Authorial Digression in Snow Crash

Steve "Snarkout" Cook

Re-reading Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash was a lot less dazzling (and a lot more interesting) than reading it the first time. Putting aside, for the moment, the question of Snow Crash's literary worth--I'm sure I'll get another chance to say my piece--the big question in my mind is how exactly Stephenson functions as a writer and prose stylist.

Snow Crash is cartoony, a four-color melodrama wrapped around on the fobiles of modern life. But the inclusion of Japanese rappers, office toilet-paper pools, and life in a U-Store-It facility really don't add much to the plot. Bruce Sterling, in my opinion one of the most invigorating and thoughtful authors to come out of the cyberpunk movement, has written a lexicon of terms for science fiction writers' workshops. Among the items he mentions are "backgrounds," ways for the author to communicate expository dialogue. The need to explain exactly what is going on (what the world looks like, what species the protagonist is, what year it is, and just how, precisely, the Kazakhstanis have come to rule the world) is one of the distinguishing, and one of the most painful, characteristics of science fiction.

Sterling uses several useful shorthands. There is the "info-dump," large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation and its looming 400-pound cousin, the "Stapledon". The Stapledon is the "name assigned to the auctorial voice which takes center stage to deliver a massive and magisterial info-dump. Actually a common noun..." The multiple chapters of Snow Crash in which the action is entirely derailed by discussion of the Babylonian city-state or deep linguistics is impressive.

However, reading the novel a second time, I began to realize just how little of Stephenson's writing moved the plot. Instead, the numerous digressions performed two essential services: they sharpened the satire and they gave Stephenson street cred. The first purpose seems fairly unarguable. There's absolutely no point in introducing a freakish Japanese rapper who performs and promptly disappears from the novel unless your goal is to poke fun at the warped reflections of American pop culture produced by the Japanese. These sidelines thus keep the humorous (but somewhat biting--gnawing, perhaps) tone going through "action" passages, in which things actually happen and the tone could possibly vary.

The second purpose seems to be a less obvious one. By dropping references hither and yon, Stephenson is showing the reader just how much he knows, just how hip-and-with-it he is. Hiro's roommate's band doesn't come of as much of a prediction on the future of rock music; instead, it seems much more of a winking nod, Stephenson's admission that yes, he has trafficked in the flow of subcultures and aren't they always the same? At some level, cyberpunk wants to deal with how the street (as opposed to the Street) deals with technology and cultural change; Stephenson's response is to show how a science fiction writer deals with change on the street.

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