Skip to main content

Snow Crash (SF) - Neal Stephenson *****

I've enjoyed several of Neal Stephenson's books, but find many of them far too long, suffering from bestselling author bloatitis, so I thought it would be interesting to get hold of a copy of his classic, Snow Crash - and I'm very glad I did.

Although not a pastiche, it depends heavily on four classics of science fiction. The obvious one is William Gibson's Neuromancer, because of the net-based cyberpunk aspects that are central to Snow Crash. (The snow crash of the title is nothing to do with skiing and everything to do with computers crashing.) However, the pace and glitteriness owes a huge amount to Alfred Bester's Tiger Tiger (that's the UK title - it was originally The Stars my Destination), while the corporate-run world has a distinct feel of Pohl and Kornbluth's Gladiator at Law,  though interestingly here it's a world without any laws whatsoever. And finally there's a touch of Samuel Delaney's Babel-17, where a language is capable of doing more than simply describe things. In Delaney's book, the language is so specific that if you name something, you can construct it given only that name - here, language is capable of re-programming the human brain.

These influences, though, are only for those who are interested. If you like the kind of science fiction that hits you between the eyes and flings you into a high-octane cyber-world, particularly if you have an IT background, this is a masterpiece. Once you get over the odd name of the hero/protagonist (he's called Hiro Protagonist. Really) it is a joy to read. And despite being over two decades old, the technology really doesn't grate. Okay, Stephenson set it too early for the level of virtual reality capability, and there are too many references to video tapes, but otherwise it could have been written yesterday. What's particularly remarkable is that it is all about the internet (if not named as such) at a time when the internet wasn't widely known. This was written in 1992, yet when Microsoft launched Windows 95, it wasn't considered necessary to give any thought to the internet. That's how quickly things have changed.

As you might expect from Stephenson, there are some dramatic set-piece fights and rather a lot of violence, virtual and actual, but it also features erudite and quite lengthy library exposition of the precursor myths to many modern religions and some mind-boggling (if far-fetched) ideas about language, the nature of the Babel event and of speaking in tongues. There's also a strong female character, though today's readers might raise an eyebrow about a relationship between a 15-year-old girl and a thirty-something mass murderer. Oh, and I love the rat things.

If you find some of Stephenson's more recent books overblown, this is the one to go back to. Nicely done indeed.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…