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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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