I Review Neal Stephenson’s Zany, Prescient Novel Snow Crash (And Comment on the Impending Film Adaptation)

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash opens with an extended scene in which the book’s protagonist races to deliver a pizza on time for the mafia. The scene is thrilling and ridiculous, establishing the book’s frenetic, ironic tone and painting a rough outline of Snow Crash’s milieu. Like  many sprawling works of speculative fiction, Snow Crash is more interested in rendering its milieu in vibrant, hyperkinetic color than it is concerned with delivering plot and character development. Snow Crash’s plot is the sort of joyfully convoluted careening mess that makes a reviewer (okay, this reviewer) shudder at the thought of having to successfully paraphrase, so I’m not even going to make an earnest effort. Let’s get to that milieu and the cartoon characters who inhabit it.

Snow Crash is set in the early 21st century, primarily in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of the United States. Actually, there isn’t much of a United States to speak of, really—and not even a municipal Los Angeles, per se. Instead, the terrain is totally privatized. Privatized roads, privatized spaces. People (who can afford to) live in franchised burbclaves protected by hired mercenaries or private militias or robots that keep out the undesirables. (The white folks who live in New South Africa want “racial purity,” while some franchise nations, like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong are open to anyone who can trade information). Authority is for sale. Conditions are so laissez-faire that the Mafia is truly a Legitimate Business now (complete with their own CosaNostra Pizza University). In fact, all business is legitimate; several times in Snow Crash, a character will refer to “the old days when they had laws.” Without regulation, hyperinflation is the norm; the homeless use trillion-dollar bills to light their campfires.

There’s a hard-edged griminess to the world Stephenson conjures in Snow Crash, but the book is never grim or dour, and instead embraces the anarchic-capitalism it proposes. Perhaps this is because Stephenson’s heroes are such radically exceptional people. The book’s hero is named Hiro Protagonist, the kind of Pynchonian goof that characterizes Snow Crash’s zany tone. Hiro meets the book’s other protagonist, a fifteen year old blonde who goes by Y.T. (“Yours Truly,” although most of the folks tend to hear “whitey”). Y.T. is a Kourier, a skateboarding delivery person who harpoons vehicles to catch a free ride. She helps Hiro deliver that pizza in the opening scene and the two team up after Hiro gives her his business card. It reads: “Last of the Freelance Hackers  / Greatest swordfighter in the world  / Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation. Specializing in Software related Intel. (Music, Movies & Microcode.)” Did I neglect to mention that Hiro carries two samurai swords with him wherever he goes?

Hiro’s pretty handy with those swords, but his real skill is hacking, and he spends a good deal of time in the Metaverse, a virtual reality-based internet space where avatars go to bars and chat and sell &c. It’s sort of like a mix between Facebook and World of War Craft. In 1992 (earlier, I suppose), Stephenson’s way ahead of the curve. Here, he describes avatars:

Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment.  If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful.  If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup.  You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse.  Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

There are plenty of passages like this, where Stephenson pegs some aspect of internet culture ten years before it actually happens. (I couldn’t help but think about Wikipedia during Hiro’s conversations with a program called Librarian). It’s probably fair to say that the Wachowskis lifted as much from Snow Crash as they did from William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogies.

While I’m there, I might as well lazily point out that Snow Crash would fit neatly at home on a shelf with Neuromancer or Mona Lisa Overdrive. There’s also a heavy dose of Philip K. Dick weirdness in Snow Crash, particularly when the book settles into its major metaphysical plot about ancient Sumerian gods and goddesses and linguistic viruses and the Tower of Babel. Stephenson’s Snow Crash is zanier than William Gibson’s dark depictions or Dick’s mindmelted milieux, and it would hardly do to call what he does here light—but there is something joyful, playful about his satire. I invoked Pynchon earlier and I’ll do it again; parts of Snow Crash also reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest. Both IJ and SC obsess over the minutest details of speculative technologies and how people might react to such technologies. This is often what sets Snow Crash heads and shoulders above run of the mill cyberpunk. In just one instance, Stephenson parodies the language of bureaucratic speech at length; Y.T.’s mom, who works for what’s left of the Federal Government, is subjected to a memo about toilet paper usage that goes on for pages. The passage is hilarious, and adds absolutely nothing to the plot development—it simply helps to flesh out the contours of the world that Stephenson has imagined.

All of this detailed imagining unfortunately comes at the expense of a plot that only coheres through massive exposition dumps. About a third of the way into the novel, the major conflict is finally established, but only through a dialog between Hiro and the Librarian that reads almost like a catechism. As the book reaches its climax, Hiro actually explains what’s going on to a few of the other major characters—and the reader, of course. It’s a cringe-worthy moment, the sort of rhetorical weakness that smacks of genre fiction; even worse, the plot’s action ultimately hangs on some fairly basic hoary old tropes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever played a video game. The book lags under a juvenile obsession with weapons and badassery in general. And the book’s resolution . . . well, let’s just say that Stephenson sticks the ending, but it all feels too pat and too slight after the dazzling weight of the world that he’s established. Still, at its finest, Stephenson’s prose is zippy, shining, hilarious stuff, and his employment of multiple character perspectives moves the book with an addictive energy. Snow Crash is beach reading for folks who like some humor with their dystopia.

A film adaptation of Snow Crash is supposedly going into production soon, with British director Joe Cornish taking charge. I liked Cornish’s last film Attack the Block, and Snow Crash clearly has a highly-imagistic, cinematic feel to it—but I think a film is not the way to go. Simply put, Snow Crash is too big, too larded with characters and details (so many that I failed to touch on in this review) to translate well onscreen. I think an eight part miniseries on HBO (or a similar network) would be perfect, even if it came at the expense of special effects—-a miniseries would give the filmmakers time to build Stephenson’s nuanced world. I’m afraid otherwise we’ll get a travesty like the adaptation of The Golden Compass, or something like The Hunger Games film, where all but the most basic plot points are elided. But I suppose a miniseries is not as lucrative as a blockbuster film. I hope the filmmakers at least split the book in two. In any case, I’ll be interested to check out the results.

I Review Attack the Block, A Charming, Confused Film About Teens Fighting Aliens

Attack the Block is a strange, charming little film that imagines what would happen if aliens attacked a council estate in inner-city London on Guy Fawkes Night. (In Americanese, a council estate is a project, an urban ghetto marked by violent crime, disenfranchisement, and low opportunity). The teenage heroes of Attack the Block are slang- (and sword and bat) wielding youths right on the precipitous edge of adulthood; Attack the Block narrativizes the strange intersection of children’s games with the kind of real-world concrete violence that entails lifelong consequence. Moses, the gang’s perceptive and courageous leader, already has one foot strongly planted in the adult criminal world. The alien invasion—an attack on the block, which is to say the entire known world for these kids—affords Moses a real chance to rise to the talent—and violence—writhing inertly within him.

We first meet Moses and his gang of charming ruffians in the middle of a mugging. They rob poor Sam, a female nurse whom they don’t recognize as actually living in the same building as them, but a meteor crashes into a nearby car, interrupting the robbery. A bizarre ape-featured creatures erupts from the explosion; Sam takes the opportunity to run away and Moses and his gang follow the alien. In a tense scene that establishes Moses’ badassery (and thoughtless recklessness), they kill the thing. After scaring a few of the estate girls, Moses takes the creature’s corpse to the “weed room,” the most secure spot on the block. The weed room is owned and operated by Hi-Hatz, a ruthless drug dealer/would-be rap artist who is equal parts menacing and comical (Nick Frost plays his front room dealer). However, the alien corpse only serves to attract much larger, gorilla-sized aliens who, um, attack the block in manic droves. The kids’ response: go grab their store of weapons (bats, novelty swords, fireworks, and chains), jump on their bikes, and set  out to kill the suckers. In the process, they’re reunited with their victim Sam, a conflict that underlines the core message of the movie, which concerns understanding our neighbors (so that we can, like, kill outside invading forces). The film is in a sense about the misplaced “othering” that functions in ideology, an “othering” that prescribes social and economic roles and prevents empathy or progress.

Attack the Block, a British production, was directed and written by Joe Cornish, whose sense of exactly what the film should be doing is muddy to say the least. Tonally, Attack the Block is all over the place: it’s not sure if it wants to be a hard-edged horror film, a “kids-take-the-night” adventure film with ironic edges and a fun-loving spirit, or a study in contemporary British views on race and class with preachy undertones. Is the movie ultimately dark or sweet, message-driven or an exposition of economic disenfranchisement and nihilism? It’s never quite clear. This messiness is awfully charming though, just like the creature effects which are, uh, very BBC. Attack the Block is at its best when it smashes its ironic self-awareness of the hoary tropes its trotting out (from War of the Worlds to The Goonies) up against an earnest, heart-felt spirit, a spirit that perfectly matches the enthusiasm of a bunch of repressed and forgotten young males actually getting to go prove themselves by doing awesome shit. Cornish’s best scenes restage the classical conventions of British romantic adventures, right down to a new-fashioned joust scene that’s both rousing and comical.

American viewers may feel we hold a monopoly on films about youth in the projects trying to survive (a survival which Attack the Block obviously literalizes through the magnifying lens of a sci-fi horror invasion); this sense of cultural entitlement can lead to strange moments of cross-cultural cognitive dissonance that won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s felt the minor alterity of watching a British synthesis of Hollywood tropes (Guy Ritchie’s films come immediately to mind). There’s also the issue of dialogue and slang; perhaps Cornish used LPs from Dizzee Rascal and The Streets to flesh out his lexicon (or maybe Cornish is just that “down,” but one senses affectation either way)—in any case, I was never quite sure if a British audience would find the youths’ speech legitimate, but I did very much enjoy it. It only compounded my sense that Attack the Block is sort of like a crueler E.T. scripted by Russell Hoban. There’s a lovely streak of Riddley Walker in Attack the Block.

Attack the Block, despite—or perhaps because of its flaws—is a charming, spirited film with a strong protagonist in Moses. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that actually gains something (some ineffable quality I don’t know how to name) in trying to appeal to fans of different genres and backgrounds, and if it made me cringe at times with its clumsy tonal shifts, it also thrilled and moved me in turn. Recommended.