The White Screen of Death

Phew, that was close. Paul Graham Raven has gone and written a review of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). My own review of the same book has been rolling around my head for the past few months and, now that Paul been there and done it, I can forget about and divert my energies towards getting through the last pages of MultiReal, which, paradoxically, I’m reviewing for Paul.

Snow Crash was a term used in the Macintosh world to describe the total, utter, never-getting-that-unsaved-documented-back crash that meant the only way to get your Mac running again was a power cycle. Stephenson took the term and applied it to minds that had been infected with some kind of memetic virus (at least, I think he did; I stopped reading Snow Crash long before this became clear in the narrative).

Snow Crash is book that people seem to love or hate. It’s a Marmite thing, as Paul writes in his review. Me? I didn’t like the book for most of the reasons given by Paul, t’wit:

There is no doubt whatsoever that Snow Crash is flawed; Stephenson’s education was as a physicist and geographer and he came to writing from the outside, which may explain why the novel flies in the face of many accepted tenets of literary writing. But I would argue that it is those very faults that made it so appealing to its fan base; even more so than William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Bruce Sterling’s cyberpunk novels, Snow Crash is ensconced deeply in the “geek canon” — a set that intersects and overlaps with parts of the SF canon, but which is compiled from a very different set of source code and criteria.

It’s difficult to know what to say about this. My gut reaction is that William Gibson can write and Neal Stephenson cannot. (Of course, I come to this opinion from reading only half of Stephenson’s third book.)

Stephenson evidently did masses of research on a number of seemingly disparate subjects, and was so enamoured of what he found that he could not but share it with the reader.

Christ, yes. Nail? On the head?

But most of all, Snow Crash defends the oft-repeated (but rarely supported) notion that “SF is inherently about the time in which it is written”, which is why it will always remain a defining novel for the generation who drove the first virtual wagon trains deep into the digital frontiers.

A great line to finish on. And there’s no doubt that Snow Crash was hugely influential, considering how often it comes up in certain circles. But I always had to think back to the uncomfortable cliché so often levelled at science fiction: that the field is over-populated by stories whose authors can produce elephant-calibre dumps of info but too little, well, je ne sais quois.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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