Shiri’s Review: Snow Crash
I have an odd relationship with cyberpunk.
I love the concepts. I love the conceits. The authors who create these books are some of the most brilliant, creative minds floating around this plane of existence. They are our gatekeepers, our oracles, or guard dogs, and our red alert klaxons.
They are angry and remind us why we should be angry as well, why we should make noise and beat the status quo, any status quo we may find against our moralities and consciences, about the head and shoulders with a very large stick. They light fires under our complacent asses.
And, thus far without fail, I have to work really hard to make it to the end of a cyberpunk novel.
Snow Crash is an incredible book. I like to think of myself as a relatively intelligent individual, but Stephenson’s brain is so far beyond mine, from plot bunny to Metaverse, I think mine would explode if I even started to form the seeds of the ideas of language, neurolinguistics, the programming of the human mind, and the unraveling of myth he explores with such a deft hand. I’m talking mushroom cloud of unable to process. Gelatinous goo dripping off the walls and ceiling unable to process. “Oh, she started to have a Neal Stephenson moment but her tiny mind couldn’t handle it,” unable to process.
I loved the parts of the novel that dealt with those ideas. Could, perhaps have done with a little less exposition and a little more application, but *waves hand in air,* I’ve come to terms with the fact of hard sci-fi being a genre in which exposition is much beloved and most likely sticking around forever and ever amen. I wanted those bits of the novel to spin out into the story, to reach tentacles of Lovecraftian guile and mystery into the characters, the plot, and the narrative.
That didn’t happen. And herein, I believe, is where cyber-punk and I experience a parting of the ways.
Cyberpunk is home to the humor, often very dark, that is missing from Steampunk (generalities, sweetie darlings). It piles up the grit Urban Fantasy attempts, deliberately leaving traps upon which the reader can, will, and should, skin her elbows, knees, and chin. Because it is the nature of most humans to want what is newest, fastest, most instantly gratifying, and easiest, Cyberpunk novels often remain relevant well past their sell-by date (Snow Crash, for example, is 20 years old and the future it presents is just as terrifying now as I imagine it was then). There’s enough variety of fears in the species snake brain to promote diversity of plot, character, and genre convention.
Another other thing Cyberpunk seems to have, however, is a propensity toward words for the sake of words.
The first novel I ever wrote was 1000 plus pages. That is a lot of pages. It’s an even greater number of words (200K +, in fact). At the time, I thought I needed every single one of them.
In retrospect, a lot of it is chaff. Which doesn’t make it bad. Just eminently forgettable and unessential.
My new book is 1/5th the length. 20%. 250 pages, around 70K. I told a whole story. I explored characters. I grew and developed them. They have adventures, live lives, fight, make up… all of those things people do.
Which isn’t to say I’ll never write something of heroically epic length every again. Just means I’ve learned I don’t have to.
Cyberpunk novels always feel as though they have a lot of chaff. Characters who pop in and then out again, events that aren’t even peripherally related to the main plot, chapters long exposition that could be explored as effectively in a few pages, or even as part of the action. Everything is a deliberate, and slightly crooked, construct.
Duh, you say. That’s the point.
And maybe it is. Maybe it’s supposed to make people feel itchy and antsy and uncomfortable in their own skin. Maybe the point is to show us the way in which each of us creates a world in which we feel safe and that, in the end, that safety can be punctured with a key stroke and a line of code. Maybe all intelligence is artificial, maybe we will all end up slaves to corporate machines, and maybe we are satisfied in our complacency.
All important things to consider and explore.
There’s a way I personally need to go about such explorations and my method is another place in which Cyberpunk and I diverge.
An analogy: I suck at theoretical chemistry (real life analogy, I really do suck at theoretical chemistry). I simply cannot wrap my brain around it. Sure, I understand the basic concepts, but once there’s math involved or it goes beyond about 10th grade, I start having palpitations and getting C’s. I am, however, really good at applied chemistry in the particular form of pharmacology. I have no trouble visualizing compounds, figuring out how the work, learning and retaining why they do what they do.
The same is true of my internal explorations of the concepts explored in Cyberpunk. I understand them at a basic level, but to dig in, I need application. I need the shell of a consistent plot and characters I can connect with as people to delve. Probably the same reason I majored not in straight-up history, but instead, in religion (applied history, if you will).
I’ll keep trying. The perfect marriage is out there somewhere and, if it’s not, maybe I’ll have to lace up my Moleskin Livescribe and write it myself.
I do recommend Snow Crash, by the way. It is a truly remarkable piece of fiction and will crack the nut of your skull wide open for new ideas.
And who couldn’t use some of those from time to time.
4/5 fingers on the hand of glory for Snow Crash.