The Heroes and The Masses

Lora Schwartz

Why are Hiro and Y.T. the main characters of Snow Crash? As with most cyberpunk fiction, the characters are strikingly different from anyone else encountered in that world. They are first given specific age/place/race/gender/occupations that makes them unique and then given certain traits that set them apart in their already established category.

Hiro is a 30-year-old, U-Store-It living, Black-Korean male hacker. To set him apart from Da5id, he can't work for corporations so he's always poor. His swordsmanship makes his avatar greater than others, at least in the Black Sun, and also differentiates him from the muscle-bound enforcers or the weapon-toting Raven. For Stephenson to make a character this unique, it seems unlikely that he is expecting the reader to identify with the actual descriptions of Hiro. Rather, the reader is supposed to identify with the totality of Hiro's uniqueness. Stephenson is giving us a hero, whom he satirically names Hiro Protagonist, who is not at all part of the masses. Because Hiro, just like other heroes such as Ulysses, Jesus, or Superman, is completely set apart from everyone else through a unique set of descriptors and some useful skills, the fact that he, and not someone else, saves humanity is justified.

Y.T. is a 15-year-old Fed daughter-- White, female, and a thrasher. She's very young, very competent, and cops one hell of an attitude. While it is again unlikely that a reader is going to identify with her, it is immediately obvious she is unlike anyone else one would meet in Stephenson's world. Like, Hiro she is both marginalized and romanticized, at once a cartoon, like Steve Cook says, and a traditional side-kick.

The range of ages suggests that the characters are supposed to appeal to a wide range of audiences. Y.T. legitimizes the book for teen-age readers as Hiro does for the Twenty and Thirty crowd. Y.T. is faced paced and action loving which is probably how younger readers would approach the book. She introduces much of the culture of Stephenson's world as she skates through franchises, Fed buildings, Mafia head quarters and the Raft. Hiro is older and sometimes feels his age, especially in the presence of 21-year-old programmers. I'd imagine older readers identify. Hiro also understands the construction of The Street and is the one who explains what is and isn't possible. He introduces the virus; what it is, why and how it works.

Snow Crash spends a great deal of time discussing who the masses are, how they think, what they look like, etc. In the Metaverse, the majority of people who just play around in it have generic Avatars, Brandy and Clint or possibly by the "Avatar Construction Set," which strongly implies that this is what most people want and that these are the accepted standards of beauty. Girls want the stereotyped and limited expressions of Brandy. Guys want the generic machismo of Clint. Hiro casually remarks in part of the Street "the are enough Clints and Brandys to found a new ethnic group."

Franchized-laden Southern California has its generic masses, conveniently labeled under different housing units. Racism is alive and well in white or black communities. When Jason is being courted by the Mafia his is told about Greater Hong Kong,

"They're all Nips and you now why I say that? Not because I'm a fucking racist, because I'm not. Because to them -- to those people, y'know, the Nips -- we're all foreign devils."

Y.T. encounters multitudes of generic types and her attitude of disgust is easily transmitted to the reader. On Tadzhikistanis:

Every jeek in southern California is here, it seems, driving their giant wrecked taxicabs with alien livestock in the back seat, reeking of incense and sloshing neaon-hued Airwicks!

On the Mafia:

It is a jamboree of Young Mafia. These youths are even duller than the ones from the all-Mormon Deseret Burbclave. The boys are wearing tedious black suits. The girls are encrusted with pointless femininity.

On Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates Employees:

Behind the counter, a pudgy high school babe, dishwater blond hair that has been worked over pretty good with a curling iron, blue metal-flake eyeshadow, an even coat of red makeup covering her broad gelatinous cheeks.

The ethnicities, discussed by Laura Lee, are all distasteful. Even the generic occupations of the Enforcers or Crips are pretty dumb. As if the many generic type of this world are not enough, the whole purpose of the virus is to turn everyone's mind the same. Against this background it is pretty easy to make Hiro and Y.T. sparkle brilliantly, spring from the margins, and save the world.

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