Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992) Neal Stephenson

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Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992)

Neal Stephenson

  • American writer, b. 1959
  • Has a degree in geography; both parents were scientists
  • Is also a practicing computer programmer and was involved in a space-research company, Blue Origin, until 2006
  • Wrote the alternative history “trilogy of eight” The Baroque Cycle and its prequel, Cryptonomicon
  • Also wrote a book on computers, In the Beginning Was the Command Line, and other non-fiction essays
  • Like Adams and Gibson, he is a Mac user

Snow Crash and Cyberpunk

  • Often described as “postcyberpunk”
  • Originally planned as a CGI graphic novel
  • Has influenced actual-world developments, esp. online games
  • Popularized the term “avatar” for a user’s online representation (originally comes from Hindu mythology)

Stephenson on Cyberpunk

  • “It's a great label. You get to wear black leather jackets and mirrored shades and be hip and cool as long as cyberpunk is hip and cool.”
  • “for a while, information technology was incredibly important, yet it had been ignored or gotten wrong by science fiction. There was this vast terrain of virgin territory, and there was a land rush. Now the revolutionary nature of that technology has become familiar. To make the obligatory social criticism kind of comment here, the bursting of the Internet bubble has proven that information technology is just another technology.”
  • Snow Crash turned out to be a failed prediction. People have shown limited interest in immersive 3-D technology, so I think it worked better as a novel than as a prognostication. But it provided a reasonable, coherent picture of a particular kind of entertainment technology.”
  • “Science fiction…doesn’t always mean it’s about the future; it’s an awareness that this is different.”

Stephenson on Gibson Taken from a 2004 interview on Slashdot

  • “A year or two after SNOW CRASH came out I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson's Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson's arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle.”

Stephenson’s Use of Humour

  • Hybrid of Adams and Gibson?
  • Parody of cyberpunk, as Adams parodied “traditional” SF?
  • Expository narrative
  • Character names (real or adopted?)
  • Pop-culture references
  • Extrapolation via exaggeration

The Society of Snow Crash

  • “anarcho-capitalism” – essentially the opposite of Banks’ Culture
  • Hyperinflation
  • Corporate culture gone wild: countries give way to franchises
  • Everything is privatized and for-profit
  • Mafia as corporation - some might ask, what’s the difference?
  • “A Burbclave, that’s the place to live. A city-state with its own constitution, a border, laws, cops, everything”
  • Short for “suburban enclave” - like gated communities in the actual world?
  • Designed to conform to each other: “everything looks the same in America; there are no transitions now”
  • “Have to bulldoze lots of neighbourhoods to do it, but those 70s and 80s developments exist to be bulldozed, right?”
  • Segregated societies, including racism
  • Racial mix of main characters (Hiro is Japanese/Korean/African-American)
  • “There’s only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), high-speed pizza delivery”
  • Office bureaucracy gone wild - a theme shared by Stephenson and Adams
  • Polygraph testing - reminiscent of Dick?
  • Punishment by social ostracism (branding) - suggestion of Banks?

Stephenson on Politics

  • “Artists often make fools of themselves, and begin to produce bad art, when they decide to get political. A novelist needs to be able to see the world through the eyes of just about anyone, including people who have this or that set of views on religion, politics, etc. By espousing one strong political view a novelist loses the power to do this. Anyone who has convinced himself, based on reading my work, that I hold this or that political view, is probably wrong. What is much more likely is that, for a while, I managed to get inside the head of a fictional character who held that view.”

The Metaverse

  • VR-based interface
  • Popular as an escape from reality
  • “Designed on a computer screen, but with an eye toward the elegance of things past and forgotten about”
  • “In the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist is a warrior prince”
  • Avatars can be anything you want, limited only by imagination and bandwidth
  • Generic avatars (Brandy and Clint)
  • Daemons - avatars with no human users
  • Hypercards: “used in the Metaverse to represent a chunk of data”
  • Differences between the Metaverse and Reality - e.g. Hiro’s reaction to killing an actual person vs. an avatar
  • “Hiro gets information...gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document” - and all of it goes into CIC’s Library
  • The Librarian: source of expository information, ‘guide’ to Stephenson’s world
  • Stephenson’s fascination with powers of 2, especially 65,536 (another possible answer to everything?)

