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.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…