus capable of infecting the brains of unwary hackers in the Metaverse and a mind-altering 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 enormous Raft 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 U.S. for the way they handled the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islandsmarker (see Aleutian Islands Campaign in World War II) or for the nuclear testing on Amchitkamarker.

Hiro, with the prompting of his Catholic and linguist ex-girlfriend Juanita, 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 binary is to 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 programmer or hackers.

As Stephenson describes it, one goddess/semi-historical figure, Asherah, took it upon herself to create a dangerous biolinguistic virus and infect all peoples 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 destroying its ability 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 breast feeding 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 Eridumarker, 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 and Y.T. each eventually make their way to Rife's Raft, a massive refugee flotilla centered around Rife's personal yacht, the USS Enterprisemarker aircraft carrier. Juanita has already infiltrated this floating caravan for the express purpose of helping overthrow Rife. Y.T. becomes romantically associated with Raven for a short time and is eventually captured by Rife's outfit, but not before getting the nam-shub of Enki to Hiro, who together with Juanita uses it to save the virus-afflicted. Hiro then goggles into the Metaverse and foils Raven's attempt to widely disseminate the Snow Crash virus to a grouping of the hacker elite. Meanwhile, Y.T. is brought to the mainland by Rife, but she escapes the helicopter before Rife and Raven proceed to an airport, where they are confronted by Uncle Enzo (the Mafia kingpin) and Mr. Lee (leader of a series of Hong Kong-esque franchulates). A critically wounded Enzo disarms Raven, while Rife is killed and his virus destroyed when Fido, a cyborg "rat-thing" who used to be Y.T.'s dog, propels himself through the engine of L. Bob Rife's plane at beyond Mach 1, incinerating Rife and his plane. The novel ends with Y.T. driving home with her mother, and with hints of a future rekindled relationship between Hiro and Juanita.

Important characters

Hiroaki "Hiro" Protagonist
A half-black, half-Korean hacker, swordsman, pizza delivery man, and CIC intelligence agent. Hiro has extensive access to the Metaverse, as he was one of its original developers. He is the undisputed champion of in-Metaverse sword fighting, having written the code which makes sword-fighting possible. However, he is completely broke in Reality, having sold his stock in Black Sun before the Metaverse got really popular.
Y.T. ("Yours Truly")
A 15-year-old skateboard "Kourier" who helps Hiro investigate the mysterious meta-virus. She is Hiro's "partner" in information-gathering for the Central Intelligence Corporation. Her real name is never stated, though she is alluded to in a later book by Stephenson, The Diamond Age. Like all Kouriers, she uses an electromagnetic harpoon to hitch a ride from (often-unwilling) motor vehicles, such as Hiro's. Though she does not carry any lethal weapons, all Kouriers are outfitted with a wide variety of defensive countermeasures, which Y.T. uses throughout the book to escape sticky situations. Her mother is a worn-down programmer for the irrelevant Federal Government; Stephenson satirizes American bureaucracy (in particular, the real-life Code of Federal Regulations) via a multi-page memo on intra-office toilet paper policies which good employees are expected to spend 15.62 minutes reading.
Juanita Marquez
A computer hacker and techno-mystic, Marquez was once romantically involved with Hiro Protagonist. She then left Hiro for his friend and rival, Da5id, the phenomenally-successful founder of Black Sun. After her marriage to the latter dissolved, she embarked on a quest to study the upcoming infocalypse. She becomes a key player in the race to avoid the twin threats of the meta-virus of Asherah and the nam-shub counter-virus of Enki. She was also involved in the programming of the Metaverse, specifically the faces of Metaverse avatars which are (later) realized to be one of the main keys to its success.
Da5id Meier
Co-creator (with friend Hiro) of the elite Metaverse club The Black Sun. First victim of the Snow Crash virus shown in the book.
Dr. Emanuel Lagos
A researcher who discovered the Snow Crash meta-virus and told Rife about it; he then told Juanita about telling Rife, thus allowing her to mobilize Hiro. Developer of the Librarian, a research/index AI described below. Introduced as a "gargoyle": someone constantly wired into the Metaverse. Killed by Raven shortly after his first appearance.
Uncle Enzo
The highly charismatic head of the American Mafia, which in this hypothetical future operates publicly and freely, and now runs legitimate enterprises such as the Nova Sicilia Inn, CosaNostra Pizza, and the Our Thing Foundation. The Mafia considers itself to have a "personal relationship" with each of its customers and employees. This gets Hiro in trouble at the beginning of the book, as, while employed as a pizza "Deliverator," he accidentally crashes his cutting-edge Mafia-owned pizza-delivery vehicle, forcing Y.T. to complete the delivery so that the Mafia does not have to default on its 30-minute-delivery guarantee. However, this means Y.T. now has a "personal relationship" with the Mafia in general and Uncle Enzo specifically, which comes in handy later on. Enzo served in the Vietnam War.
The Librarian
A complex but non-sentient software application that runs in the Metaverse designed by Lagos. The Librarian's conversations serve as simple exposition, giving Hiro background information about Sumerian religion, Snow Crash, and the previous research efforts of other characters.
L. Bob Rife
All-around magnate, though his main claim to fame is having installed the massive Fiber-optic communication network that makes the Metaverse possible. He plies the seas in an aircraft carriermarker with a city's worth of people living in boats lashed to it — the Raft, which moves in a five-year circle around the Pacific Rim. His depiction evokes L. Ron Hubbard, who also founded his own religion and spent much of his time on a boat out at sea with his followers. Some have also noted similarities to Ted Turner and John C. Malone .
Dmitri "Raven" Ravinoff
An Aleut native who works as a mercenary. His preferred weapons are harpoons, spears, and glass knives — undetectable by metal-searching security systems, reputed to be molecule-thin at the edges and able to penetrate the bulletproof windbreakers which most characters in Snow Crash rely on for protection. He travels on a motorcycle whose sidecar has been replaced with a hydrogen bomb that will automatically detonate if his brain ceases to emit electrical impulses. Raven has the phrase "POOR IMPULSE CONTROL" tattooed on his forehead, an indication that he has been arrested for committing a violent crime at least once in his life. His stated goal in life is to "nuke America" in retaliation for the historical treatment by America of native Aleutians, such as using their lands for nuclear testing (e.g., at Amchitkamarker). His combination of fighting ability, conscienceless killing, and personal nuclear umbrella prompt Stephenson to describe Raven as "the baddest motherfucker in the world".


