What I Just Read – Snow Crash

Snow Crash is Neil Stephenson’s cyberpunk adventure, and depending on who you ask, is either a total parody or a straightforward dystopian future novel.

One of the simplest ways to sum up this book is with the main(ish) character’s name: Hiro Protagonist.  If you think this is a funny and subversive name, you’ll probably love Snow Crash.  If you think it’s obnoxiously “meta” or on the nose or trying too hard to be funny, you may want to keep your distance.  Honestly, I fall somewhere in between; the book has some really fantastic moments and a lot of funny bits, but it sometimes just seems to be trying to hard and relying on shoddy writing, leaving a flawed product.

Right off the bat, the book puts you through a high gear, energetic and extremely funny sequence that blasts through setting without bogging down in tedious sci-fi exposition and hooks you hard.  It’s a crazy world, and segmented to the point of being silly, but Stephenson plays it mostly straight and it seems to work pretty well.  For the most part, the ultra-free market is internally consistent and the book strikes a careful balance between humor and action that is extremely fun to read even if the prose itself isn’t particularly noteworthy.  The book doesn’t really maintain the energy of the first few chapters, but whenever the action set-pieces start up, it’s a really great read.  Stephenson seems to be extremely creative with his action, and knows how to build up awesome characters and events throughout the book.  Hand held rail guns, high stakes pizza delivery, a manhunt in a hops farm, one man assaults on heavily fortified positions, floating boat islands, and a handful of hackers against a megalomaniac Ted Turner stand-in.  It’s all in good fun.

Unfortunately, all of that awesome starts to seem pretty contrived by the end of the book.  All of the central characters seem to be straight out of a teenager’s imagination: ex-special forces mafioso, Inuit psychopath with glass knives and a portable atom bomb, super-hacker master swordsman, streetwise teen master skateboard acrobat, and paraplegic robotics master.  It’s all just too much, especially when everyone else in the book either ineffectually mediocre or outright stupid.  Even the big bad ends up being almost a total nonentity, and is totally underwhelming when we do meet him, however briefly.  Further hindering the book is the massive info dumps that pop up between action portions.  It’s frustrating that he handles exposition so well for the most part then feels the need to basically lecture the reader on the internet, or Sumerian mythology, or whatever.  It makes the book grind to a halt immediately.

A few more gripes I had with the book: I found the actual Snow Crash meta-virus thing to be a huge stretch too: even for a cyber-punk hyper reality the notion of a code/blood born/linguistic brain virus that had existed for thousands of years was too over the top for me, and it felt like he was manipulating mythology to hit a foregone conclusion, if that makes sense.  I don’t think I was alone too in finding the very straightforward and consensual sex scene involving a mass murderer and a 15 year old protagonist to be incredibly uncomfortable and creepy, regardless of the context or results.  The book relies too much it seems on deus ex machina and convenient coincidences, which, combined with the weak main villain rob the climax of a lot of its dramatic force.  By the end of it, there are a lot of unresolved plot threads and unexplored ideas that never get fleshed out, but the book just stops dead rather than dealing with any of them or allowing for any real catharsis.

Perhaps I’m being to harsh on the book, because it really was mostly a good time read, but I found myself getting fairly frustrated with the book by the end.  Some of the writing quirks just wear on you, despite the great action and humor and imagination.  I honestly kind of wish I had read the book when I was a bit younger, before I became more jaded, because I know I would have loved this book as a teenager.  Even still, it’s an excellent jumping off point to cyber punk, and well worth a try.

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