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AADISHT KHANNA
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

An adventure that weaves myriad mysteries together

his column has talked about Neal Stephenson's books earlier, often descending to naked fanboyism in the process. This week, it will do so one last time — with the first book that made Stephenson famous, Snow Crash.

Snow Crash was the first Stephenson I ever read, in 2005, but this was thirteen years after it had actually been published. (Though two years earlier, I had seen a glorious hardcover edition of Quicksilver in a bookshop, picked it up, and then put it back down again, alarmed at the price — I was a penurious undergrad back then). Two years later, with my half-MBA making me feel much more secure financially, I picked up Snow Crash on the (at that time) sensible grounds that a girl I'd once had a crush on recommended it.

Unlike other book recommendations by other crushes (Possessing the Secret of Joy, say), I was absolutely delighted by Snow Crash. Explaining this delight in conversation with friends has always been difficult, unfortunately.

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The book is set in a sort-of dystopian future that is a parody of anarcho-capitalism, so that nation states are run by corporations on a franchise model.

This is because when they ask me what it's about, there's no possible way to explain in one or two lines. Like much of Neal Stephenson, it's about lots of things together. At best, I can try to list the seven most prominent ones.

It's set in a sort-of dystopian future that is a parody of anarcho-capitalism, so that nation states are run by corporations on a franchise model. Economically, the United States has no competitive advantage in anything anymore, except for music, movies, software, and high speed pizza delivery. Pizza delivery is a monopoly of the Mafia, which is a legal organisation now that the United States federal government does nothing but software bodyshopping for a telecom monopoly.

It's also set in both real life and an Internet with a virtual reality user interface called the Metaverse.

It inspired the idea of Google Earth (but Stephenson is now so embarrassed about this that he actually made mocking jokes about it in his latest book). It may also have inspired the term avatar to denote somebody's online representation.

he protagonist's name is Hiro Protagonist, and he's a broke ex-coder who designed much of the Metaverse. The supporting protagonist is a fourteen year old skateboarder who only ever calls herself Y.T. (short for Yours Truly). They're supported by the Mafia, and the (corporate) nation of Hong Kong.

It's about a virus that is both a computer and biological virus, and which can turn coders into vegetables just by showing them a particular image.

And it's about how the cure for this virus lies in an ancient Sumerian chant — which means that entire chapters of the book are devoted to mini-lectures on linguistics. Despite this intense geekery, the actual mechanics of how the Sumerian language works and the book's assumptions about philology are inaccurate — but ridiculous, detailed, and mindbending fun nevertheless.

Oh, and it has a villainous henchman who travels with his own hydrogen bomb but who prefers to kill personally with glass knives or harpoons.

It's as though Stephenson, magpie like, picked up everything he found interesting, and wove it into a single plot. The weaving isn't always perfect — some plot points are set up, but never taken up again properly. This is especially pronounced with the first few chapters, which bring in a lot of detail that set up the atmosphere of the book, but hardly refer to it again, except as a hat-tip in the very last couple of chapters. But as setting the stage goes, it's marvellous — the first three chapters are a frenetic, punk-like exploration of the technology and economics of pizza delivery and self-defence in the world of Snow Crash. Yes, exposition about technology and business models can be frenetic if Stephenson is writing it.

All these intermeshed and detailed plot strands make Snow Crash very difficult to explain — but are also why I love this book so much.

Snow Crash is published by Random House.

 

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