“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Columbian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”
Do you remember the first time that you fell in love? Not the note-passing mixtape and Drakkar Noir kind (though all but the latter are good ingredients for a lasting bond), but the kind where you see down the road to the rest of your life?
The first person I fell in love with killed himself with heroin. When I met him, he didn’t even own a pair of blue jeans. Later, he became immoderately taken with The Art of War and introduced me to the dark arts of Yukio Mishima from under overgrown bangs occasionally parted for the demonstrative puff of a cigarette. He loved me, for a time, and he loved Snow Crash.
I don’t know where I got this edition. It’s been through some shit. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t mint when I bought it, but now it’s ragged and brown. It’s followed me for at least 20 years in six cities. And some of the corners are very, extensively brown. Evidence of careless bathtub reading. Inside I found a clue to when I’d read it last – a score card from a miniature golf course in Panama City Beach. I did not win. We’d brought the book along to read the opening sequence out loud on the drive.
I’d like to see a book that has a better beginning. The story launches right into high gear and effortlessly establishes a world. It does not shed much ink to service a back story. I am not, in general, a fan of back story. If it’s worth explaining how a circumstance came to be, that should come up as a story is told. And not as a long justification for the story you were already interested in before the writer went on and on about some kind of origin lineage they formed in a series of Moleskines.
Then again, the book’s kind of all about back story. For something that’s ostensibly about an accomplished hacker/swordsman/pizza deliveryman named Hiro Protagonist, it’s sure got an awful lot to say about Sumerian culture and religion. And the first time I read it I’d just started to think about word viruses via William Burroughs, so my mind was suitably blown.
I’m not sure who said that a good book teaches you how to read it. Maybe it was Thoreau? In any case, I’ve found this to be true of many of my favorite books. Marlon James launches you neck-deep into Jamaican speech patterns, slang, culture, and history. He’s not even saying “keep up” – he’s already well underway. The landscape of Snow Crash wasn’t quite as unfamiliar to me as James’ Jamaica, but Stephenson is still boldly unafraid to show you the place and its slang without bothering too much to explain (I liked The Windup Girl for similar reasons).
Some of this book feels dated, to be sure – a glimpse into a world when the idea of hacking, and cyberspace, and their vast potential, seemed incredibly foreign and new. Now that universe has been largely domesticated and commercialized – Alexa and Fortnite for most, bitcoin and blockchain for some – but that’s not where Snow Crash operates.
For all of its linguistic and anthropological trappings, techno-dysphoria and unflinching tracing of our neon corporate future, Snow Crash is at base a story with good people going up against bad people (and some, to be sure, who are in between). There’s a subplot about the love between a dog and their human. It is sentimental at its heart.
Which is, if I really think about it, what caused me to fall in love that first time. That man was chock full of bluster and given to epic rants. But he felt the world’s slights and imperfections quite deeply and personally.
Stephenson’s like that a little, though he hides it well. And his subsequent books, to my mind, obfuscate their core stories more and more with elaborate details and machinations. But Snow Crash is different. While the book dives deep enough to catch you asking for air, it doesn’t lose sight of what’s essential and important for telling a good story. And it doesn’t lose much in the retelling. In fact, just like love or any other virus, it thrives in the background without fear of a future examination.