I’ve had a few people recommend this book to me over the years. Then, after my husband read Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, I figured I should read something by this giant of SF. But, after I’ve finished, all I can say is, “Meh.” That’s it. Everything averaged out to… average.
What I liked
- Stephenson ties together some interesting ideas: suburb/enclave living as a virus, language as virus, Sumerian resulting from some universal linguistic capability that we lost via the tower of Babel, etc. While these ideas were intriguing, the exposition for this involved pages of question-answer pairings that didn’t feel like dialogue.
- The names of the main characters, as well as the franchises, are humorous. For instance, the two main characters are named Hiro Protagonist (real name or moniker?) and Y.T. (for Yours Truly). This lends a farcical air to the beginning, but also makes the characters less believable (see below).
- The world was a bit unhinged. For instance, the Mafia runs the sole remaining pizza franchise and all pizza delivery. If your pizza delivery is late, exceeding the Mafia’s guarantee, the Mafia boss must publicly apologize and really bad things will happen to the delivery driver (such was the anticipation that helicopter camera crews were hovering about, waiting for Hiro Protagonist’s comeuppance). Of course, delivery times for all pizzas are publicly disseminated over the net. However, not too believable—given the thin profit margin on restaurant food, one wouldn’t think organized crime could hope to profit from a pizza chain (and thus, worry about customer loyalty, etc).
What I didn’t like
- The worst problem: I didn’t empathize with the characters. It wasn’t that I hated them, but I couldn’t take them seriously. And, when they didn’t take threats seriously, I had a problem doing so as well. Additionally, when they put themselves in harm’s way… I didn’t care. If Stephenson had put more effort into making me care about the characters, I would have been glued to the story toward the end.
- As it opens, Snow Crash feels like a commentary, a futuristic farce, regarding American society. Then, as plot unfolds, the reader feels confused: Is this farcical commentary or is this a novel really trying to have a plot, with multi-diminensional characters addressing a serious problem? For me, it couldn’t manage to be either.
- The world felt strangely dated. Not the technology; Stephenson does a good job with his metaverse and computers—there weren’t any jarring missteps in that area. I think it was the society and economics, combined with the cyberpunk tone. Cyberpunk always feels 80s to me (which make sense, considering when most of it was published), while the idea of franchises and free enterprise gone rampant takes on an 80s/90s Dr. Who-ish oh-so-British-superiority attitude. In fact, for a while I was convinced Stephenson was British. He’s not, but the book was originally written in 1992. My problem is that I no longer believe the cyber-punkish world to be realistic, where we can’t afford to buy dinner, yet we all can afford the computer equipment, comm subscriptions/contracts, and electrical power for experiencing virtual reality. All we have to do is look at China—and at crumbling economies in the European Union—to realize that hyperinflation and currency collapse won’t leave us with an across-the-board high-tech population.
- The novel is done entirely in third-person present tense. That always gets on my nerves and takes me some time to get used to it (meaning that I won’t notice it after a while). But there was always that initial 15 minutes to half hour, every night, when I struggled to ignore it.
Considering Anathem, as well…
After my husband finished Anathem, I asked him how he would sum up his experience.
“Well, from a mathematics and physics point of view, there were some fascinating connections and concepts that he [Stephenson] introduced. But they were just introductions. In the end, he didn’t really take them anywhere.”
“So, overall…?” I prompted.
“Overall?” My husband shrugged. “Meh.”
Yeah, that pretty much sums up my feelings for Snow Crash. Stephenson presents some amazing concepts and flashes of brilliant insight—but you won’t see flawed humanity exposed through a crucible of inter-personal conflict or have an emotionally moving experience. However, it will be cerebral.