Snow Crash: Second-Generation Cyberpunk: A Post Cold War Satire

Josh Conterio

"So they didn't drop the bomb. About time we lightened up," Gibson says: welcome to the dark future! Cold War frantic, hopped up we're-all-going-to-die attitude, the bleak distopia which Orwell forecast so many years before. Smog, street crime, and coffin hotels: the age of paranoia and Blade Runner. A coincidence that Neuromancer was published in 1984? Doubtful, we've seen the X-Files, we know what's up. Gibson talks about the "war" like it's no big deal, doesn't tell us much, maybe it was kind of a letdown, but don't get the wrong idea. Maybe his protagonists refer to it rather apathetically, perhaps its impact was slight. So what if it did bring about an atom bomb of new tech and hip electronic warfare, it certainly screwed with culture. Or something did. The beasty called Sprawl swallowing the East Coast, the creation of the pan-continental ghetto. People living out their lives jacked into cerebral televisions with really great reception. Lots of drugs -- don't forget the war on them-- just say no! Fear of a Japanese take over, cars and VCRs, street samurai. Corporations swallowing the world. Not to say that it didn't happen, but those were the fears of the time. So maybe the plot wasn't hung up on Communist Russia, on dropping the bomb, but the book has that feel, the ambiance if you like. It's gritty, the living-on-the-edge lifestyle where anyone might just come along and RPG your apartment while you drool over your bottle of booze and melt your brain. So maybe Gibson was from Canada, he still had to deal with us morons from the states threatening to burn the entire world to ash. Then we were blessed with the 90's, and America's heartbeat slowed down, maybe just a little.

Stephenson says: get over it! There's a lot of semiotic baggage here, but Snow Crash is a little less aggressive about the whole angst that was the 80's. In fact he's down right loony. Hiro Protagonist: he doesn't just carry an authentic set of samurai swords, he's the best sword fighter in the world (or at least the Metaverse) -- how's that for street samurai? And he's a hacker (no pun intended) who equates coding with flipping burgers: downright blasphemy in Gibson's world. He's so styling he wears spider silk and delivers pizzas for the Mob (which operates on Goombata points, if you remember). Welcome to McDonalds on a grand scale, to Barbie and Ken's internet explorer, to Rat Things and hyper inflation (got change for a trillion?). Even the Feds have become a franchise. The meat has now become the more academic sounding biomass, badass postwar hovercrafts have become high tech skateboards, religious fanatics stare at static. The Army is now on par with mall security. And people are driving around with nuclear warheads practically in their back pockets. The Sprawl has been replaced by the equally horrific Burbclave, while the really spiff spend their nights in U-Haul-Its and play heavy metal for skate punks. And then there's the net.

Maybe it's not so much of a parody, but the Metaverse is still a little odd. Logistics aside, it seems a little too much like real life. I mean, you're still travelling over phone lines, but now you've got to walk. If one was to transport (ala Star Trek) it would break the metaphor --but why care? What about the next level? People can handle it. A chat group is pure text, though real-time, but this doesn't cause our brains to malfunction. We are not telepathic, we cannot communicate long distances unaided, but phones have been fully assimilated into society. And so Stephenson's Metaverse, though flashy and fun, is somewhat mundane. It is finite, it has zoning laws. You usually look like yourself, you are still confined to only one place at a time (no multitasking w/o daemons), and your avatar might stick around after you've left (in a mannequin-like state, or pieces thereof). Sure you can overdo it and go gargoyle and wear your computer all the time, but such technology exists already (evidently all you need to do is hang around MIT). Then you get to walk in two places in once, lucky you. But distance is now a problem. Another strange attribute of this world is the size: bigger than Earth. And one can travel thousands of miles per hour in it, but one tends to overshoot (not very practical). And there are still neighborhoods, still a sense of social class, of segregation. If you show up in B+W, it's a lot like having an address at AOL. You don't get a sense of decentralization, of nodes, but of one huge city, more of a Sprawl. Gibson sounds more plausible: you can zip over to someone's system if you know the address, otherwise you're stuck at home. Instead, the Metaverse is like a gigantic theme park on one overabundant storage device. Regardless of whether this architecture makes sense or not, Stephenson still has a better grasp of how computers work in general (more so than Gibson in any case). Plus we get a sense of evolution, whereas with Gibson we are simply tossed into the works. And Stephenson puts in a nice touch when he refers to normal light (lasers etc.) as being grainy, while the Metaverse is much higher res. A touch of hyperreality, perhaps? We are even told that events sustain the media, and the media sustains events (p.118) which might bring to mind certain discussions on simulation. Maybe that's just a token parallel, but it really could be legitimate. Trust me.

So what's my final take? Stephenson is putting forth some very relevant ideas, but with a twist. It's hard to know how seriously he wants us to take him. The mere fact that he wacks us over the head with pages of dialogue sounding like they were lifted from somebody's masters thesis is one indication that he has something serious to get off his chest. But we are meant to have a good time with it --all in good fun. And maybe the world won't turn into Gibson's dark nightmare afterall. So long as you don't mind bimbo boxes and barcodes.

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