Whenever I visit my mom, she sheds a few pounds of books on me, typically science fiction of the more “hard” variety. I am, frankly, always amazed at what she collects, because I never see these books on the bookshelves in the stores I frequent. Or at least, so it seems; this may be a case of selection bias: I may not “see” them because I’m not interested in them until my mom brings them to my attention.
She also often has some modern classic science fiction, which I resist purchasing for myself. It’s akin to the “why would I want to join a club that would want me as a member??” attitude, but in reverse: OmegaDad and I find ourselves actively turned off from bestsellers of any type when they’re on the bestseller lists. An elitism of sorts, in that we think that any book that so many people like probably has Something Wrong With It.
All of this is preface to the fact that I finally read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash because it was in the stack of books that mom handed off to me as soon as I walked in her door.
Those of you who have already read it–like, maybe, fifteen years ago when it first came out (whoa I’m on the bleeding edge here!)–don’t need to read further.
When I pulled it out of the heap, mom said to me, “You may find it amusing; I liked it.”
Har. “Amusing”. Har.
Snarky? Hilarious? Witty? Cutting? Frightening? Silly? Breathless? Breathtaking? Sucked in, wound around, turned upside down, and spit out laughing and thinking at the same time, maybe?
The world of Snow Crash is some indeterminate time in the future, not to far distant, where the U.S. and all other countries have splintered into a crazy mish-mosh of franchised corporate states crammed one up against the other. The Mafia is a corporation that runs a national pizza franchise whose guarantee of 30 minute delivery time is backed up by an occasional hit on the failing delivery person. Our Hero, Hiro Protagonist (har!), is a jaded hacker who has dropped out of hacking and programming to be a pizza delivery person and spends his free time in the Metaverse, the online virtual reality world that he helped program. A buddy of his, another hacker, is tricked into viewing a computer virus called “Snow Crash” in the Metaverse, and in the real world he collapses into a coma, his consciousness wiped.
From there it’s a grand romp through this Brave New World and a trail of clues leading to the attempted global power grab of a corporate giant hiding behind a (long-since purchased) Evangelical Christian franchise that features people speaking in tongues. The speaking in tongues is actually related to what Snow Crash is: a meme from ancient Sumeria that plunges people back into a pre-conscious state where their actions are controlled by the priesthood.
There’s the aircraft carrier Enterprise which has been turned into a luxury yacht. There’s a raft of global refugees. There are secret trapdoors in the Metaverse. There’s swordplay. There’s an Inuit kayaker world-class assassin. There are skateboarding message couriers. There’s an ancient spell which is really a consciousness virus which also happens to have started all biological viruses…
This Sumerian thing/meme/virus really grabbed me, because it jogged my memory of a (relatively) recent theory of the beginnings of human consciousness. So I consulted Teh Google and discovered I was oh-so-right. Stephenson was quite happily playing with the ideas of Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’ theory was that human consciousness, as we know it, didn’t really develop until about 1,300 B.C., and that prior to that time humankind lived in a world of gods giving commands–which were actually auditory hallucinations produced by the right side of the brain, based on a synthesis of an individual’s experiences. The development of consciousness was, in this theory, an evolutionary adaptation to the mental, physical, and emotional stresses encountered by humans as the population density increased and the chances of encountering a novel situation (one which would not produce a God Voice explaining it and what to do) grew exponentially.
Anyway, I thought the book was a hoot and quite thought-provoking, and highly recommend it to anyone who is willing to let go within the first few pages and just be swept along into a totally new world.