Notable technologies

Rat Things

Rat things are the guard force in Mr.Lee's Greater Hong Kong also known as Semi-Autonomous guard units. It is Rottweiler-sized, segmented into overlapping hard plates and its tail is long and flexible.They move at 700 miles per hour and when not resting in their hutch (which is insulated with freon)must always keep moving to prevent overheating. When in their hutch they live in a Metaverse where porter-house steaks hang from low hanging branches and frisbees fly, waiting to be caught. Rat things also have the biological component of pit bullterriers. Rat things remember their previous life as a dog. They can also communicate with other Rat things by "barking" in their Metaverse. They can also act independently such as when Fido a.k.a Semi-Autonomous guard unit B-782 leaves his hutch in Phoenix, Arizona to rescue Y.T. at LAX.

Reason

Reason is a needlegun-type Gatling rail gun that fires depleted uranium ammunition. It consists of a large, wheeled ammunition box, an exaggerated Gatling gun configuration, a harness for user comfort, and a nuclear isotope power system, whose heatsink must be submerged in water. A nameplate on the device is engraved with the phrase Ultima Ratio Regum, Latin for "The Last Argument of Kings" (this phrase was engraved on all of Louis XIV's cannons).

The weapon, created by Ng, was still in beta testing, and suffers a software crash during a pitched battle. Hiro is able to debug it later, and uses it until its ammunition supply is depleted.

Within the novel, Reason has a certain particular status as a personal superweapon, and as such has a profound psychological effect on individuals using it or witnessing its use. Fisheye, the original user of the weapon, is posthumously chided by Ng because he overestimates the effect of the gun, leading to a lapse in tactical judgement which results in Fisheye's death.

Metaverse

The Metaverse is a fully immersive 3D virtual space, an outgrowth of the Internet.

Dentata

The dentata is an anti-rape device employed by Y.T. It is worn in her vagina, and injects a general anesthetic into the assailant's penis upon penetration, rendering him unconscious in moments. Though the dentata is mentioned frequently, particularly when Y.T. thinks she might soon need it, Stephenson does not explain the device's specific effect until she forgets to remove it prior to sex with Raven, thus bringing their ardor to a premature halt. Its name references the vagina dentata folk tale.

Literary significance and criticism

Snow Crash rocketed to the top of the fiction best-seller charts upon its publication and established Stephenson as a major science fiction writer of the 1990s. The book appeared on Time magazine's list of 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923.

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: {{quotation|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'' (emphasis in the original), 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{{Cite book | author=Michaels, Walter Benn | authorlink= | coauthors= | title=The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history | date=2004 | publisher=Princeton University Press | location=Princeton, N.J. | isbn=0-691-11872-8 | pages=69}} }} 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."{{Cite book | author=Michaels, Walter Benn | authorlink= | coauthors= | title=The shape of the signifier: 1967 to the end of history | date=2004 | publisher=Princeton University Press | location=Princeton, N.J. | isbn=0-691-11872-8 | pages=74}} 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."The Raft, a collection of ragtag vessels bringing poor Asians to California, resembles the "Armada of Hope" described in Jean Raspail's novel The Camp of the Saints (1973), in which a vast flotilla carries a million of India's poor to the southern coast of France; in Rorty's reading, the Raft is emblematic of the final destruction of any sense of community in the United States: "In Snow Crash, the relation of the United States to the rest of the world is symbolized by Stephenson's most frightening creation – what he calls the "Raft"...Pride in being an American citizen has been replaced by relief at being safer and better-fed than those on the Raft."

Influence on the World Wide Web

While Stephenson was not the first to apply the Sanskrit term avatar to online virtual bodies (the video game Habitat did that), 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 Tenmarker.

One of Google's projects "Knol", announced July 2008, will enable experts, connoisseurs and possessors of uncommon knowledge alike to share and potentially monetize their information on a subject. Hiro made use of a similar system for part-time work, "collecting intel to upload onto the CIC library", by researching various subjects he predicted would be sought after in the near future. An example of his efforts included intel on his roommate Vitaly Chernobyl's band and the rise of "Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge collectives in L.A". Hiro is a stringer, one among a million other intel collectors and library contributors in Snow Crash.

Microsoft vice-president J Allard uses "Hiro Protagonist" as his gamertag.

Film adaptation

The novel was optioned shortly after its publication and subsequent success, although it has never progressed past pre-production. In late 1996, it was announced writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff would adapt the novel for the Kennedy-Marshall Co. and Touchstone Pictures. Marco Brambilla was attached to direct the film.

In popular culture

The 2003 science fiction novel by Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is set in a future Disney Worldmarker where one of the attractions is the Snow Crash Spectacular street parade, featuring the JapRap sounds of Sushi-K, to which the crowd dances, "aping the movements of the brave Hiro Protagonist."

The 2009 horror film Pontypool features a plotline that borrows from the Snow Crash idea of language-born viruses. Perhaps as a paean to Snow Crash, the book appears as a prop in the film.

See also



References

External links




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