Tuesday, September 11, 2012

12-year-old Drunken Fantasy

[This is a follow up to the A to Z Challenge in that I mentioned Snow Crash in this post and in this one. I talked about a lot of books during the challenge that I had never read, and this is the second work I've read from those I mentioned back in April, the first being "Pygmalion's Spectacles," which was also mentioned in the Virtual Reality post and I talked about it again here. Having finished Snow Crash, here is my review.]

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 thing is, though, Stephenson evidently did realize it was stupid, because he acknowledges within the book that it's stupid by having another character tell Hiro he has a stupid name. It didn't dissuade him from using it, though. His secondary character has a similar name in  that she's called "Y.T." which seems to have been used just so there can be confusion and have people call her "Whitey."

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)
Which is to say that I just couldn't buy the book from that perspective, because the world as it's presented in the book could never have gotten to the state that it was in in just a couple of decades from the divergence point. It's utterly ridiculous.

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.


  1. But it did make for an amusing review!
    So he's like the Uwe Boll of books, huh? Hopefully Boll doesn't make a movie out of it.

  2. Me to an agent: "Hi, my book is about a guy, Joe Hero, and he's given a computer that explains the entire story to us. He also hangs out with a super hot 15 year old girl and the bad guy spends half the book in a helicopter."

    Agent: "What are you smoking, and why are you still in my office?"

    How did this book get published and how does it have such a huge following?

  3. I have never read "Snow Crash." But from your review, I'm gonna save those hours of my life and avoid it. Thanks for the heads up, Andrew. I really enjoyed reading this because your "tone" came across as kind of funny...like a good humorous rant. Bravo sir!

  4. I also read the book, and also hated it, for slightly different reasons than Andrew had. But as a skilled critical reader, I have to agree with all his points--the action in the book is completely disconnected from the actual plot and the whole plot is revealed multiple times (and at agonizing length) by talking heads. I really cannot understand why this book is on so many sci-fi fans' lists of favorites. It's just bad writing.

    Previously I had read Diamond Age, also by Stephenson, and I don't remember it being terrible, but I also didn't love it as some people who recommended it to me did. Snow Crash, in contract, is a piece of utter crap.

    I will also mention that I found the author's treatment of the 15 year old female character to be definitely predatory. That was really disturbing to me. I can forgive bad writing but that sort of thing just creeps me out.

    Sarah aka Andrew's wife

  5. This was hilarious. If I were reading your blog for the very first time I might think you made all this up, but I know this is you and you're not joshing us. I've never heard of this book but it sounds like a real trip. Maybe that's where the author's influence came from, along with too many bad Saturday morning cartoon shows.

    Tossing It Out

  6. Wow. Well I will definitely be leaving it off my list. Or reading it when I'm drinking.

  7. Judging from your review of this book, I would withold any recommendation to read his other works. I read Cryptonomicon and Reamde and thought they were both works of a genius, I don't think either of them had any of the plotting problems you mentioned, but if that show vs tell thing bothers you that much, well, that doesn't change in later books.

  8. Alex: I haven't seen any of his movies except Bloodrayne, and I think I wiped that one from my mind, so I can't really make a call on that.
    I was, actually, hoping for amusing, so that's good :)

    ABftS: I have no idea! I suppose I can understand the people that get distracted by the "oh! that's so cool!" thoughts and don't have any actual brain functions happening anyway, but I can't figure out how it got published. Anyone going through that manuscript with any kind of critical eye should have pointed out the conflicts in the story. It baffles me. (Of course, the editing is poor, too. Lots and lots of punctuation errors.)

    Michael: That's the tone I was going for, although it's all true what I said which is what makes it so horrid!

    Sarah (well, not to Sarah): What's kind of funny is that usually she will just stop reading a book that's bad, but, with this one, she couldn't stop herself. Like watching a car wreck.

    Lee: You know, I do actually have to think that he was drunk when he came up with the idea. Or he took way too many philosophy classes at some point.

    Bess: One or the other definitely.

    Rusty: All I can say is that Snow is one of his first book and his big break out book, so, maybe, he got better? Still, if he spends all his time just telling us the plot I'm not sure I see the point.

  9. It gets worse...

    Now let me go bang my head against the desk as I try and figure out how this got published in the first place.

  10. That's such a stinker when a blurb doesn't fit the novel at all. Read a few horror novels that did that as well. Bummed me out!

  11. Haven't read the book, but just the age of the characters alone would have been the turn off for me. Even in 1979 when I was the age of the characters, the entire plot of it would have been a "disinterested" for me. Thanks for the review, if this were on my list of want to read, I would quickly scratch it off.

  12. AA: I don't even understand how that can happen. Don't they require the people that write those things read the book first? It's ridiculous!

    G_G: Glad I could help. Sort of. Not sort of glad, but it seems that it's not quite help since you wouldn't have been interested anyway.

  13. The best I can recall of Snow Crash was:

    1. The skateboarding girl gets around by hitching rides on cars. Also, there's some weird stuff about a Dentata.

    2. It seemed that a lot of silly pop-culture stuff and unlikely characters were thrown together...kind of like one of those bizarre one-off light-hearted episodes of The X-files.

    3. There were grand ideas that offered prescient insights about the internet, which was in its infancy...but that came off sort of hokey and weird in the specifics. I wonder how much it's been dated by its specifics, and to what extent its thoughts about virtual realities offered insights about what was to come (Second Life, etc.)

    Also, just wondering what you thought of Never Let Me Go as it also appeared to be a rather vaguely explained alternate reality.

  14. neal: The idea of the skateboarding is kind of cool, but the specifics of that were pretty, well, 12-y-o with the smart wheels and all of that.

    The realities of how the whole VR world would work (from a tech standpoint) are pretty dumb (with the whole laser in the eyes thing (but, then, we were still working on the Star Wars program at the time and thought lasers were -the- thing)), but the implementation is probably possible as much as anything is since you can make anything in a virtual world.

    I haven't read that, and my stack is too tall, at the moment, to add it on.