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Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, Bantam Spectra, 1992, 470 pp.

Stephenson's celebrated novel deserves all of the encomia that it has received. Not only does Stephenson crank out the high-concept science fiction that makes genre freaks so happy, he is riotously funny and throws literary caution to the winds. The irony is that this is the mark of his success. The writing in Snow Crash is more than a little demented -- you could call the prose purple if you had no sense of humour. But the lengths that Stephenson has to go in order to get this kind of reaction neatly illustrate the dilemma of a new writer. For example, Bester has been there for forty years, and it's still just as hard to top his work. And that's just one writer among many in the pantheon of thoughtful, well-written or plain gonzo science fiction. Stephenson might be clumsy with his infodumps but he is one of the canniest writers in the business.

Snow Crash tells the story of Hiro and Y.T. Hiro, a thirty-year old hacker and sword-fighter, delivers pizza for the Mafia, which, in the future, is not quite the same business as it is now, as we discover in the amped-up opening sequence. Y.T., a teenage girl and thrasher extraordinaire, helps him out in a pizza delivery gone wrong, and thus a partnership is born. Hiro is out to solve the problem of Snow Crash, a new drug on the market which causes most people to lose the ability to speak anything except nonsense syllables. However, Snow Crash causes hackers to go into a coma or die. Where is this drug coming from? Y.T., who becomes friends with Uncle Enzo of the Mafia because of the pizza incident, has her own angle on the problem, as she runs deliveries and gathers intel. Stephenson includes virtual reality, ancient Sumerian history, motorcycle chases, gunfights and swordplay, and a ton of nastily hilarious insights into the bizarre America of the future. Stephenson also writes some amazing setpieces. Here are a few to jog the memory or to watch for if this is your first time through the book: fighting with Raven in the bamboo patch and discovering why the Enforcers are protecting him; Y.T. breaking out of Fedland; convincing the pirates with Reason; and the final scene in the auditorium full of hackers.

Hiro is taken straight out of the book of standard sf heroes, and thus his name, Hiro Protagonist (first name in full being Hiroako). He's the man with the heart of a boy who has been around for a long time in the genre, and he goes through his own rite of passage into adulthood. Stephenson is too smart to write this straight up, thus the name of course, and thus Hiro's partner, Y.T. It says something sad about our culture, and not just the ghetto of science fiction, that a strong female role is so refreshing and unique. Y.T. is a trash-talking, arrogant youngster who steals every scene that she's in. For example, when she arrives at the Mafia's local HQ to deliver a package to Uncle Enzo (who is the leader of the Family's entire operation), here is what she says as she pulls up at high velocity on her plank: "'Y.T.,' she says. 'Young, fast, and female. Where the fuck's Enzo?'" (165). The ensuing conversation between Y.T. and Enzo is one of the most interesting in the book, as they agree on many issues and bond as friends.

I have called Stephenson's prose demented, so I need to provide some back up for my argument. How's this for over the top:

When they get closer to the overpass, it becomes a lost cause trying to drive at all, the thrashers are so thick and numerous. It's like putting on crampons and trying to walk through a room full of puppies. (120)

One of Stephenson's favourite points of reference is a 747, mainly for its speed and size; first he uses it to talk about the amount of data being transferred via the Metaverse, and later to describe the sound caused by a security feature on Y.T.'s plank: "It's -- my God -- like you stretched a tarp across a stadium to turn it into a giant tom-tom and then crashed a 747 into it" (314). And if you want your gore served up nice and bloody, Stephenson one-ups just about everyone in the field. The aforementioned scene with the pirates and Reason has some extreme carnage, but often Stephenson writes violence with the wackiest perspective. Here is a quotation from Y.T.'s escape from the Fed building, as she has activated an electrical personal security device:

Both of them hit the floor like a sack of rabid cats. There's only one of these guys left, and he's reaching under his jacket for something. She takes one step toward him, swings her arm around, and the end of the loose manacle strokes him in the neck. Just a caress, but it might as well be a two-handed blow from Satan's electric ax handle. (311)

After a passage like this, you can either shake your head in dismissal and disgust, or laugh with pure glee.

I admit that I was in the dismissal camp the first time I read Snow Crash. When I came to it again, I must have been in the right mood because I enjoyed it beginning to end, apart from one or two small fillips. As I said in the introduction, Stephenson has trouble conveying background information in digestible parcels. Especially bad is the passage near the end where Hiro has to explain the entire plot of the book to Enzo, Mr. Lee, and Ng. Although the book is enjoyable at a purely superficial level, with its prose and high-gloss narrative momentum, it is also nice to understand why things are going on. Stephenson turns out to have some serious concerns, and for the most part he conveys them in a flawless and fascinating manner.

Last modified: April 7, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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