Review

(My review on goodreads)

Nearly everyone I have worked with in the past 20 years has told me that this is a great novel, but have all been a bit short on detail (or maybe I just tuned them all out while nodding and smiling). So now, 24 years after first publication, I decided to see what the buzz was about. And I still don’t know.

The elements of the novel are: a half-black half-Japanese guy named Hiro Protagonist, a samurai-sword wielding hacker; Y.T. a 15 year old female “kourier” with superb skateboard sckills, a take-no-shit attitude, and a bewildering array of high-tech equipment, including the very practical “dentata”; Uncle Enzo, a capo di tutti capini in the mafia; Mr. Lee, the proprietor of Mr. Lee’s New Hong Kong; and a number of other major characters, all generally associated either with hacking or with criminal enterprises.

The world is a near-future semi-dystopia in which neoliberal privatization has reached its logical conclusion: the federal government has shrunk down to a few well-fortified buildings, the rest of the world is owned by a handful of “franchises”, including that of Mr. Lee, and the mafia. Going from one place to another requires having a visa for each franchise.

A “technocratic elite”, consisting of maybe 10% of the population, are hooked into the “metaverse” - a Second Life like virtual world. And there is a way to have the virtual world influence the real world: “hypercards” can be exchanged in the metaverse, and can be used to create effects in the real world. Stephenson doesn’t make a big deal of this (perhaps because it doesn’t bear much looking into), but it is consistent with his (apparent) philosophical dualism.

The swordplay, action scenes, innovative weaponry, and social structure are all entertaining enough to keep you reading. Where it gets interesting is when Stephenson takes on linguistic theory, by way of Sumerian and the Babel myth. He borrows Chomsky’s old concept of “deep structure” to posit structures in the brain that make language acquistion possible. Once a language is learned, it is nearly impossible to access that deep structure, in much the way that someone programing in C can’t access the microcode in a moden CPU. But in Snow Crash an ancient Sumerian neorolinguistic hacker managed to implant a virus that was able to alter that structure; and now that hacker’s work has been reverse-engineered for nefarious purposes.

So, okay. It’s not Umberto Eco. But it is a good read.

The question I set out to answer was why do so many programmers venerate this novel? I think the answer is pretty simple: flattery goes a long way. Throughout the novel hackers are portrayed a a technological elite of high ability and superb skills, able to out-think run of the mill humans. If programmers had been portrayed as mere drudges (as, in fact, Y.T.’s mother is), and if the novel had questioned why it is that society is in such a sorry state given the presence of these “elites” - would programmers be raving about what a great novel this is? I don’t think so.

That’s OK, though. It really is an entertaining novel well worth spending a few hours with.

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