Thoughts on SNOW CRASH (Neal Stephenson, 1992)

It’s hard to look at anything based on cyberpunk ethos and not immediately draw comparisons to William Gibson, but I’ll be damned if Neal Stephenson hasn’t written the finest Gibson novel Gibson never wrote. SNOW CRASH is the quintessential 90s imagining of The Future complete with tech skateboards ridden by young Kouriers delivering data packagaes for the mafia, street-punk lingo, katana-wielding pizza deliverymen, Moby Dick references, a fantastic antagonist, hard-wired physical technology and detailed descriptions of “The Metaverse” – that is, The Internet That Is Still Yet To Come. I really love the optimism of the 80s/90s cyberpunk authors in the timing of evolving technology, they always expect fantastical things to arrive much sooner than real-world development actually manages but more often than not their predicitvity is more hit than miss. For one thing, this novel came out three years before the ACTUAL rise of the internet and it’s this prophetic imagination that really draws me into science-fiction. In fact, the very nature of futurist writing comes itself to inform a lot of the ways that technology is understood and grown within a society, often working as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy (again, Gibson comes up a LOT in this area, essentially precursing the entirety of the online culture and technology in 1984’s NEUROMANCER), and SNOW CRASH is absolutely exceptional in its true realm of investigation: the correlation between the “hardware” of a human mind and the “software” of language that functions as a kind of BIOS (built-in operating system), and that of the computers we are creating and connecting ourselves to in more and more complex ways. Predicted elements include online avatars, Google Earth, cyberterrorism and personal data hacking.

Side note: Hiro Protagonist is the bestworst lead character name time of all time.

Now, the theoretical implications of the aforementioned operating systems is where things really start to get interesting. Firstly, the world of SNOW CRASH stands in strong contrast to THE FOREVER WAR (which I read/listened last week) in that it’s gone harder down the track of the disunification of humanity – racism and sexism are rampant, though due to governmental collapse business organisations are the primary social construct. Yes, the mafia is legitimate because “laws” don’t strictly exist anymore. They can advertise on billboards and essentially run out in the open. Most of he world is atheistic, and here’s where Stephenson twists the knife. Religion is a virus that infects the human mind’s operating system and co-opts it into performing its executable program functions and propagating itself among humanity. I’m going to tangle myself all up trying to explain exactly how this functions (there’s a good 480 pages with the concept well-woven into it), as it takes several layers of ideas to reach that point.

In essence, in the leap from Neanderthal animals to Modern Man it was required for our brains to develop codes and shorthand in order to store, process and access information. The language people learn allows the raw data of existence to organise structures within the brain and then “burn” those pathways into place to establish a kind of permanence while it builds the network. Linguistics is the study of how the human brain interacts with language to form concepts, develop an understanding of the world and ourselves within it, and dependant on the language you learned as your “BIOS” (mine being English, for example) informs the ways that your brain processes incoming data. I suppose you could broadly think of it say as Chinese Mandarin is Windows 8, Spanish is Linux and American English is OSX Lion or whatever. The specific correlations aren’t important, because all of those are above-ground operating systems installed over a linguistic programming BIOS that runs the physical hardware – these are “acquired languages”, not the background “assembly languages”. Paraphrasing: When your computer is off, it is inert. It is not a computer as it is not “computing”, it’s just a series of cold parts linked together in a certain way. When you turn it on, the BIOS is what tells it how to be a computer and runs the important structural functions in the background while the operating system gives you a platform to interact with in a way that is already coded and streamlined – like languages inform how we relay information to ourselves and others. Within these systems we have executable “programs” that allow those that have stored them to do something like bake bread or the correct procedure for planting and tilling a field. Those with the installed bread-baking and agricultural programs have an evolutionary edge over those who do not, and so go on to propagate. The ability to code language on the brain is an assembly programming language, in that it is an underlying process, but at one time (in this case, ancient Sumer being the cradle for Modern Man) it was the primary language in and of itself and retains roots in all human biology. Those of you old enough will remember that the first personal computers had to be told what to do in the BIOS (inputing code into the MS DOS terminal) before modern operating systems came along and simplified the process for us, but those processes are still there in the background, we just don’t see them anymore. Mind blown yet? Let’s go deeper.

The Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel is generally told to contemporary audiences as being a warning against trying to aspire to physically reach God in his Heaven – at this time in history all humans spoke the same language and were creating a grand tower that “marked the Heavens”, but for their insolence the Abrahamic God scattered them and divided their languages so they could no longer communicate to work together. Stephenson argues that this event, told as allegory and warped in retellings, is in fact the single most important event in humankind’s history – suddenly the tribes were branching apart and being forced to do things themselves, to turn their assembly languages into acquired languages passed through traditional and ritual and eventually scriptures of guides for existence as self-aware beings on the planet. The Tower was never destroyed, however, and if it were a real place it’s argued that we would have noticed a gigantic tower reaching for the sky by now. Unless the earlier renditions of the text (passages of which still exist in things like the Torah and the Q’uran in their original languages) are taken at their literal interpretations, which instead describe the metaphorical tower with their inside domes inscribed with star charts “marking the sky”, and the programs required for the continuation of humanity being retained in holy texts and read only by those of education and learning. The masses were required to attend temples and converse with priests in order to have their information passed on to them so that they might know the correct way to execute tasks and as such survive to procreate effectively. The keepers of the documents were essentially programmers of society, able to write new executables for the illiterate population to undertake. These are, fundamentally, self-replicating strings of information being passed from host to host and “infecting” the operating systems with overriding rules and structures – like a virus. You know when you leave an old television tuned to a dead channel and all you get is static, or “snow”? Like a system crash right down to the BIOS that wipes out even the assembly languages and reprograms them to other functions. Now imagine that something as simple as a bitmap image sequence, or the “babble” of speaking in tongues can hack through to your brain’s BIOS and deprogram you at the assembly-language level. That would be a SNOW CRASH.

I feel like I’ve barely done justice to the complexity this book weaves into a story about the greatest swordsman in the Metaverse who’s really just an out-of-luck pizza delivery guy/programmer and his fifteen-year-old street-punk plank-boarding Kourier friend who wind up unravelling one of the most devastatingly huge conspiracies to manipulate mankind kind of mostly by accident. If I haven’t cooked your brain already, give the real thing ago.

I’ll leave off with Hiro’s description of the story’s sort-of-antagonist/the biggest badass in literature:
“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel that way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this is liberating. He no longer has to worry about trying to be the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken. The crowning touch, the one thing that puts true world-class badmotherfuckerdom totally out of reach, of course, is the hydrogen bomb. If it wasn’t for the hydrogen bomb, a man could still aspire. Maybe find Raven’s Archilles’ heel. Sneak up, get a drop, slip a mickey, pull a fast one. But Raven’s nuclear umbrella kind of puts the world title out of reach.”

Highly recommended.

— Thom

(next up is #49: A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ)


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