Snow Crash

Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson’s third novel, published in 1992. Like many of Stephenson’s other novels it covers a large range of topics including: history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics, 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, ‘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.”

The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the semetic goddess Asherah is the personification of a ‘linguistic virus,’ similar to a computer virus. The Sumerian god Enki created a counter-program which he called a ‘nam-shub’ that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah (a re-interpretation of the ancient Near Eastern story of the Tower of Babel).

The story begins and ends in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of what is left of the United States, 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 (featuring Reagan era Attorney General 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 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 (Massively Multiplayer Online) game, the Metaverse is populated by user controlled avatars as well as system daemons (computer programs that runs in the background, rather than under the direct control of a user). 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.

At the beginning of the novel the main character, Hiro Protagonist, discovers the name of a new pseudo-narcotic, ‘Snow Crash,’ being offered at an exclusive 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, whose business card reads ‘Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world, loses his job as a pizza delivery driver for the Mafia, but 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).

Critics consider it a parody of cyberpunk and note its satiric or absurdist humor.

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. 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 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:

‘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, a world in which what a speech act does is disconnected from what it means.’

American philosopher Richard Rorty’s ‘Achieving Our Country’ uses ‘Snow Crash’ as an example of modern culture that ‘express the loss of what he 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.’ 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’ ; 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.’

While the 1986 video game Habitat applied the Sanskrit term avatar to online virtual bodies before Stephenson, 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 Ten,’ a 1968 American documentary short film written depicting the relative scale of the Universe in factors of ten.

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