Review: “Snow Crash” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

After I read Neal Stephenson’s astonishingly good “The Diamond Age“, one of the first things that I did was to enthusiastically order a second-hand copy of Stephenson’s most famous cyberpunk novel – “Snow Crash” (which was written before, and seems to be set before, “The Diamond Age”). I then… somehow didn’t get round to reading it until a little over a month later. Hence this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Snow Crash”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Snow Crash” (1992) that I read.

Snow Crash begins in a futuristic version of America that has no real central government. The country consists of lots of small “burbclaves” and “franchulates”, which are territories and outposts of various groups and organisations. And, part-time hacker, katana enthusiast and Mafia pizza delivery guy Hiro Protagonist is barrelling through them at a ridiculous speed in his car because if he doesn’t deliver a pizza within the next few minutes, the Mafia will not be pleased.

However, he is being chased. Not by the police (they don’t exist), but by a “kourier”. A teenaged skateboard-riding courier called Y.T., who works for the RadiKS corporation and gets around by car-surfing using a magnetic harpoon. And she’s just harpooned Hiro’s car. Hiro tries to shake her but then they both run into trouble and Hiro ends up crashing his car. With only a couple of minutes left on the pizza box’s electronic timer, Y.T. agrees to take the pizza. She somehow manages to deliver it on time, which impresses the Mafia.

A few days later, with no car left and his Mafia job just a memory, Hiro focuses on one of his other sidelines, gathering random information for a central database. To do this, he enters the Metaverse – a virtual reality world – but ends up returning to the headquarters of his old hacker buddies. When he enters the virtual building, a random stranger offers him a program called “Snow Crash”. He refuses, thinking that it’s probably just a virus.

After seeing his ex-girlfriend Juanita talk to his old friend Da5id, she warns him about Snow Crash. But, when Hiro talks to Da5id, the conversation turns to Snow Crash since Da5id has a copy of it. Since Da5id’s got more anti-virus software than a pharmacy, he decides to open the mystery program out of professional curiosity. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… wow! This is a cyberpunk novel! Seriously, it’s up there with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” in the pantheon of great cyberpunk novels. Imagine something like the anime version of “Ghost In The Shell” mixed with “The Matrix”, mixed with Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” graphic novels… then remember that “Snow Crash” was not only written before these three things (and probably inspired them), but that it’s about three times deeper and more complex too.

This novel is, like Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence. However, it is a bit more of an “accessible” novel than “The Diamond Age” is. Even so, you should probably take a few notes and set aside a fair amount of time to read it. But, trust me, it is well worth your while. To call this novel gripping would be an understatement – it is a fast-paced, slick thriller that somehow also manages to be extremely deep and complex at the same time.

There’s just so much to talk about in this novel. In essence, this is a novel about viruses – or, rather, how information can spread like a virus. It is also a novel about culture too – contrasting the fragmented cultures of the story’s micro-nations with Borg-like monocultures and/or religions. It is a novel about the “gig economy” (written before this phrase was even coined). It is a novel about the value of community and friendship. It is a novel about identity and identity politics. It is a piece of social satire. It is so, so many things. Seriously, if you want an intelligent novel, read this one (or “The Diamond Age”).

But this isn’t to say that this novel is boring. It really isn’t. Seriously, this is one of the few things that I’ve ever seen that can tell a thrillingly action-packed story that would put even the most spectacular modern CGI Hollywood movies to shame (and, remember, it was published in 1992!) whilst also being intelligent enough to have a deeper resonance and impact on your thoughts and emotions than you would expect.

The characters in “Snow Crash” are, in a word, brilliant. Although they are slightly stylised and larger-than-life (the main character is literally called “Hiro Protagonist”!), they come across as unique, interesting people. They’re also not really your typical thriller characters too – or at least they weren’t when this novel was published in 1992, so this novel is a really refreshing read.

Seriously, this novel’s characterisation is economical enough not to get in the way of the story whilst also being deep enough that – for example- you’ll find yourself welling up with tears whilst reading about a cybernetic dog called Fido who only appears in about two or three short scenes.

The writing and narration in this novel is brilliant. Cyberpunk narration typically relies on “information overload” in order to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a high-tech future. This novel is no exception, but it does it in a bit more of a moderate and controlled fashion – and is paired with some brilliantly informal and fast-paced “matter of fact” narration. This informal tone really helps to put the “punk” into “cyberpunk”, whilst also being much more readable than the Victorian-style narration in Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” too. Seriously, this novel is that wonderful thing – a novel that is easy to read, yet incredibly sophisticated.

