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Snow Crash

·5 mins

Snow Crash is a cyberpunk speculative fiction novel written by Neal Stephenson. It is set in an alternate 21st century Los Angeles where people have access to a simulated virtual reality program called the metaverse. On second thoughts, the situation is not so much speculative because of Facebook and what-not. Only the metaverse is a highly sophisticated distributed virtual reality which mimics the reality to a high degree. The protagonist quite immodestly called Hiro Protagonist is a computer programmer and a Pizza delivery guy who gets embroiled in a global conspiracy to whitewash people’s brain. He is also one of the programmers who helped built the virtual reality program and frequently logs in to the program to escape the ennui of the banal real life. He meets Y.T, a lady-punk who is a courier and makes high-profile deliveries. Her mode of transportation is her electromagnetic skate-board and a harpoon-like-doohickey. She uses the harpoon to tether the skate-board to a speeding vehicle for thrill and faster commute time. Both of them independently come across strange people who are infected with a mind-virus and as such are either in a vegetative state or act in a bizarre manner. They seemingly speak the same language among themselves which turns out to be an ancient Sumerian tongue. Together Hiro and Y.T discover a conspiracy to whitewash people’s brain in the real world as well as in the metaverse.

Memetics #

Neal borrows ideas from Memetics and extends the idea of Virus in an abstract fashion. A Virus is an abstract concept which spreads itself through any population. The medium of spread could be anything - in the context of a viral disease it is a human body and human contact; in the context of a networked computer it is the operating system. When we say that a particular idea or a social media post has become viral, we are talking about Virus in the abstract term. Mass Hysteria is a spread of a viral idea which spreads FUD in the people. A fad is a virus which spread through the population using mass media. A law is a viral idea which is spread through the established machinery of Governance. A language is also a medium for a Viral break-out. Neal goes a step further and points out that the mythical struggle between good and evil is the eternal struggle of mankind to prevent the spread of Virus or a Viral outbreak.

Highlights #

What stands out in Neal’s writing is that the abstraction or analogies. He makes extensive use of his knowledge of computers and compares their operations to the workings of the human psyche. The language we speak is the operating system a software which is run on the hardware of our brain. And just like an operating system can run different programs using the hardware, our language can mould our world-view and can be used to run either malicious or helpful programs.The computer with its software and hardware is susceptible to hacks and virus attacks. In the same vein, our mind can be attacked by mind-viruses - anomalies like psychological disorders, weakness which many unscrupulous people make use of.

The novel has 90s written all over it. The socio-political period setting remind of 90s era politics. Italian Mafia, Russian or Slavic hit-men, tinkerer who developed an esoteric culture of hacking all inhabit this novel. The pace of novel harkens 90s era movies as well. I couldn’t help but think of this as a Matrix meets Die Hard meets The Name of the Rose. Imagine the high concept of Umberto Eco’s novel set in a Matrix-like subculture with a plot of a generic action movie from the nineties. In the times we live in, the computer terminology and the speech-acts do not seem esoteric but I can understand that at the time of writing these concepts could have evoked an awe or at least a feeling of tech-so-sophisticated-seems-magical. The hackers at the time were considered as high priests of an esoteric cult. Neal is familiar with the intricacies of computer programming, networking and graphics. So, the time it takes for people in metaverse to render is more than what it takes over a local process in the terminal. An inspired analogy is to model daemon utility programs as janitorial staff in the metaverse. Just as daemon programs perform routine regular tasks in the background, the Daemon programs in the metaverse help with the book-keeping tasks like cleaning up after someone dies in the metaverse. They spawn like the reaper in the metaverse to garbage-collect the resources after an avatar dies in the metaverse. Neal makes use of these daemons for providing exposition and the background knowledge as well. A useful daemon called the Librarian provides the much-needed exposition. The daemon has access to large indexed knowledge bases and answers to natural language queries.

Gripe #

My biggest gripe with the book was that the plot was all over the place. There were too many sub-plots to follow. There is a whodunit-like aspect to the novel because of a plot, but there is mystery is resolved too early. The last one-third of the novel could have been shorter. We would not have lost much by way of the story or character development.