Saturday, 15 October 2011

Book Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Why would anybody write a supposed book review about something published in 1992? A number of reasons come to mind but first and foremost is that I just read the book. In a Time Magazine article of 2005, it was listed among the top 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to present. It is considered a seminal work of science fiction or the better term, speculative fiction, of a dystopian future where the line between humans and computers is blurred. But most importantly, I had heard tell that this story described an online computer environment called the metaverse which was supposedly the inspiration for the game Second Life.

Neal Stephenson, born 1959, is an American writer known for his works of speculative fiction, or science fiction if you prefer. While the author started writing as far back as the 1980s, penning two books during this decade, it was this book published in 1992 which put him on the map. Clocking in at nearly 160,00 words, this is a substantial tome where the author weaves a complex plot with many sidebar explorations of related subjects like linguistics, religion, Sumerian mythology, computer generated worlds and a dystopian future of laissez-faire capitalism with a cyberpunk theme. That's quite a mouthful in trying to sum up an original literary work which casts an interesting eye on one scenario of our collective future.

The term Snow Crash comes from Apple computers. When the machine would crash, it would write gibberish into the bitmap which represented the screen display. This gibberish resembled the static of a television set, a "snow crash".

The premise of the book is that human beings have, buried deep within their brains, some sort of "firmware" like a computer. This human firmware is based on the Sumerian language, an ancient tongue dating back to at least 4 B.C. Stephenson pushes the analogy by saying we are susceptible to viruses like computers and the villain in the story figures out how to infect human beings and take over their minds. Okay, you may be saying this seems a little implausible but the author does a excellent job of bringing in some scholarly discussions of the ancient civilisation of Sumer, its language and references to associated Biblical stories to turn that implausible into plausible, well, plausible within the context of this story. An author can say anything he wants to but it makes the whole adventure more believable if there's a good explanation of why the impossible may be possible under certain circumstances.

Does the idea work?
It is an interesting phenomenon in a book where the author briefly sketches out something or someone and we, the readers, fill in the blanks based on our own experiences and imagination. A tall, dark and handsome stranger is not a detailed description and it is up to us to picture just what those words mean.

Over the years, I have read a number of ideas put together by an author which, when I reflect on them, think that they wouldn't work in reality: a rocket ship that goes faster than the speed of light (Albert disagrees!), Superman catching Lois Lane falling from an airplane (the sudden stop would kill her) or a pogo stick which takes a kid to an altitude of a hundred thousand feet (ah, just how long can you hold your breath?). Within the context of the story, we gloss over the details and concentrate on the story itself. Who cares if the science behind some of the ideas defies common sense?

However, some authors like Arthur C. Clarke have produced science fiction, ah, speculative fiction which is very much grounded in reality. That is, the author is knowledgeable about the latest in scientific studies and the fiction they write doesn't wildly go off on some tangent which completely ignores the physics of what we collectively know. There are no pogo sticks which can go to a height of a hundred thousand feet.

In Snow Crash, Mr. Stephenson introduced two ideas which at the time of my reading, I accepted but when I tried to picture these ideas, I saw inconsistencies which made me wonder how anybody would ever film this if someday somebody decided to make a movie of the book.

The Raft
Starting with an aircraft carrier called the Enterprise, other ships and boats have over a period of time lashed themselves together to form what is called the Raft. This ragtag collection of vessels is a massive floating community connected by walkways with various waterways serving as roads much like the canals of Venice. This raft floats around the Pacific Ocean following a clockwise course taking it first along the coasts of Japan and China then eventually to the east and the coast of the United States.

During the action of the novel, our protagonist moves about the waterways in a way that made me think of Venice, Italy. However, it being the Pacific Ocean, I kept thinking that this huge body of water is anything but calm like the canals of Venice. Considering that many of the vessels lashed to this conglomerate are nothing more than pleasure boats, I had a tough time accepting the picture of calm described by the author when I know the ocean swells and it swells a lot. Add a storm in the mix and you'd have your average pleasure cruiser looking at waves which could be ten times higher than the top of the boat. And I'm not even talking about something as dramatic as the situation portrayed in the book The Perfect Storm.

Skateboards
"Kouriers" make special deliveries and their mode of transport is a skateboard. Since one cannot always skate downhill, they have a supplemental form of power which is to "'poon" that is harpoon a passing vehicle and get towed. Now these harpoons are magnetic so they can be stuck or unstuck at will; a kourier is able to get around fairly easily making use of passing traffic. The hard part to swallow in this idea is people on skateboards going 40, 50 or 60 miles per hour or even faster. Okay, I've seen some pretty spectacular skateboarding but it just seems a little hard to believe somebody clipping along on a highway behind a car or a truck. Yes, Stephenson shores up this idea with an almost intelligent skateboard having special wheels with extendable pins which permit the board to remain level even when passing over obstacles such as holes in the road or things on the road but it just struck me as a tad far-fetched.

