Saturday, November 13, 2010

#23 - "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

With only two days left until the unofficial one year anniversary of my starting this list, it doesn't look like I'm going to reach my goal of 25 books in the first year.  But, I have finished Snow Crash, my 23rd novel.  I've learned a few things, and I'm confident I can read 27 books in the next year, to make up for this year's short comings.

Snow Crash is the first Sci-Fi book from The List I've read, and one of only a couple on The List.  While I enjoy the odd Sci-Fi movie, I'd be lying if I said I was a fan of the books.  For that reason, I was a little nervous going into this one; worried that I'd become disinterested like I did with Neuromancer, and that it would take me forever to read.  I'll be the first to admit it, that wasn't the case, and I actually enjoyed reading this book quite a bit.

The protagonist, or hero, is aptly named Hiro Protagonist (I'm not making that up).  He's a computer hacker who delivers pizza to make ends meet, and is known as the greatest sword fighter in the world.  He spend his time in the Metaverse; a virtual-reality world that people hang out in, socialize on, run businesses, own homes, travel, communicate and learn.  After meeting a young female kourier (there is no post office in the not-too-distant future) named Y.T., they become entangled in a plot to spread a deadly virus known as Snow Crash.  This virus not only disables the computer it's opened on, but also the mind of the person who opens it.  Hiro and Y.T. must find the source of the virus and help destroy it, before it destroys them and their world.
Snow Crash (Bantam Spectra Book)

The world they live in, in this not-too-distant future, does contain many of the elements that tend to drive me crazy about Sci-Fi novels.  Why does the future have to be so bleak all the time!?  Why can't it just be like today, with more technology?  But despite the world Hiro and Y.T. live in not having countries (they've been replaced by privately run 'burbclaves') or laws, or seemingly any order, it doesn't come off as bleak as other books I've read or movies I've seen.

While the time period is never specified, I get that feeling that since the book was written in 1992, the story takes place sometime in the early 21st century, or to put it another way, what is currently referred to as "the past."  And it is this I found so interesting about the book.  Many of Stephenson's descriptions are very accurate for his future, our past.

The Metaverse, the virtual-reality world so many spend their time in, isn't much different from the Internet today.  While there isn't any real reference to a similar type of social networking, the Metaverse is a place where people meet from anywhere in the world, not unlike Facebook.  Relationships tend to be less personal, like Facebook, but often more informative, also like Facebook.  One of Hiro's ex-girlfriends hates using the Metaverse for relationships, complaining they "...distort the way people talk to each other, and she wants no such distortion in her relationships."  It fits Facebook and Twitter friendships to a tee if you ask me.

Another program frequently used throughout the book is the Librarian, which I have equated to Wikipedia or even just Google.  The Librarian is simply a computer program in the Metaverse that is there to answer questions.  From anywhere in the world, one can access the Librarian to find out the information they need.  When Hiro needs to learn something about ancient societies or if he needs the blueprints of a famous cargo ship, he heads to the Librarian to find the answer.  Like most answers found on-line, the Librarian's information is merely a compilation of information entered by various different people, from all over the world.  But, unlike Wikipedia, it seems it doesn't need to be taken with a grain of salt.

And perhaps the most similar program Hiro uses to today's actual programs is called 'Earth.'  Basically, it's Google Earth, providing satellite imagery of the entire planet and directions on how to get anywhere from anywhere.  It even provides street views to the more prominent locations and lists businesses and attractions; exactly like the program so many people use everyday now. The only difference between the Metaverse version and the Google version might be that in the Metaverse the images are only a few minutes old, where as on Google Earth they can sometimes be a few years old. (The horrors!)

For all his accurate descriptions of future technologies, there were a few misses.  While everybody in this future records video of nearly everything, they do it on 'videotape.'  And while people in the future listen to music everywhere they go, they still use Walkmans.  Ironically, these were officially discontinued by Sony last week, where I would have thought they had been discontinued ten years ago.  Who has been buying Walkmans the past ten years to warrant their continued production?  Lastly, not really a technological miss, but I found it funny; Hiro describes how it is possible to stop a viral idea, then says, " happened with Nazism, bell bottoms and Bart Simpson t-shirts."  I guess Stepheson could never have imagined that a show only two or three years old at the time this book was written, would still be on 18 years later, so I'll cut him a little slack.

When trying to decide what to read next, I picked On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  I currently have 18 books from The List, sitting on my desk; 13 from the library, and two that I own.  As a result, I recently incurred three fines, $0.70 each for On the Road, Gravity's Rainbow and Herzog.  Since I've had these books for over a month, I figured I should start reading one of them instead of going to one of my more recent checkouts.

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