There can be little debate that Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) was prescient. It imagined a digital landscape (the Metaverse) that bears a striking resemblance to a number of current-day e-communities like Second Life or even the World of Warcraft. It also described a massive future shift in the capitalist power structure that allowed for corporatocracy to replace democracy outright. And while McDonald’s might not yet be a sovereign nation with its own currency, there are those in or near positions of power who think that ol’ Micky Dee’s might be just as deserving of a democratic voice as you are.
Snow Crash isn’t just about dystopian future-nerds at computers though, it’s also an action/adventure story, filled with sword fights and rail guns and nuclear weapons. And somehow the primary driving force of the narrative is a semi-anthropological inspection of Sumerian myths and the historical accuracy of the biblical Tower of Babel. It’s a book that wants to be, and is, a lot of things all at once.
Sometimes all that combination works well, sometimes not. I thought, for example, that the digital action sequences admirably blurred the lines between the real world and the Metaverse – which is good, considering the book’s implication that people aren’t so different from programmable computers and therefore that actual reality isn’t all that much different than virtual reality (that I disagree with that assessment pretty strenuously is, essentially, irrelevant here). On the other hand, the emphasis on Sumerian myths seemed to me a bit forced and the branching conversations from that topic (which reminded me of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, also from 1992) seemed to wander unnecessarily.
All that aside, though, it’s characters that drive a story. With a name like Hiro Protagonist, it probably comes as no surprise that the main character of Snow Crash – swords and dreadlocks aside – fits into a fairly predictable hero archetype. He’s trying to win back his girl and, along the way, gets roped into something that runs way deeper and, of course, involves saving the world. It’s pretty standard stuff. Which is fine. It’s the more exotic elements (hackers, crazy weapons, cults, etc.) that are meant to draw you into Snow Crash, anyway.
What bothered me, though, was the development of Y.T., the book’s secondary protagonist. As a headstrong 15-year old girl with a secret life/career as a Kourier (a high-stakes, high-speed delivery person), Y.T. has the potential to be massively interesting. And she is, for most of the book anyway, as she gets into and out of trouble all while displaying a fearless front that is achieved in spite of her inner terror. She’s a wisecracking, overconfident little shit who’s great at what she does and knows it. It’s hard not to love her.
And then, in order to move the narrative forward, she becomes little more than a passive non-entity, a sexual object for the male characters to lust after. It’s a disappointing shift and, frankly, seems like a tremendous waste.
Admittedly, Y.T.’s sexuality is prevalent from pretty early in the story, though those early moments – including one in which she uses her physique as a something of a disarming weapon against her captors – only added dimension to a character becoming more and more full with each page. And then she’s reduced to little more than a sexual plaything for an extended period in order to keep the narrative moving. I would have hoped for more.
Whether it was due to Y.T.’s degradation or some awkward plot mechanics or a combination thereof, I didn’t take too much joy from my time with Snow Crash although, given my tepid response to Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), maybe it turns out that I just don’t care all that much for cyberpunk in general.