I first met Stephenson back in 2004 in a copy of Cryptonomicon I found at Barnes and Noble. I read the first couple chapters, enjoyed it and then made a terrible mistake. I looked at the author biography in the back. It was a man dressed in baggy mountain climbing gear staring into the camera, his hands locked in a pose that couldn’t have screamed, “How badass am I?!” any louder if it tried. I mean if I had seen it without the context of the book I would assume someone had transported Ali G to a mountain somewhere and took a picture.
Being the judgy and morally superior person I was (read: am), I stashed the book back on the shelf and decided Stephenson could rock whatever form of badassery he wanted as long as it was as far away from me as humanly possible.
Now, here I am 13 years later writing my first review of my first Stephenson book and completely and totally unsure just where I stand with it. Snow Crash has an obvious case of 1990s edginess to it that can be enjoyed as humor or lambasted as hokey. Samurai swords, gangland violence, corporate oligarchy, the whole thing is a simultaneous autopsy and rebirth of the cyberpunk movement that William Gibson spawned a decade before. It hits every cyberpunk itch with the gusto of flea bitten dog with no sense of self-preservation.
It is absurdity that allows Snow Crash to work the way it does. It’s not quite parody, not quite pastiche (it seems to hedge towards the post-cyberpunk mega-corporations-are-not-all-bad thing. The “I’m so cool” is laid on so thick it’s written in neon and QR codes (just in case you missed the lights show). It’s kind of like if the original Robocop got adapted into an anime: they got rid of the whole robotic policeman shtick and reinvent it as a story about how a badass with samurai swords and Plucky Girl McSkateboard save the world. It has a plot that engages with religion, virtual reality, and brain hacking. Also pocket mini guns and makeshift bamboo harpoons. And nuclear-powered dogs. Yeah, there is a lot going on in here and it is all ridiculous.
It’s got some neat ideas behind all of the silliness and its existence as an almost pre-internet book is absolutely fascinating. He gets a lot of the social aspects right and while the rest is pretty much bullocks there is no doubt in my mind that Stephenson’s later, post 9/11 books will seem much more preternatural.
In the intervening years, he’s changed his bio picture. He now looks like a middle-aged professor with a combative flair in his eyes. This seems right.
“This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them.” ― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash