Book Review by Steve Solomon

Snow Crash

by Neal Stephenson

Bantam Spectra, 1993. 470 pages.

WHEN I BOUGHT SNOW CRASH, I realized I was about to read a wildly-popular science fiction novel concerning sword fighting, virtual reality, and pizza delivery. I had no idea that I was also going to be delving into several of my other favorite topics: religion, mythology, and linguistics. Snow Crash is science fiction of truly epic scope. It's also a lot of fun.

Did I say fun? Snow Crash  is more than fun; it's a laugh-out-loud book. It's also full of some of the coolest technogadgets ever imagined. I could go on at great length listing all the amusing and interesting ideas Stephenson comes up with, but because I don't want to spoil the book for you, I'll restrict myself to a few examples: The government has largely collapsed; local governmental functions are provided by FOQNEs (Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities). The most pervasive religion seems to be that promulgated by the Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates, also a franchise operation. Since there is no nation-wide law, the Mafia and Colombian drug cartels operate in the open, as--what else?--franchises. Among other things, the Mafia delivers pizza. Security is provided by the MetaCops, WorldBeat Security, and the Enforcers (private organizations all), or, in some places, by cybernetic entities known as Rat Things. If you're tired of Reality, you can power up your computer and goggle into the Metaverse. If you don't own a computer, you can use a public terminal (but your avatar will be a low-resolution, black-and-white image--not cool). If you're one of the elite, you can hang out at The Black Sun, the hippest bar in the Metaverse. Want to compute on the go? Buy a portable machine that you can strap to your stomach. Be careful using it, though, or you'll turn into the worst sort of technonerd--a gargoyle.

There are many hilarious things in Snow Crash, but I will limit myself to one quote. This is a description of the warning lights on the front of a standard CosaNostra Pizza, Inc., delivery vehicle, which is being driven by the book's main character, Hiro Protagonist (a.k.a. the Deliverator):

A row of orange lights burbles and churns across the front, where the grille would be if this were an air-breathing car. The orange light looks like a gasoline fire. It comes in through people's rear windows, bounces off their rearview mirrors, projects a fiery mask across their eyes, reaches into their subconscious, and unearths terrible fears of being pinned, fully conscious, under a detonating gas tank, makes them want to pull over and let the Deliverator overtake them in his black chariot of pepperoni fire.

You've just got to like this book.

But there's more than just humor to Snow Crash. Although much of the satire is just for fun, sometimes it serves a deeper purpose. Stephenson manages to show the stupidity of racism, for example, without ever becoming preachy. Similarly, there are some somber moments, even moments of dread and terror--Snow Crash  introduces one of the scariest villains since Darth Vader--yet the book never loses its sense of humor. And even when Snow Crash   is at its funniest, you still care about the characters. Even characters you might not like. For example, I found Y.T. (Hiro's foul-mouthed, sexually active, teenaged skateboard messenger sidekick) annoying and arrogant, but she's also intelligent, brave, and resourceful, and I found myself rooting for her. This is some good writing.

One of the best things about Snow Crash   is that it really makes you think. It would have been easy for Stephenson to write a novel that does nothing more than trash society's institutions and show off a bunch of whiz-bang technology. But Snow Crash   is much more ambitious than that. It tackles substantial ideas. (It even takes a couple of shots at technology.) Although the novel's setting is mostly urban, post-modern, and high-tech, the plot is intricate and weaves its way through Sumerian mythology, the Old Testament, Christian theology, the Kabbalah, and neurolinguistics. Stephenson's synthesis of these disparate elements is a dazzling feat of literary alchemy (even if I did catch him fudging a fact here or there to make it all fit). And although this is pretty heavy stuff, Stephenson manages to make it all very entertaining. After all, you don't get to be an incredibly successful author by writing boring books.

Alas, nothing is perfect, not even Snow Crash.  I have one major problem with this novel: its treatment of Christianity. I'm not talking about the satire of televangelism and cults; I'm glad to see those things satirized. I'm referring to the brand of theology espoused by Juanita Marquez, Hiro's ex-girlfriend and arguably the smartest person in the whole novel. Juanita is trying to start a new branch of Catholicism that denounces speaking in tongues and treats the doctrine of the bodily Resurrection of Christ as a myth. Worst of all, Juanita states that the supposedly fictional nature of the Resurrection story ought to be obvious to anybody who has taken the time to study the Gospels. In other words, you're stupid if you believe in a literal Resurrection.

Well, I hate to disagree with the smartest person in the whole novel, but the fact of the matter is that the surviving historical records do not disprove the Resurrection story. Granted, there is also no absolute proof that Jesus literally rose from the dead, but there is substantial evidence that something inexplicable and extraordinary happened. That isn't just my opinion; it's the opinion of eminent historian E.P. Sanders. Sanders certainly "took the time to study the gospels," but he reached a much less definite conclusion than Juanita did. (For more information, see my review of Sanders's The Historical Figure of Jesus. ) I don't want to force my religion on anybody, and Stephenson is of course entitled to his opinion. I want only to warn potential readers who are Christians of what they would probably consider objectionable material, and to point out to non-Christians that Juanita's conclusion is not as inevitable as Snow Crash   might make it seem.

Aside from my theological reservations, I recommend Snow Crash   highly. It's an enjoyable read that also makes you think. How often do you run across a book like that?

Edited June 22, 1996 / Updated December 13, 1996

Copyright ©1996 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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