My first impression of Snow Crash came from my younger son who was looking at it as it laid on the table waiting for me to get to it. He said something like, "The main character's name is Hiro Protagonist?!" and burst out laughing. Being incredulous, I grabbed the book and looked and, sure enough, that is the main character's name. The thoughts in my head ran something like this:
- "That is so dumb!"
- "That sounds like something that would come from a bunch of guys sitting around drinking." You know, because they're drinking, they think it's funny.
- "Stephenson must not have realized the next day that it wasn't as funny as it seemed when he was drinking."
- "It sounds like the kind of thing my oldest would have suggested when he was 5 and wanted to name his not-yet-born younger brother Hot-Speeder." You know, if he had known the word "protagonist" at 5.
- "That is so dumb!"
The second impression followed closely on the heels of the first. Hiro delivers pizzas (for the Mafia, but that's another story). Hiro is also an elite hacker and the best samurai swordsman in the world. He delivers pizzas. As I digested this information, I flashed back to an idea my oldest told me about when he was about 12: a ninja on a motorcycle, swords crossed on his back, delivering pizzas. He, at 12, thought this was a wonderful idea. At 12, it probably is. At this point in the book, I began entertaining the idea that this was just some kind of delusion from the hero, Hiro; that might have made the book interesting. But it turned out not to be; everything is supposed to be as it's presented.
As you can see, my view of the book wasn't shaping into anything positive. But it gets worse... oh, it gets so much worse.
See, the back of the book says the book is "...a mind-altering romp through a future America..." A future America. And that's the hinge that broke the whole story for me, because it's not set in the future at all. Whoever wrote the back cover blurb must not have actually read the book, and that's without excuse. It is even more without excuse that that's been allowed to stand through 19 printings of the book. It makes me wonder if anyone in the publishing industry ever actually read the book.
Let me break this down for you.
Hiro's father fought in World War II. Not his grandfather, his father. To be at all plausible, the story can't really be taking place any later than the mid-90s. The book was published in 1992, so, really, the story was happening "now" as it was published (because 3 years into the future is not a "future America," at least not as it's presented in the book). So, basically, what we're dealing with is an alternate timeline world, which would be okay if
1. it was presented that way
2. there was some reason for the HUGE differences between the world of the book and our world
- what caused the divergence (which happened sometime after WWII and, probably, after Vietnam)
- how in the heck did the technology get so advanced (because it's decades (at least) more advanced than what we have now (two decades after the book was written)
So... I'm reading, I'm not very far in, and I'm having huge issues with the book. And it gets worse.
The "partnership" between Y.T. and Hiro is only there because the author decided it would be. The characters have no motivation toward it. They meet and Y.T. says "hey, you wanna be partners?" and Hiro says "yeah, sure." The problem is that Y.T. is a 15-year-old girl and Hiro is a 30-something guy with no job. The relationship is never mutual, either. Y.T. just feeds information to Hiro while occasionally being bossed around. She gets nothing in return other than getting to say he's her "partner." It was dumb.
But it gets worse.
Early in the book, after Hiro has lost his pizza delivery job because he crashed the pizza car (see, so now he's a completely unemployed samurai hacker (pun intended)), he's in the metaverse, the virtual reality world of the book, trying to get intel he can sell. Some stuff happens including Hiro getting into a fight that just happens so that we can see Hiro's virtual sword skills. But! In the middle of all of this stuff in the metaverse, we cut to Y.T. who has gotten herself thrown into "the Clink." She needs to be rescued, so she calls Hiro to get her out of her jam. This is pre-partnership and, I suppose, the impetus of the partnership. Anyway, Hiro shows up and rescues her, and they part ways. THEN, we go back to Hiro right where we left him in the metaverse about to have this fight. Basically, Hiro was in two places at once, because there is no explanation ever given about how these two events happened at the same time. Basically, Stephenson needed to break to the other character and never took into account the conflicting time frame.
This is not the only time we see Stephenson have issues with keeping things like this straight, and this next bit has spoilers, so skip ahead if you have the misguided notion of wanting to read this book. Otherwise, read on!
1. Near the end of the book, Hiro is explaining everything to some dudes (you know, your basic telling instead of showing, but it's worse than that (but I'll get to that in a moment)), and one of the guys asks Hiro why he needs to get the clay tablet. The problem? Hiro hadn't gotten to that part yet. Basically, Stephenson just has the guy ask a question that he, supposedly, knows nothing about so that he can dump the info to the readers. It made me want to gouge the pages. First, I don't need to have stuff explained to me (especially more than once!), but, if you're going to explain to me, don't do it in a stupid way like having a bunch of guys who don't have a clue about what's going on start asking questions based on info they don't have.