Other Technology

  • “Smart boxes”
  • Kouriers’ skateboards and magnetic harpoons
  • Kouriers as hybrid of Gibson’s “cowboys” and Adams’ hitchhikers?
  • The Rat Things - cybernetically altered animals (cf. Dick’s replicant animals)
  • Military technology: “Reason”, atomic bombs
  • Hiro’s Japanese swords
  • “the only American who actually knows how to set the alarm on her digital wristwatch”

Stephenson on Religion

  • “A lot of secular, modern people claim to be disillusioned whenever they learn that any smart person is religious....The fundamentalist churches nowadays do a much better job of promulgating their views and are much more vocal and outspoken, and if you're a secular person who doesn't have much interaction with organized religion, then the only time you ever see a Christian, it's someone saying that evolution is a lie and the world is only 6,000 years old. It's very easy to miss the fact that the Catholic Church and all the mainline Protestant denominations long ago accepted evolution and have no problem with it at all. I frequently run into militantly secular types who think that all Christians, for example, deny the theory of evolution. That accounts for a certain amount of the militancy of secular types in public discourse. They just can't believe people believe this stuff. It seems patently idiotic to them.”
  • “Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates” - religion as corporation; also plays on desire for conformity
  • L. Bob Rife - modelled on L. Ron Hubbard (who started out as a writer of SF)
  • Why atheism and intellectualism seem to be connected in the popular imagination: “99% of what goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion”
  • Juanita’s conversion and her fascination with the Snow Crash project
  • Religion as escape from reality, or connection to hyperreality - analogues to the Metaverse?
  • Symbolism of the Tower of Babel story; Snow Crash as Babel in reverse?
  • “If it’s provably false, then the Bible is a lie; and if it’s provably true, then the existence of God is proven and there’s no room for faith”
  • Glossolalia and xenoglossia: ‘speaking in tongues’
  • Pentecostals and Charismatics

More on Stephenson and Religion

  • Codification of religion (e.g. compilation of the Hebrew Bible) reflecting changes in belief and practice
  • Repression, or redirection, of the feminine in religion?
  • Sacred texts / master narratives as sociopolitical allegories
  • Is Stephenson questioning religious history or making use of it for his own purposes?
  • “the defeat of chaos, the separation of the static, unified world into a binary system, is identified with creation”
  • Roles of unity, chaos, multiplicity?

Linguistic Theories

  • Universal / Transformational Grammar (Chomsky et al.): the ability to learn language is coded in the brain; “deep structures”
  • Relativism: language determines thought processes (cf. Derrida: “There is nothing outside the text”)
  • Monogenesis: all languages can be traced back to a proto-language
  • Polygenesis: languages evolved separately
  • “Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there’s always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.”

Religion, Viruses, and Memetics

  • Memetic theory: introduced by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) and Douglas Hofstadter in Memetics (1980); from a Greek word meaning “imitator”
  • Memes are units of information, named by analogy to genes (the term is now often used to refer to Internet jokes - thus the word itself becomes a self-referential example)
  • Spread of memes is often compared to spread of viruses (e.g. “viral marketing”); cf. Douglas Rushkoff, Media Virus (1994)
  • Dawkins’ essay Virus of the Mind (1991) specifically compares religion to viruses

Snow Crash and Sumerian Mythology

  • “This Snow Crash thing - is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?... What’s the difference?”
  • Asherah - the Sumerian mother goddess (also referred to in the Old Testament); known as “Queen of Heaven” (cf. Isis, Mary)
  • connection between biological viruses and memes
  • The Me - divine laws and agreements
  • Inanna in the Underworld - connection to Juanita going after Rife
  • 0 and 1 in the drawing
  • Religious reformers as proto-hackers (Enki, Jesus; others too?)
  • Suggests the vicious cycle of religious history: each reform leads to rigidity in its own right
  • “A really advanced hacker comes to understand the true inner workings of the machine - he sees through the language he’s working in and glimpses the secret functioning of the binary code”

