Bad Asses of the Future

Matt Pillsbury

Hiro Protagonist, who is exactly what his name says in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, is defined from the very first page as someone who kicks ass.

Since then the Deliverator has kept the gun in the glove compartment of his and relied, instead, on a matched set of samurai swords, which have always been his weapon of choice anyhow. The punks in Gila Highlands weren't afraid of the gun, so the Deliverator was forced to use it. But swords require no demonstrations.

Now, there is some satiric bite to Stephenson's picture of America as a cross between a streetfight and an NRA convention, but there is rather more to the violence than necessary that particular aim. Which is not to say that Stephenson worries to much about wearing his jokes out, or even advancing the plot smoothly. But there is another motive behind all this--it's central to Hiro's development as a character.

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street cimre. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

It is not plot that drives the violence of the book. It is not satire, either. It isn't even the congenital obsession of science fiction--the invention of new and amusing ways for characters to fold, spindle and mutilate each other. It is the way Hiro grows. We know he likes swords, we know that he no longer wants to be the world's baddest motherfucker, and we know that he can administer the coup de grace when he must.

He has one other chore to take care of, not something he's looking forward to.

Hiro has lived in a lot of places where mice and even rats are a problem. He used to get rid of the them using traps. But then he had a bad run of luck with the things.... When you have gotten up at three in the morning to find a live mouse on your kitchen counter leaving a contrail of brain tissue across the formica, it's hard to get back to sleep, and so he prefers to set out poison now.

Somewhere in the same vein, a severely wounded man--the last man Hiro shot--is thrashing around on the deck of the yacht, up near the bow, babbling.

Big parts of Hiro's personality, as Stephenson presents it, are caught up in the way he fights, and how he feels about that fighting. This seems, somehow, caught up in the way that he constructs gender--when he says all men under twenty-five, he means all men. If it were only Hiro, perhaps this could be overlooked. It's not only Hiro, though. All three of the main male characters in SC are killers--Hiro, Raven and Uncle Enzo.

YT, a fifteen-year old girl, also fights when she has to, but it's non-lethal. She has a sonic skateboard that breaks glass, and pepper spray, and bracelets that give people shocks, but she doesn't use swords, or guns, or nuclear weapons. But it's Hiro's ex-girlfriend, the linguistic hacker Juanita, who shows the difference between men and women in Stephenson most explicity.

"First things first," Juanita says. "The control tower."

"Okay, you get ready to grab the tablet, and I'll take out the control tower."

"How are you going to do that? By cutting people up with swords?"

"Yeah. That's the only thing they're good for."

"Let's do it the other way around," Juanita says.

The violence is intended to make the book more entertaining, at least--science fiction readers buy books much more preoccupied with killing than Snow Crash. And it is partly satirical, and Hiro is mocked (gently, compared to the treatment that just about everyone and everything else in the book gets) for it, but there is also a bonding between him and Raven, and Raven and Enzo, over their willingness to fight. A willingness that is needed, to survive in, and save, the America of the future.

For some reason Stephenson, whose vision of America is all the more nightmarish because it is one big free-fire zone, thinks this willingness is worthy of praise.

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