Literally, the only criticism I have of the writing in this novel is that it contains a few info-dumps about religions, ancient history etc… which are then concisely summarised in a seven-page segment later in the novel. The info-dump segments can break up the pace of the novel a little bit and it would have been even better if these parts had been left intriguingly mysterious, with the summary providing the reader with the information instead (which would also allow it to serve as a plot twist or a reveal too). Still, this is only a small criticism.

Although the edition of “Snow Crash” that I read is about 440 pages long, don’t let this fool you. This is one of those rare 400+ page novels that more than justifies it’s length. Seriously, it crams more into those 440 pages than many novels would struggle to do in 800. But, although this is a fast-paced, information-overload, adrenaline rush of a novel, don’t expect to blaze through it in a couple of evenings. Even though this novel travels at a hundred miles an hour, the road it travels along is thousands of miles long. But, this is a book that you’ll want to spend lots of time with.

In terms of how this 27 year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged incredibly well. The narration mostly still sounds incredibly fresh, the sci-fi stuff still seems incredibly futuristic and the story is still incredibly gripping. When this novel was first published, it was probably wildly ahead of it’s time. Even now, it still seems fairly modern and/or futuristic for the most part. Literally, the only clues that this novel is 27 years old is are the fact that there are a small number of brief “politically incorrect” moments that probably wouldn’t appear in a more modern novel.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you love the cyberpunk genre, you need to read this book (if you haven’t already). If you want something with three times the intensity of the average spectacular modern Hollywood movie that also recognises that you have a brain and want to actually use it, then read this book. If you want a novel that makes you feel rebellious, read this one. If you want a gripping thriller, read this book. If you want to lose yourself in an interesting fictional world, read this book. In short, read this book.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review: “The Diamond Age” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

Whilst waiting for several books to arrive, I suddenly realised that I needed to find something to read in the meantime. Luckily, having read a lot in the past, I’m not exactly short of books. But, although I tried to read “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, I just couldn’t get along with the narration. Even so, I wanted to read something vaguely cyberpunk and/or steampunk.

Then I remembered that there was an old cyberpunk novel in the far corner of my room, wedged behind a stack of old DVDs. So, I decided to fish it out and take a look. It was none other than a second-hand copy of Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age”, which my younger self seemed to have bought for just 80p. After finishing it about two or three nights later, I realised that not only had I found buried treasure but that it was also the best 80p that I’d ever spent.

So, let’s take a look at “The Diamond Age”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Roc (UK) paperback edition of “The Diamond Age” that I read.

“The Diamond Age” is set in a futuristic version of China, and revolves around an interactive book called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. Although this book was commissioned by a wealthy neo-Victorian gentleman in order to teach his granddaughter to think more subversively, an illicit copy of the book (that the book’s designer made for his daughter) is stolen and ends up in the hands of a young girl called Nell from the poorer part of town….

One of the first things that I will say about “The Diamond Age” is that it is one of the most intelligent and profound novels that I’ve ever read. I almost feel guilty about writing a mere review of this book, since some kind of dissertation would probably be more appropriate. Seriously, not only does it tell a complex multi-layered story (my short summary of part of the main plot really doesn’t do this book justice), but it also includes philosophical complexity, thematic complexity, narrative complexity and emotional complexity. Seriously, this book is a work of art.

When I started reading it, I worried that I was out of my depth. Like I’d tried to install a modern “AAA” computer game on the classic mid-2000s machine I typed this review on. But, as I kept reading it and got used to the narrative style, I began to realise what a treasure this book is.

Seriously, it’s the kind of book that makes films like “Blade Runner 2049” and the original “Ghost In The Shell” look like simple, shallow, superficial things by comparison. Not only that, it is the kind of book that holds all sorts of deeper meanings and profound moments that will make you think. In other words, if you put the effort into reading this book, then you will be rewarded for it!

I should probably start by talking about the book’s narration. For the most part, the novel uses a rich, dense, highly-descriptive narrative style that is heavily inspired by 19th century writing (but with some modern elements). Although this narrative style can be a bit of a challenge to get used to at first, you’re in for a treat when you’ve had a bit of practice at reading it.

