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[Comments] (2) Attack of the Killer Information: Vacations are good for reading; I took 5 books with me and read all of them plus two of the three I bought while on the vacation. Among these books I re-read (and finished this time) Snow Crash. It didn't bother me nearly as much as the first time I tried to read it. Because the book itself hasn't changed (NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED), and because outside events since then have not made the book look more realistic, the change is entirely due to my mental processes.

First, between my previous reading and now I have read approx. 2 million words of Neal Stephenson's other writing, and found it pretty good, so I'm better disposed to the book now. Second, I was probably in a cranky mood when I read it the first time, because I was camping out in Peter Hodgson's abandoned office at UCLA (a somewhat Snow Crash thing to do, now that I think about it) and that always felt weird to me.

Most importantly, thanks to a Crummy reader whose email I can't find, I now realize that Snow Crash is obviously a freaking satire, you dolt. It makes mock of the politics and the science fiction of the 1980s. It does not subscribe to your Earth notions of sci-fi plausibility because that would wrench it out of the Comedy Universe. My loyal reader drove this point home with some scathing commnent like "'Admiral Jim's National Security'? Come on!", which was of course absolutely correct. Seriously, when I read this person's email it was like when the Metallica parody song I wrote actually convinced Adam that Metallica is a pretentious band whose lyrics are foolish, and he stopped being a big Metallica fan. Words actually changed my mind, a feat rarely recorded in the annals of human endeavor. I realized I had to give Snow Crash another chance.

When approached in this light I found Snow Crash very good and funny and full of cute touches just like everyone says, with my previous complaints rendered mostly moot. It does not matter that it describes an utterly pointless computer network, because its pointlessness is the pointlessness of VRML. It does not matter that it describes an unworkable political metasystem, because its unworkability is the unworkability of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. The problem with the computer network was almost certainly unintentional but the political incongruity is the basis of the book's humor: that having lost the concept of the state, its characters create little cargo cult states out of for-profit corporations. It's funny and it demonstrates a point: that's satire.

The problem, and sorry that once again my analysis cleaves so closely to the utterly conventional, is the ending. In an amazing twist, the ending is the problem here even though I actually liked the ending! I found it the strongest and most satisfying of all the Stephenson endings except maybe the ending to Quicksilver (Zodiac's ending was perfectly fine, but Zodiac has a pretty short reach for a Stephenson novel). The problem is that the rest of the book sets up high-stakes stuff that should be handled by the ending but ends up ignored, like the final mines in an abandoned game of Minesweeper.

To wit: Snow Crash posits a previously undiscovered facet of human nature which is interesting and disturbing (probably also totally implausible, I wouldn't know), but its last act focuses on blowing things up and exploring motivation and getting the main characters out of the scrapes they're in. Which is great but what about the aftermath of this disturbing revelation? It's as though a Lovecraft story ended with the guy barely getting away from Yog-Sothoth or whatever, and then going back to Massachussets and resuming his math fellowship at the university, shaken by his experience but perfectly sane. What about the stars, man? The wheeling, uncaring stars? It is not covered in this story.

So if I may add one more unwelcome two-cent piece to the teetering pile of Stephenson ending analysis, I'd say you've got your choice of two Stephenson endings: "something new and amazing is about to enter the world, but the book is over now", and "something new and amazing has entered the world, but it shouldn't have any ongoing repercussions and fortunately none of the main characters were hurt". With The System of the World you get both endings simultaneously, which if you ask me is real value.

This theory is IMO the first to explain how these endings that so many people complain about, especially endings of the first type, can hold a visceral appeal to the author himself. Infinite Jest has a similar ending (and also similar satire; I read my old Snow Crash rant and it's like someone complaining that Subsidized Time won't work or raise enough money). It sets up the main characters to collide in a climactic scene, but omits the climactic scene. However it does start out with a scene taking place after the climactic scene, just to prove the author isn't cheating, which I think saved David Foster Wallace a lot of fanboy grief.

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Posted by Tim May at Wed Aug 17 2005 16:40

Just to note, I think it was me who sent you that email (unless you received another, inferior message covering much the same ground). (I suspect you may actually have gone too far the other way, such that you now perhaps see Stephenson as satirical even where he didn't mean to be, but it's so long since I read the book that there isn't much point in my discussing it.)

Posted by Leonard at Wed Aug 17 2005 16:48

I don't actually think the VR stuff was meant as satire, but I enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoyed the satire.

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