2. During the climax of the book, the main tough dude bad guy is on a helicopter. He's been on the helicopter for a while. Except when he's suddenly needed to kill a bunch of people, he's somewhere else killing them before the helicopter arrives at the location. No explanation. Nothing. He's just already there. After Raven has killed all the dudes he needs to kill, then the helicopter with the head bad dude shows up. The helicopter that Raven had been on for chapters and chapters. I wanted to rip the pages out of the book (but I'm going to trade it in at the used book store for something that's actually good, so I refrained).
There are all of these specific issues of stupidity in the book, way more than I've mentioned here, but the worst thing about the book had nothing to do with those things. And those were bad enough. I mean, if I hadn't been trying to find out why the book is such an "important" sci-fi book, I wouldn't have read it. I would have stopped at the point where I realized it was set "now," because, really, that was a deal breaker for me, except I wasn't to anything, yet, that was giving me a reason why it made such an impact, so I had to keep going to find out.
The beginning of the book has a bunch of inane action that has nothing to do with anything before we actually get to the inciting incident. After that, someone shows up and gives Hiro a special computer thing, and, basically, the computer tells Hiro everything he needs to know for the rest of the book. He never does anything to discover anything. The computer just tells him the story. And, you know, it's this long philosophical discussion with the computer (that goes on for, like, 1/3 of the book) that, again, reminded me of a bunch of guys staying up late drinking and someone says "what if language was a virus?" and they just went on and on about it thinking themselves all deep and crap and everyone wakes up the next day and realizes what a stupid idea it was. Except, well, everyone but Neal Stephenson. He wakes up the next morning and decides to write a book about it with his other stupid, drunken idea, the name of the protagonist, oh, yeah! Protagonist! And then threw in the stuff he fantasized about when he was 12, namely being a ninja hacker pizza delivery guy with a hot 15-year-old girl.
Oh, yeah, did I mention that Y.T. is 15? Because she is. And she spends a goodly portion of the book being concerned with what a hot 15-y-o piece she is. (Yes, I know I mentioned it, but OH MY GOSH it's so constant in the book.)
Oh! Oh, wait! So, yeah, there's this huge discussion with the computer, right, where the computer tells him everything. Blah blah blah. The whole plot is just explained to us without any action to go with it. So that's bad enough (actually, it's horrible, because, like, that's the HUGEST no no of writing: Show, don't tell, but Stephenson apparently thinks we wouldn't be able to figure it out if he showed us, or, maybe, he just couldn't figure out how to show us his deep, philosophical conversation with himself), but, at the end, he has to re-tell it all from Hiro's perspective to make sure we understood what he already told us, so we get to spend another couple of chapters with Hiro explaining the plot to people that aren't really important. Except that they are, but we never knew that until just at that moment when Hiro needs to explain everything to them so that they can take care of the bad guy. Basically, the book spends a lot of time telling us the story with action mixed in that's only loosely related to the plot.
The only interesting thing in the book is Stephenson's vision of virtual reality and virtual worlds. Way back in '92, I guess I can see people getting excited about what he did with that stuff, since the whole virtual world thing didn't really exist, yet. Of course, it still doesn't exist via virtual reality, but virtual worlds are virtually a dime a dozen these days (sorry for the pun but not sorry enough to take it out (see what I did there? acknowledging it but leaving it in)), and some of them are even modeled on the idea of Snow Crash. It doesn't make up for how poorly written the book is, though. It's not the worst written book I've ever read, but I think it may have been the stupidest. I mean that. It has so many plot issues and plot holes and, well... maybe I shouldn't expect more, but, yeah, I expect more from big time books from big time publishers (and, remember, this was before the breakthrough of independent and self publishing). Someone, at some point, should have said... something. Something like, "Go back and fix this." But no one ever did.
Which brings up a whole slew of other questions, because this book was a big deal. So, as far as being a money maker, I suppose they were correct to release it the way it is, but it's actually what I would call a piece of garbage, and I don't say that very often. I mean, I hated (hated) The Sword of Truth books (after the first one), and I wouldn't call those garbage, but this book has no redeeming qualities. It has no real plot structure. The protagonist (and I can barely even use the word in connection with the book, because the author had to tell us who the protagonist is so that we would know) doesn't do anything to facilitate the story except write one computer program that's mentioned, basically, as an aside and that he does because he's bored. It's a linear story, but the author couldn't keep track of when things were supposed to be happening so there are conflicts all over the place. The bad guy is taken out by the equivalent of a car crash. And there is no denouement at all. It just ends right there. So the questions it brings up all have to do with critical thinking and reading and, maybe, I need to do a post about that, but, right now, I can't figure out whether I envy or pity people who don't engage in critical thinking when they read.
I've heard that Stephenson has some good books out there, but, then, I also head that this was a good book, so it's really highly unlikely that I'll ever look at anything else he's written. Snow Crash is easily the worst book I've read this year. Not the worst written, but the worst in concept and execution for sure. In fact, I can't think of any book that I've read that I would say is worse. Even books I couldn't finish.