When Dime-Store Fiction Meets the Future

Katherine Angus

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is an attempt to envision the great American novel in an America which, after suffering an economic apocolypse, has fragmented into an odd conglomeration of commercially run residential enclaves. Here, in this imagined America, the federal government may or may not be aiding a meglomaniac preacher's developement of a super-virus, the CIA has become an offshoot of the Library of Congress and, in addition to all of this, the only trustworthy business around is the mafia's pizza delivery service . It's a mad mad mad mad mad world indeed. Too bad it couldn't have been described by a better writer.

Though Stephenson has a yearning for the epic and an imagination to beat the band, his writing style would be more fitting between the covers of a Young Adult Sci-Fi Book of the Month Club selection. Since Stephenson's problem is not so much the scope of his imagination or of his satire, but rather of his style, perhaps he should have found a ghost-writer. Stephenson sets his course for the modern-day epic of a "coming of age" story ( and in this book, times two! ) with the dual maturation of the characters of Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. . In the course of the novel, Hiro matures from slacker-delivery boy into one of the saviours of the world ( and rekindles an old flame in the process ), while Y.T. manages to find a pseudo-paternal figure in mafia don Uncle Enzo, has a brief affair with the villianous Raven, and improves her relationship with her mother. Heady stuff, all of it.

The landscape Stephenson describes is both interesting and potentially accurate. In a country already as divided by subgroups as is this one, it seems plausible to imagine an eventual fragmentation into Stephenson's equivelent of the ancient city-states. Stephenson's plot, for the most part, also makes a certain kind of warped sense--viruses, religious cults and media barons, oh my. Why, then, does this not all come together? In part, the novel destroys its own momentum by containing too large a section of straight plot explication near the end. However, beyond that, the momentum that Snow Crash does build up is never quite at the fever pitch that such a plot in such a genre seems to require. This problem is an insidious one, stemming as it does from the very way in which the book was written.

Stephenson's prose lacks vitality, forcing him to rely on such tired conventions as cheap sentiment (the occasional first "person" narration by the semi-sentient cyberdog) and long stretches of Hiro's monologue of plot explication. Though Stephenson has an interesting vision of the future, it relies on things he cannot explain--for example, the actual mechanics of why and how America's economy collapsed simply do not ring true. Nor are the actual mechanics of the Snow Crash virus fully plausible. Certain character motivations also remain ambiguous, forcing the readers to grope for explainations of their own--for example, why does Uncle Enzo protect Y.T.? Is he attracted to her? Is she a symbol to him of his lost youth? Is he her father? All these failings might be forgivable ( or, indeed, even unnoticable ) were Stephenson's actual writing strong enough to pick the reader up and carry him/her along in the flow of the words. Alas, such is not the case. Stephenson's prose is inescapably flat, utilizing as he does such descriptions as are quoted below:

"Well," says the guy, a tall rangy dude in his forties, much too skinny to be forty years old. He yanks the butt of a cigarrette from his mouth and throws it away like a dart. "what'll it be, then?"

Stephenson gives it the old college try in Snow Crash, but the old college try doesn't get you that far anymore. Though Snow Crash incorporates a number of interesting elements, it never truly comes together as anything other than a fascinating mess. With such a narrative voice, we are left in the literary lurch, dreaming of the day when cyberfiction will find its Joyce or Nabokov.

[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]