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(right image credit: Huxtable)

Neal Stephenson
"Snow Crash" (nv)
© 1992, Ace Special
--sf novel : 1993 Locus /10
--novel : 1993 Prometheus
--shortlist : 1994 Clarke
--novel : 1994 British SF
--Translated Novel : 1997 Imaginaire W
--foreign novel : 2001 Ignotus W

--/ second place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ style award


Considered by many to be the ultimate cyberpunk novel (or second only to Gibson's Neuromancer), Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash has everything the genre requires: high-tech toys and low-life characters, a flash and dazzle style, a noir beat, enough concepts and ideas for a dozen other novels, and heaping helpings of bad boy attitude.

Set in a run-down LA in an archetypal "not too distant future," the novel is basically the story of Hiro Protagonist (wink, wink), the "Last Of The Freelance Hackers And Greatest Swordfighter In The World" and ex-pizza delivernator for the mafia; and Y.T., a nimble and nubile adolescent "kourier."

In the course of trying to survive a world run by corporations, and where the endless suburbs are lit by the omnipresent loglow of franchises like Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, and CosaNostra Pizza, Hiro and Y.T. stumble into a plot by billionaire villain L. Bob Rife to... well, rule the world using a special brand of information warfare with its roots in ancient Sumerian mythology. Along the way, Hiro and Y.T. meet characters such as Ng, the technofetishist weaponeer, and Raven Ravinoff, the nuclear bomb-connected Aleut harpooner and assassin whose preferred weapons are molecular-sharp glass knives.

Snow Crash, when it rocks and rolls, which it often does, is like strapping yourself in for a dose a blisteringly fast anime: a near-chaos of cyberdelic images, methamphetamine-fueled concepts, quick bursts of characters and characterization, along with flights of pure digital fantasy. For those new to cyberpunk, reading a chapter of Snow Crash is like taking a shot of science fiction espresso.

Luckily, Neal Stephenson also knows when to put on the brakes, to pull over by the side of his roaring information superhighway of a novel and let the rest of us catch up a bit. For all its flash and dazzle, Snow Crash also has some great moments of humanity. The scenes, for instance, with Y.T. and Uncle Enzo, CEO of the American Mafia and Hiro's ex-boss as head of CosaNostra Pizza, are charming without feeling cornball. Other characters, some of them only featured for a few paragraphs, manage the same.

Some have criticized Snow Crash as a perfect example of style over substance, sarcastically saying that it's cyberpunk's purest form. Sure, the book has some serious flaws – like when it slams on the brakes to lecture Hiro, and the reader, about Sumerian mythology's relationship to linguistics and human information processing. But what saves Snow Crash from being bubblegum and instead makes it a satisfying literary meal is the inescapable sense that Stephenson is not taking himself, the book, or cyberpunk itself, very seriously.

Snow Crash is, in its heart, a cartoon: a laughing, giggling, fun time. The heroes aren't heroes. The villains – for the most part – aren't villains. The Metaverse – Stephenson's version of cyberspace – is a bold and colorful place full of animated characters, and the real world the stages and settings are too bold and outrageous to be anything but Stephenson's elbow to the reader's ribs with a chuckle of "Get it?"

To press the point, just look at Stephenson's other novels. Some have the same pop and sizzle -- like The Diamond Age -- but after reading Snow Crash it gets pretty clear when he's going for serious and poignant and when he's taking us along on a digital, cyberdelic, outrageous, dazzling, bizarre, animated, good-time ride.
(review by M. Christian)

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