Am I being picky?
Maybe I am. My original point is that while reading the book, you accept what the author is saying without spending a lot of time trying to visualize their idea and work out whether or not such an idea would really work in reality. When you do reflect on it, when you think of how somebody might film the story, you are then faced with the task of turning this abstract idea into something concrete and it is then you start questioning the feasibility of the idea. A "raft" of boats all lashed together floating around the Pacific with swells which can grow to several stories high? Hitching a ride on a skateboard by being pulled by a car up to speeds of a hundred miles an hour down a highway with potholes and things left on the road? Okay, it is still an entertaining story but one of the most important traits of any good work of fiction is that we like to think that the story could be true.

The Metaverse
One of Stephenson's most unlikely ideas is something he calls the Metaverse. Using a computer and special goggles which replace the screen, a user enters a computer generated 3D world where he or she is represented by an avatar, a human-like simulation made up of only pixels. People from all over the world go from real life to the Metaverse and interact with one another in cities, in streets, in clubs and businesses. Throughout the book, the protagonist goes from real world to Metaverse and back again as the Metaverse is a complementary part of real life. Human beings interact with computers and other human beings in a different manner via this imaginary environment.

Now I said this was an "unlikely" idea but guess what? Today, it is true, well, to a certain extent.

Neal Stephenson is credited as the inventor of the terms avatar and metaverse in respect to a computer generated 3D world as first used in this book. The author says in his acknowledgements that these ideas, originally conceived in idle conversations with an acquaintance, born to some degree thanks to the author's study of the Apple Human Interface Guidelines. He adds that this idea of a virtual reality is now widespread in the computer-graphics community.

I've never been much of a game enthusiast over the years despite the successes of World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto, but I am somewhat familiar with an online computer game called Second Life. Somewhere along the way, I heard that Second Life was based on Snow Crash and my interest in reading the book was predicated on this rumour. However it would seem the Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Labs, the company which created Second Life, had long had the desire to create a 3D virtual world and conducted virtual world experiments at college well before the publication of the book Snow Crash.

As I read Stephenson's description of the metaverse, I couldn't help thinking that here is a guy writing in 1992 what exists today as Second Life. It's quite stunning to realise how prescient Stephenson's vision of a 3D computer-generated virtual reality was. Now Stephenson qualified his metaverse as being photo-realistic and today's efforts like Second Life are far from being photo-realistic, however I did take a look at a new video game called Deus Ex: Human Revolution and was very much impressed with the cinematic trailer released by the game developer to publicize the product. We may not be there yet - a photo-realistic computer-generated 3D world - but it is evident where the technology is going.

Final Word
Mr. Stephenson has penned a very original book. Obviously you have to be into science fiction to appreciate it so if you're not, I would recommend you steer clear of this one. However, if you're a nerd or even a closet geek with a love for all things speculative including Star Wars, The Matrix and any one of a number of summer blockbuster movies, Snow Crash will introduce you to a fictional world of originality which could very well be the harbinger of our future. Certainly as a fan of the move trilogy The Matrix and as a player of Second Life, albeit short-lived, I found it interesting to read what Mr. Stephenson wrote back in 1992. It would seem that computer simulations are moving in a direction that would make what Stephenson imagined turn into reality. While most of us think of avatars and 3D worlds as something akin to games, several pundits have pointed out that our collective interest in social media like Facebook, Twitter and now Google+ are pointing the way to a future where our interactions are more computer based than we currently realise or possibly care to admit. Is this a brave new world? Now there's a not too subtle reference to a book with a bleak picture of another dystopian future. Heck, who needs to go outside? All you have to do is log into your computer and the world is at your fingertips. Ha!

Postscript - Mar 27/2014
Mark Zuckerberg purchases the company Oculus VR, Inc., creators of an upcoming virtual reality head-mounted display called Oculus Rift. The product looks similar to the device described in the book.


References

Wikipedia: Snow Crash
Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson's third novel, published in 1992.

Time Magazine - 2005
All TIME 100 Novels
TIME critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo pick the 100 best English-Language novels from 1923 to the present

Wikipedia: Neal Stephenson
Neal Town Stephenson (born October 31, 1959) is an American writer known for his works of speculative fiction.

Wikipedia: Metaverse
The Metaverse is our collective online shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix "meta" (meaning "beyond") and "universe" and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

The term was coined in Neal Stephenson's 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional space that uses the metaphor of the real world. Stephenson coined the term to describe a virtual reality-based successor to the Internet. Concepts similar to the Metaverse have appeared under a variety of names in the cyberpunk genre of fiction as far back as 1981 in the novella True Names.

Wikipedia: Second Life
Second Life is an online virtual world developed by Linden Lab. It was launched on June 23, 2003. A number of free client programs, or Viewers, enable Second Life users, called Residents, to interact with each other through avatars. Residents can explore the world (known as the grid), meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another. Second Life is intended for people aged 16 and over, and as of 2011 has about one million active users.

Amazon
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash: Amazon text stats

2011-10-15

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