#24 – Snow Crash Review – Neal Stephenson

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Neal Stephensen’sSnow Crash is the second “Cyber-Punk” novel on this list (the first being Neuromancer) and, in my opinion, the more enjoyable of the two. While both novels take place in a near-future dystopia of high crime and industrial sprawl in which humans are able to interface directly with a world wide data network, Snow Crash presents us with a more sympathetic main character and a more believable and imaginable future landscape – not just in the physical reality of the novel but in the virtual-reality universe that the characters frequently inhabit. For me as a reader, being able to visualize the setting that the action is taking place in is paramount, and Stephensen does a great job of showing you what the characters are experiencing, even when the landscape is unfamiliar and the concepts foreign. Maybe it’s my lack of technical knowledge or an unfamiliarity with the “Hacker” sub-culture, but Gibson’s universe was much more difficult for me to see in my mind’s eye than Snow Crash. And while I didn’t follow everything that happened, I ended up enjoying the fast-paced, darkly humorous nature of the book immensely.

Snow Crash Summary: The society of Snow Crash is no longer ruled by strong government powers, but is instead controlled by various syndicates, corporations and business franchises (such as Uncle Enzo’s CosaNostra Pizza Inc. and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong) who each control a separate enclave in the city of Los Angeles. While most citizens live in comparatively poor conditions (with crime, drugs and violence being widespread), some are able to escape their reality and become someone else by creating and maintaining avatars in what is known as the Metaverse – a virtual reality construction that users are able to interface with by means of personal terminals in the real world. Status and respect in the metaverse are judged primarily by the sophistication of the user’s avatar and the ability to access certain restricted parts of the virtual world.

The Hero of the story is the hilariously named Hiro Protagonist, a pizza driver for the Mob (and virtual Samurai warrior) who, along with a streetwise girl named Y.T. (Yours Truly, of course) begins to investigate the appearance of a drug (or virus) called Snow Crash that has been infecting members of the metaverse while at the same time also infecting the user’s minds in the real world. As they begin to unravel the mystery of the Snow Crash virus, they learn more about the virus’ relationship to ancient Sumerian mythology, neurolinguistics and computer programming – all while searching for the source of the virus in hopes of preventing its widespread use.

Snow Crash Review: While I don’t pretend to fully grasp all of the concepts that Stephensen brings up about computer programs and their intrinsic relationship to human language functions, I understood enough to get the overall gist of the conflict and its context within the larger events of the plot. And apart from the technical aspects of the novel, the notion that someone can become greater than their real world self in a virtual environment through their hacking skills is inherently fascinating and appealing. While Hiro is a mere pizza boy in the real world, in the Metaverse he is a warrior prince and expert swordsman. Who hasn’t wanted to live out a fantasy version of themselves in which their power isn’t limited by physical constrictions or rules? So whether you are a computer programming specialist, an expert in ancient languages or just someone who enjoys a good read, Snow Crash has something to get you hooked.

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September 7, 2010

#12 – Neuromancer Review – William Gibson

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Neuromancer is another one of those novels that I didn’t appreciate fully the first time I read it. While I clearly remember the ideas and characters being fascinating, I had a hard time deciphering the dense technical language and computer slang that colored most of the dialogue. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m not much of a computer hacker myself (just a lowly humanities loving English-major), but the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in the nebulous realm of “Cyberspace” (a term coined by Gibson himself) made it difficult for me picture the action that was being described. But regardless of my inability to “break the code” of the novel, I still recommend it for anyone who likes their science fiction gritty, dystopic and seeped in the culture and conventions of computer hacking.

Released in 1984, Neuromancer is probably the most famous “Cyper-Punk” novel of all time. Gibson’s masterpiece features all of the conventions of the genre, including a marginalized computer hacker for a hero, a bleak future landscape of mega-corporations and crime infested slums, vast connected data networks that can interface directly with the human brain and the tone of a hard-boiled film noir. While it wasn’t the first to use these elements, it was the first to breakthrough and become a mainstream success, winning the “Triple Crown” of science fiction awards: The Nebula, the Hugo and the Philip K. Dick Awards.

Neuromancer Summary: The novel focuses on disgraced computer hacker Henry Dorsett Case who has been poisoned by his former employer and rendered unable to interface with the global computer network. In exchange for a cure for the poison (and the ability to work again), Case agrees to help a shadowy ex-military officer named Armitage perform a particularly difficult hack. With the help of the beautifully lethal mercenary Molly Millions, Case sets out to uncover the mystery behind his new employer and the true nature of the work that he is being asked to do.

While the sub-genre of Cyber-Punk may not be my favorite, I can certainly appreciate a well told story with unfamiliar elements. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (#24 on this list) is another cyper-punk styled novel that I enjoyed immensely. And although it may not have resonated with me as much as some of the other novels on this list, I have to admit that Neuromancer is still one of the most thoroughly unique and ambitious books I’ve ever read.

Neuromancer Quotes: “A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and he’d still see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void….”

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

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September 21, 2010