This dense, formal and descriptive narrative style allows Stephenson to render every scene of the story with a level of high-definition comic book vividness that is really astonishing 🙂 This novel takes the “information overload” narrative technique of a novel like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and turns it into something even more sophisticated and refined. Basically, imagine the ultra-detailed artwork of Warren Ellis’s “Transmetropolitan” comics but in prose form…

The novel’s formal narration is also counterpointed with a couple of other narrative styles too. Whether it’s the traditional 1980s-style cyberpunk narration that appears earlier in the story (during scenes that are a brilliantly cynical parody of “Neuromancer” etc..), or the story within the “Primer” – which starts out as a simple children’s fairytale and gradually becomes more complex as the story progresses (and Nell gets older), the novel’s narration is more flexible than you might expect.

The characters and “world” of this novel are also more complex and realistic than you would expect. Unlike the classic cyberpunk novels of the 1980s, the main characters aren’t anti-heroes. The one character (Bud) who initially seems like a typical cyberpunk protagonist is, after a few pages, realistically shown to be a dangerous violent criminal (who is quickly arrested and sentenced to death). Seriously, this segment of the story is one of the most cynical parodies of 1980s-style cyberpunk I’ve ever seen.

By contrast, the main characters in “The Diamond Age” are people from different walks of life who live in a complex and dangerous world. The novel’s characters really come across as realistic people with emotions, motivations and personalities. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this story highly enough! Whether it is Nell’s journey through life, or the travails of poor Mr. Hackworth, or Miranda’s story arc, or Judge Fang’s Confucian beliefs leading him in unexpected directions etc.. the characters in this story are unique, interesting people.

In emotional terms, this story contains pretty much every emotion under the sun. There are descriptive segments where you will be in awe, there are scenes that will feel warmly reassuring, there are surprisingly harsh moments that will make you recoil with shock/horror/disgust, there are parts that will be really depressing, there are parts that will be really uplifting, there are moments that will make you laugh out loud, there are parts that will make you feel nervous, there are scenes that will make you cry (in a good way) and there are scenes that will fill you with righteous fury. Emotionally, this novel is a truly mature and complex thing.

But, the main attraction of this story is the sheer number of themes that it explores and deals with. This is one of those books that probably requires multiple readings and lots of background reading in order to really get the most of out of it, but here are some of the themes I found when I read it.

One of the major themes in this story is people attempting to make sense of new things using old ideas. Within the world of the story, there are groups of people who try to follow old ways of living in the belief that they are better. Whether it is the neo-Victorians (who try to emulate their 19th century namesakes) or the Chinese traditionalists who follow the teachings of Confucius, a lot of this story is about people apply trying to apply older standards to a futuristic world with varying degrees of success.

Another theme in this story is the power and value of stories. This novel is one of the best works of metafiction that I’ve ever seen. Not only does it contain a story-within-a-story, but the entire novel is about the impact that one person reading one book can have on the world. In addition to this, it is also a novel about how stories can teach and shape us. “The Diamond Age” is a beautiful celebration of the magic of reading and telling stories.

The novel also explores the tension between individuality and conformity. Whilst a lot of the novel focuses on Nell learning to stand up for herself and think for herself, the story takes place in a world that has been fragmented into numerous micro-states that are run by different ideological “tribes”. This novel takes a fairly deep look at the benefits and downsides of both individuality and conformity, with the reader often left to come to their own conclusions. Still, it is important to be aware of this theme, since the story’s ending won’t completely make sense unless you think of it in these terms (eg: is it better to be a unique individual in a dangerous situation or to find safety in extreme conformity?).

These are just a few of the themes explored in this novel (other themes include poverty, ethics, cultural capital, nature vs. nurture, gender politics, technology etc..). But, if you like things that make you think, then you’ll absolutely love this novel 🙂 Seriously, this is the kind of novel that is probably a set text for a university course somewhere. If not, it really should be. Seriously, I wish I’d read this when I was at university.

In terms of how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Not only does all of the futuristic stuff still seem very futuristic, but the narration still feels both timelessly old and timelessly modern too. Aside from maybe one or two brief sentences, references and/or descriptions, this novel could easily be published today and it would still seem very modern.

All in all, this review really hasn’t done this book justice. “The Diamond Age” is a bit of a challenging read, but it is well worth putting the effort into it! Seriously, this is one of the most intelligent, profound, unique and complex books that I’ve ever read. “The Diamond Age” is to books what “Blade Runner” is to film and what Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” is to comics. In other words, it is a profound, unique and thought-provoking work of art that will linger in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading it.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get a solid five. Read it!