Sunday, June 14, 2015

Snow Crash Ain't Cyberpunk

Spoiler alert? Lil' bit, mmmmyeah.

About twelve years ago, I was taking a general education university literature course. The professor, being relatively young, hip, cool, rad and in the know (yo) promoted a superficially different agenda from the otherwise stuffy, Hemmingwilted greybeards in the department. Note, I said "superficially" - important plot point!
For instance, he informed us young'uns about this thing called "blogging" which had become the latest craze in the days when LiveJournal was still a spring chicken. He also dared to promote a science fiction book, and even though I'm going to argue against that particular book, one must keep in mind this was back in the day when "nerd" was one of the worst insults college freshmen could throw at each other, right up there with "fag." "Nerd" got your teeth knocked out and scifi nerds the nerdiest. So, you know, partial props to my old prof managing to go against the grain both student and faculty-wise.

Still, recalcitrant nonconformist that I am, I wasn't about to take reading tips from an authority figure. Despite cyberpunk motifs being right up my alley, he wound up poisoning Snow Crash for me with his endorsement. It wasn't until recently that I became more objective on the topic and allowed Snow Crash to poison itself for me. Meaning I actually read it and found that the "other" staple of cyberpunk fiction routinely cited alongside Neuromancer left me more with the impression of a very skillful con artist playing at punk.

Not that Stephenson seems to have been all that worried about hiding this fact. When you name your main character Hiro Protagonist you're more or less sounding the trumpets in a crusade against conventional heroism. Also, as far as the "cyber" half of the equation goes, one can't fault his well-researched plot gimmicks, both within and without computer science. Now, though, we're getting into some of the book's negative issues. So much of it is simply a forced, recherche amalgam of '90s political correctness and pop-culture fads - any swill that might sell while allowing the audience to feel dignified while imbibing. A black ninja constantly being outshone by a plucky young heroine who trips into success at every step, a canis ex machina proving that love conquers all and sure, mix in some Aleuts to show how multicultural we can be. Can you paint with all the colors of cliche?

Much of this actually works as skillfully humorous twisting of old tropes but the author overplayed it through blunt, declarative sneering. YT's "she's a woman, you're a dude" speech, the "baddest motherfucker in the world" passage, the "mob's just another business" conversation, the overly-descriptive canine dreamscape and worst of all the inane yet disgustingly servile "will you be my girl" scene all prove once again that farce can dip very quickly from cathartic perspective to direct grotesque insult to one's intelligence. The worst of it, however, has more to do with the novel's overall tone and political stance, and it's why I've never had a professor recommend Neuromancer and Snow Crash is, if anything, more popular among literati.

The cornerstone of cyberpunk is punk: grim, macabre, anti-establishment narcissism. Self-criticism is certainly necessary within the genre but it can be handled elegantly and without betraying the central themes of individual freedom and class warfare, as Gibson did with the scene of Molly's collapse in Neuromancer itself. Snow Crash, however, simply betrays that worldview through its vindication of establishment means of social control. It presents the growth of quasi-religious belief systems (the New Age thing got big around 1990) as the ultimate embodiment of destructive deprogramming of the human brain, the cavalcade of memetic viruses waiting to assail us. The cure? Organized religion. A bit like curing a headache with a shotgun.

Not that I hold any love for the various pseudoscientific fads that spring up everywhere in the modern world where Christianity's death-grip on European culture recedes, of the many ghosts of God in Nietzchean terms, from Bigfoot chasers to healing crystals to alien sightings and Scientology and the old favorites like astrology and tea-leaves. Don't get me wrong, such memetic viruses infecting the human desperation for validation by authority are quite harmful and should be stamped out. However, in no way is God the cure for his own ghost. However sick and depraved such modern superstitious tools of manipulation are, they pale in comparison with the vicious, megalomaniacal, totalitarian depravity of established religions.

Through that one political statement, Snow Crash itself becomes a memetic infection, an establishment pamphlet snuck past its target audience's anti-establishment defenses under the cover of IT jargon, and this is perhaps the most flattering comment on Stephenson's skill as a writer. The book is undeniably masterfully composed, regardless of how despicable I might find its tone. It is also why a young literature professor might have felt free to enjoy and promote it, betraying his own desperation to give his youthful integrity the old Judas-kiss and join the ranks of tweet-clad greybeards sneering at youth culture. He had been infected.

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