Snow Crash:  The Hiro’s Journey

“It begins as a good story should, with the story of a young man wandering lost in a forest.”  This is a description of The Romance of the Rose a medieval allegory that is discussed in C.S. Lewis’s treatise on love poetry in the Middle Ages titled The Allegory of Love (Lewis, 1936, p. 170.)    It is similar to the opening of Snow Crash in that both stories are written in an exaggerated and consciously crafted form.  In Le Roman de la Rose (original title) the hero comes upon an abandoned garden and spots a single vibrant rose that signifies the heart of the women he aspires to love.  In Snow Crash the young man is not lost, but the world he navigates is.  It is like a once beautiful garden that has been overgrown with weeds.

This might be a fitting description of the dystopian future  (or present) Los Angeles of Snow Crash.  I once met a distinguished older gentleman in Northern California.  I had traveled up from Los Angeles the day before, and I made some comment about leaving smoggy and grimy Los Angeles for the clear air and pretty scenery of the north.  He surprised me by saying, “When I was a young man, in the 1930’s, I traveled to Los Angeles for the first time.  It was the most beautiful place in the world – with jasmine and flowering magnolia trees.  It was like a beautiful garden . . .”

This is not the world Hiro Protagonist navigates in his pizza delivery route.  It is a bleak place of walled compounds with armed guards – not unlike the city that Los Angeles has become as its population has become increasingly divided by economic disparity since the 1970’s.  Neal Stephenson uses political satire and exaggeration to paint an eerily realistic future LA not many years from now.

This element of exaggeration and “political incorrectness” permeates the story.  The ethnic and racial divisions of America are highlighted in the warring factions within the story. He uses the derogatory archaism of Nipponese to describe people of Japanese ethnic origins.  This has elements of the WWII era slur “Nips”  and “Japs” that has generally been avoided, and clearly differs from the current Nihon-jin which that community would prefer.  Like the use of allegory in Roman de la Rose however, I think this is an element of his narrative style – with the funny names (Uncle Enzo, Reverend Waynes Pearly Gates, Y.T.) and social groupings by race and religion. All are taken to an extreme that would be more generally be found in graphic novel or cartoon literature.  The villain Raven for example – a one man nuclear arsenal who somehow also possesses superhuman strength and who has a deep seated grudge against society for its horrific treatment of Native Americans.  That is just one character among many that have almost comic-book icon stature.

Another literary device which Stephenson employs with notable skill is what is often termed “info dumping” in discussions of narrative craft (Maass, 2002).  Like many science fiction writers, he has a penchant for technical detail and descriptions of the future world that could easily overwhelm or bore the audience if not handled skillfully.  Since his background is in the hard sciences (physics, geography) whose father was a physics professor and whose mother was a biochemist, it is not surprising that he has a love of technical jargon and scientific speculation.  He manages to dispense vivid descriptions of the virtual world of the street which is especially surprising considering that the first edition of his book was published in the early 1990’s  (Stephenson, 1992) so it was conceived in the time before the internet (much less virtual worlds) found widespread use.  His writing even when “info dumping”  is engaging and compelling in part due to his use of humor and hyperbole.

He also expresses an interest in religion.  To this reviewer his description of “L. Bob Rife” seemed to have elements of a satire about other oddball religious (cult) figures such as “L. Ron Hubbard.”  In a later book entitled Anathem (Stephenson, 2008) he recasts medieval monastic traditions in the future as monasteries devoted to mathematics, astronomy and science.  This interest in elements of religious devotion (in nascent form) are present in Snowcrash  with his inclusion of the religious practice of glossolalia or as it is commonly termed “speaking in tongues” as one of the outward signs of the exposure to the strange virus he terms “snow crash” in the book.  It is evident he spent some time researching the phenomenon and he blends that into his narrative also. He also casts the new virus as something which can both infect and affect computers, the minds of men, and the bodies of men in profound ways.  To me that was reminiscent of St. Paul’s division of man into psarkikos, pseukikos, pnuematikos  – flesh, mind, and spirit  (Romans 8:4 NASB.)   In Stephenson’s story these might be seen to correspond to the physical realm (those infected go show dramatic physical effects) the mental realm (there is the suspension of normal cognition) and the spiritual realm (it affects even thinking machines – a realm of pure thought not tied to human “wetware”.)

To summarize, I found Stephenson’s story compelling on several levels: the allegorical level, the technical level and the religious level.  I think he had something interesting to say in each of these areas which he obviously researched carefully and of which he wrote persuasively and with verve.

Lewis, C. S. (1936). The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford University Press, USA.

Maass, D. (2002). Writing the Breakout Novel (1st ed.). Writers Digest Books.

Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow Crash. Spectra.

Stephenson, N. (2008). Anathem. Harper Perennial.