Viruses and Drugs

  • Drug use, esp. steroid use, in the society
  • Snow Crash as both virus and drug - similar effects in both computers and users?
  • “Snow Crash penetrates the walls of brain cells and goes to the nucleus where the DNA is stored”
  • “They infect people by injecting them with the blood of sick hackers”


  • “I’ve got so much antiviral medicine in my system that nothing could get through”
  • “Your brain has an immune system, just like your body. The more you use it - the more viruses you get exposed to - the better your immune system becomes.”
  • Critical thinking as antiviral programming

Stephenson’s Female Characters

  • Y.T.
  • 15-year-old messenger
  • Streetwise and independent, but knows when to ask for help
  • Relationship with her mother
  • Significance of her name
  • Enhancements? (e.g. her anti-rape device)
  • Is she a ‘typical’ cyberpunk heroine?
  • She is briefly mentioned in The Diamond Age
  • Cf. Gibson (Molly)
  • Juanita
  • Intellectual and religious - sees no discrepancy
  • Helped establish the Metaverse
  • Nature of her relationship with Hiro?
  • Attitudes of her co-workers: “the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists”
  • Cf. Banks (Yay); Adams (Trillian)

Hiro vs. Raven

  • Hiro does not make a fuss about being mixed-race
  • Spends too much time in the Metaverse: “Time to get immersed in Reality”
  • Becomes a security consultant in the Metaverse
  • Raven defines himself by his race and by historical prejudices
  • “Pentecostal Russian Orthodox” - his religion as escape from his reality?
  • “The Western, American lifestyle had come this close to killing me” - so he decides to kill it
  • “Their skins were different colours but they all belonged to the same ethnic group: Military”
  • Connection of Hiro’s father to Raven’s - origin of Hiro’s swords

Other Characters

  • Uncle Enzo - businessman / crimelord / ex-soldier; sympathetic gangster – use and subversion of stereotypes about his ethnicity and professions
  • Da5id - “always...certain of everything, even when he’s totally wrong”
  • Lagos - “the meta-librarian”
  • Ng - Metaverse as nostalgic re-creation
  • Fido - chapters from his POV; emphasizes his memories of Y.T.
  • Mr. Lee - stereotypical Hong Kong businessman, poor translations and all

Stephenson and Popular Culture

  • Globalized culture - everyone borrows from everyone else; diversity among conformity?
  • Vitaly - “Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge collectives in LA”
  • Uncle Enzo and Cosa Nostra Pizza Inc. - Italian influences on American culture
  • Pop-culture presence in the Metaverse
  • Sushi K - more style than substance, but lyrics allude to cultural fusion, outsourcing, etc.; use of Japanese culture

Pre- or Post-Apocalyptic Society?

  • References to historical wars, but not to any recent ones
  • Sudden transition or gradual changes?
  • Disparities between rich and poor: Metaverse vs. the Raft
  • “Infocalypse”
  • “My system crashed....I had been washed in the blood....I belonged to the Word now”
  • Warnings/implications for the actual world?

The Metaverse and/in Reality

  • Preference of one over the other, and why? (e.g. the Gargoyles)
  • Is one being developed at the expense of the other? (cf. Dick & Gibson)
  • Metaverse as re-creation of important memories? (e.g. Ng, the Rat Things)

Stephenson and Other Writers

  • Stephenson vs. Lem: use of academic discourse; influence of real-world academic writing
  • Stephenson vs. Dick: role of animals; role of entropy
  • Stephenson vs. Adams: humour and social satire; light-hearted treatment of SF conventions (Stephenson as Adams’ counterpart in cyberpunk?); playful approaches to serious questions; AI as guide
  • Stephenson vs. Banks: treatment of anarchy; influence of games and gamers
  • Stephenson vs. Gibson: treatment of virtual worlds, esp. in relation to reality; role of hackers and messengers; influence on actual-world computing

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