Monday review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson


Snow Crash is a novel which, every now and then, pops up in certain sectors of the media – recently the Wall Street Journal – usually on account of it’s unnecessary level of prescience on the subject of all things internetty. Personally I wouldn’t read too much into that, it’s just a good bit of extrapolation on the author’s part from what was already possible or proposed in 1992.

Anyway, I thought it’s recent emergence was enough of an excuse to post a review, so here it is. Snow Crash is an odd little number, partly because it crammed so much in, and partly because it treads the fine line between genius and lunacy.

Essentially, the main character, Hiro Protagonist (whose name is either a stroke of genius or just plain laziness) discovers that a cyber-drug has been invented and is being used maliciously against hackers like himself. And so begins his quest to take out the drug barons, using all the hacking, sword-wielding and pizza-delivering skills at his disposal.

This Snow Crash thing–is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?

Along the way, Stephenson takes us through a near-future USA in which federal government has all but collapsed, leaving the nation in a kind of commercialised anarchy, and the Mafia going about its business behind a friendly pizza-delivering front. Even the ostensibly Christian church has been turned into a chain store operated by one of the worlds richest businessmen (apart from some offshoots, like the Russian Orthodox church, which went paramilitary at some point).

So far, so off-beat cyberpunk wackiness; but worthy of special mention here is the idea of civilisation and religion as a virus, which crops up towards the end of the first half. It’s explored in some rather conspicuous info-dumping, and soon veers away from the Biblical concept of Babel and on to Sumerian versions, but the whole thing is an intriguing exploration of religion in a scientific (or at least, pseudo-scientific) context. It even has some things to say about pentecost and speaking in tongues that would probably have made some of the anti-Da Vinci Code lobby blow a gasket or two.

It’s not without humour, as the hero/protagonists name suggests, and if I have one recommendation regarding this book, it is this:

Find a copy in a library or bookshop, turn to chapter 37, and read the memo on ‘NEW TP POOL REGULATIONS’. It’s a work of beaurocratic genius, and if you have ever worked in a large office you may need to sit down. It is the humorous high point of the book – too long to reproduce here in full, but here is a quickie on the subject of BTDUs:

This reduces to a minimum the number of transactions in which the distribution unit is depleted (the roll runs out) during the transaction, a situation that can lead to emotional stress for the affected employee.

What are BTDUs? If you haven’t guessed, the definition in the memo:

bathroom tissue distribution units (i.e., rolls).

It is quite sweary, for those who don’t like that sort of thing; but it’s a great science fiction novel, in the cyberpunk tradition but with an added injection of fun, and has a lot of religious opinions within it to get thinking about.

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