Saturday, December 16, 2006

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

rating - 3.5: worth reading, parts worth re-reading (borrow or buy it)

This is another title from the list of top sci fi books. As an online gamer, there is some rule that says I must read this book. Worth reading.

In a sci-fi near future, America has dissolved into corporate franchise city-states, where the Mafia runs the pizza business and the CIA has merged with the Library of Congress and gone private as an information superstore. Hiro Protagonist is a hacker, researcher, and the greatest swordsman in the world. Half his life is spent on the Metaverse, what virtual reality is supposed to have been by now. He gets to stop the end of the world in the face of a disease/computer virus/religion/language/Sumerian myth. Yeah, that's all one thing.

Snow Crash also gives us a strong, fun female character in Y.T., who is to bicycle couriers what the Metaverse is to our current internet. She is bold and brassy, enormously competent, and prone to the dumb, impulsive things we expect of teenagers. Teenagers on kinetically boosted skateboards with stunguns and ADD.

Hiro himself is a lot of fun to read. He combines swagger with geek cluelessness, and not in the annoying way that real online people do. Maybe it is because he is about twice as old as the annoying hacker punks we see about. He is vastly more competent than Y.T. but does not look it since he gets to take on every more vastly difficult tasks.

My heart, of course, loves a world where information is power. Library access and information-processing software are extremely valuable. The only thing more powerful than Earth is the Librarian. Go team. Someone has speculated on a future where we have no news organizations, but rather the merged Googlezon links folks' blogs about what is going on around them, and it all works off searches, links, advertising, and views of valuable content. That is something like what Hiro does for a living.

Beyond our core pair, characterization is about as thin as you would expect from sci fi. Two characters, not a big Idea novel, so we get a nuanced picture of both, along with a bit on Raven.

The plot is pretty solid. It is a straightforward adventure story, with a mixture of technology and mythology that lets is stretch in different directions. Knockout punch in a can? Check. Sumerian gods? Check. Evil version of Ted Turner? Check. We have a very bad problem, and along the way we puzzle out what it is, exactly how bad it is, who is responsible, and how we can stop it.

Pacing is good. Most of the book is set at an upbeat swagger with digressions into the library for a freeform exploration of some history, linguistics, theology, programming, and a few other things.

That library song and dance is the part you can skip on a re-read. Maybe it is just me, since I am familiar with half the material covered, but it seems like a long digression from the story. This is where we get most of our exposition, and it is better than most multi-page laying out of fictional worlds' history and metaphysics, but you can skip even well-written background. Go read some Sumerian myths if you want them; Tiamat and Marduk are waiting for you.

This takes a greater extreme when Hiro explains the villains' evil plot. This is a switch from the normal point where the Big Bad monologues; instead, our hero does it for him and explains it to others. If you have not pieced everything together by then, there you go. It comes across a bit like Plato explaining how the Republic should be built, with the other characters sitting around and asking helpful questions at the right points.

Actually, the entire ending is weak. We have a most-of-a-climax, a few kinda-climaxes, and no resolution except for an explosion. The story dissolves into separate mini-endings, rather than tying things up. Everything seems in place for a sequel that is unlikely to be written.

The writing is good. I am not going to recommend >400 pages to you without it being worthwhile. Stephenson can write. He sets a tone and has a voice that carries you through unnecessary passages in a way that makes you glad they are there. In Douglas Adams's writing, some of the best parts are digressions that express the spirit of his universe rather than developing the plot; Stephenson does the same thing for cyberpunk.

Stephenson gets bonus points for creating slang and jargon we still use, like avatar. We do not yet have a Metaverse, whatever they may think they are doing in Second Life.

Amazon link

No comments: