Tuesday 21 August 2018

Book review: Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (1992)

This curiosity is, like ‘Back to the Future’, the 1985 Robert Zemeckis movie that people still talk about online, a work of speculative fiction. It opens with what is supposed to be an adequate quantity of drama with a futuristic pizza-deliveryman driving his high-tech car fast over privately-owned motorways in order to get the product to the customer within the declared 30-minute window (after which the pizza is free). The pizza company is owned by the mafia (CosaNostra Pizza) and it’s just too stupid for words, the whole thing. It’s amazing how wrong Stephenson was about the future.

He keeps on getting it wrong when he zooms in on his hero (cutely named Hiro Protagonist) sitting in a shipping container he lives in while using his computer to participate in a virtual world much like Second Life (which had a brief existence as a place for people to meet others but has been completely overshadowed by Twitter and Facebook now). There is much discussion about property values on the platform, which is something that is supposed to contrast cogently with Hiro’s humble lodgings in real life. The irony is as thick as peanut butter.

Stephenson understood that the internet would change the world but what you don’t get are any accurate predictions about the way things would turn out. There’s nothing about the political settlement in the book (at least in the part of it I finished) and the way that social media has privileged extreme language and ideas as people fight for popularity on the platforms. The mafia pizza company is what we get instead and it’s about as interesting as a prediction as the frictionless skateboard that Marty McFly used in the movie already mentioned.


Matt Moore said...

The point about speculative fiction is not that it gets the future absolutely correct but that it makes you reflect on the present in a different way. So I think that saying "Snow Crash gets the future wrong" is not particularly cutting criticism of the book.

The book does get at some of the politics of the world that it describes (a hypercapitalism somewhere between Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Hayek) that's a satire on the 80s. Some concepts resonate today. The notions of sousveillance and coveillance. Fear of mass refugee migrations. Online environments.

It also contains an absolutely insane central concept around "Snow Crash" itself that leads to one of my favorite exchanges in fiction.
"Is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?"
"What's the difference"

It is not subtle. But that's OK. I found it a lot of fun.

Matthew da Silva said...

My brother introduced me to science fiction when I was a teenager, probably aged about 13 or 14. He read voraciously and still reads science fiction. I went on to study languages at university so I was kidnapped by literary fiction from my late teens. I still like speculative fiction and some of it is good, but not much of it. When you look back to what was written in the 50s and 60s, most of it is unreadable now. It's because the authors weren't interested in style. I think you can do literary fiction as well as speculative fiction in the same book. 'Dyschronia' by Jennifer Mills is an example. I reviewed it this year on the blog. There's also Jesse Ball's 'A Cure for Suicide', which I reviewed in 2016. Both were good and both had at their core a fictional future universe. But sci-fi that strongly groks technology per se and has lots of guns is usually very poor in quality IMO.

Matt Moore said...

It depends what you mean by "style". Asimov or Clarke do read as clunky now. Whereas writers like William Gibson, Chris Priest, Ursula Le Guin or Iain (M) Banks are absolutely stylists! The writers that started to come thru from the late 60s onwards had a uch stronger interest in style.

The standard SF critique of literary fiction is that it obsesses with tales of adultery among the middle classes and neglects innovative content for the sake of a focus on form. And I think that criticism has teeth.

It does depend on what you "want" from fiction. There's actually a a bit of a war going on in the SF community at the moment.

One movement wants to tell stories that mix speculative scenarios with experiments in form. Often these writers are women, people of colour or non-Westerners.

On the other hand, there is a bunch of reactionary white men who want trad guns, aliens and rocket ships narratives (they call themselves "Sad Puppies").

And then there are just some alt-right twats that want to ruin it for everyone ("Rabid Puppies").

Matthew da Silva said...

Let's take a step back and look at the issue of style from a distance. So, take Jane Austen as the epitome of excellence for literary fiction from her period and then take Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' as the ambitious but fatally flawed exponent from the speculative fiction side, from the same era. (To do this we have to go back a couple of hundred years. 200 years exactly in the case of Shelley's novel, which was published in 1818.) Now, readers today still flock to Austen in hordes to read books that remain relevant after two centuries, but no-one I have heard of has even finished 'Frankenstein' (although university undergraduates might go the distance in the interests of finishing assignments).

Matt Moore said...

Matthew - I'm not really sure the point you are making here. That because more people read Jane Austen's novels than Mary Shelley's today, literary fiction is better than speculative fiction?

Now there's a genre challenge here - Shelley's novel is as much gothic horror as it speculative fiction. And science fiction doesn't really start flowering as a genre until decades later. Whereas Austen is working within a well-established genre. It would be fairer to compare Shelley's Frankenstein to something like Richardson's Clarissa. Which comes out much more equal IMHO.

Interestingly, if we take popularity as a benchmark then fantasy novels aimed at children or YAs come out on top:
- https://publishedtodeath.blogspot.com/2017/11/what-are-most-popular-literary-genres.html
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books
Romance, thrillers and general fiction also score well.

BTW Austen's success in the modern age is as much down to her alignment with a popular genre (romance) as it is her prose style. I like the actual sentences Austen produces but much of her fiction does not resonate for me. I find her plots dull. But others have different tastes.

My point (which you haven't really challenged) was that there are writers working in the SF genre who produce stylish, complex writing. Are you disagreeing with that statement?

Iain Banks is an interesting case because he produced both SF and "normal" fiction to great acclaim and success in both worlds. But he had to differentiate his SF identity with an "M" initial.

Matthew da Silva said...

Richardson was publishing his epistolary novels almost 100 years before Shelley published her famous novel. The reason I took Austen as the exemplar for literary fiction is that she and Shelley were contemporaries. Speculative fiction goes back a lot further than Shelley BTW, even back as far as the mid-17th century with the novel 'L'Autre Monde: ou les √Čtats et Empires de la Lune' by Cyrano de Bergerac. John Dryden in the same century also published speculative things using his poetry (he was a member of the Royal Society and so had relations with scientists).

The point is that a strong focus on speculative tropes and themes to drive the plot and to furnish material for characterisation usually means that the quality of the prose is compromised. I have mentioned some good works of speculative fiction that I have read recently. There's also Margaret Atwood from Canada. But in the main, fiction that leans heavily on things like advanced technology do violence to delicate structures that you find in books. Human life might be rendered cheap, for example, meaning that minor characters are killed with little compunction, or else you rely on strong violence in order to progress the plot (the alien with the laser cannon bursting into the prison cell in order to free the hero). I'm not interested in this kind of trade-off, and it gets made all the time in these books with their reliance on high-tech gadgetry and strange beings from other worlds.

Matt Moore said...

I am aware of the history of speculative fiction.

What I find a bit frustrating about this conversation is that it's not clear to me that you are particularly familiar with SF as a genre - esp. its more recent developments. And your attitudes are mostly in line with the standard judgments made by the literary establishment - that SF is a "genre" (and therefore automatically lower status) and that it is a set of tropes (robots, computers, aliens, etc) aimed at adolescent boys.

Let me begin by saying that there is a lot of rubbish SF out there. And by rubbish, I mean, the lazy rehashing of familiar tropes to an undemanding fandom. But then, 90% of everything is crap. BTW this phrase is sometime's called Sturgeon's Law. After Theodore Sturgeon. Noted SF writer Theodore Sturgeon.

But what of the 10% that isn't crap? Well, I think that SF is far more diverse than you give it credit for. The concepts in the best SF are used to explore the limits of our humanity. This is genuinely experimental fiction. The writers that I have mentioned above are examples of this. But they won't get the recognition they deserve (and they are among the greatest writers of the last century) because they do SF. They are mere genre. Not "proper" fiction. The snobbery is blatant. And all the moreso because when literary writers dabble in SF, they are usually a bit rubbish (yes, Martin Amis, I'm looking at you).

"Human life might be rendered cheap, for example, meaning that minor characters are killed with little compunction"

So a recent award-winning SF novel deals with exactly this topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redshirts_(novel)

My general response to the attack on SF is along two lines.
Firstly, as I say repeatedly, there are SF writers would every part the equal of their literary counterparts (contra your Austen vs Shelley comparison).
Secondly, genre fiction as a whole challenges the values and hierarchies of literary fiction. Literary fiction tends to obsess about character and style. The plots are often, well, mundane. A good thriller will tend to have superior plotting to most literary fiction. A romance will have a heightened emotional connection to its audience. Good SF will present you with a world that you would never have considered before.

Now you like literary fiction. And that is a perfectly valid preference to have. But where this gets kinda icky is where you wish to present your subjective preferences as objectively better than others. Which again is a common move in the literary world. And it's one that I, as reader, do not buy into. And, based on the sales figures in my previous posts, neither do millions of other people.

Matthew da Silva said...

Nabokov said it best when he remarked in one of his essays that the value of literary fiction is not due to anything that comes out of the relationship between any two of the characters in a book, but rather in the relationship that exists between the author and the reader. This is the space in which the real drama of good literary fiction plays out.

Genre fiction tends however to privilege the story over this relationship between the author and the reader. And I read everything I can get my hands on, by the way. You know as well as anyone that I am always putting out calls for book suggestions.

I read two thrillers recently for example and reviewed them on the blog. One was 'The List' by ABC journalist Michael Brissenden, which was excellent (the review is dated 27 June). Another was 'Shadow Enclave' by Stephen P. Vincent (reviewed on 21 March), which was terrible precisely because of the devaluation of human life that it displayed. In Brissenden's book you get the kind of careful analysis of psychology that you get with Raymond Chandler or John Le Carre. I treat each book of genre fiction I read with exactly the same respect as I treat a book of literary fiction. I don't take sides and I don't prejudge.

I haven't read Le Guin and have heard good things about her, but it's not exactly true to say that I ignore what's been happening in science fiction in recent years. The review this comment thread is attached to shows that I am actively searching out books of science fiction to read.

Matt Moore said...

So I would be interested to hear your opinions on:
- Ursula Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness
- Christopher Priest - The Affirmation
- William Gibson - Neuromancer
- Iain M Banks - Use of Weapons
- NK Jemisin - The Fifth Season
- Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice
- Greg Egan - Diaspora

Matthew da Silva said...

I'll give some of these a go. However, your characterisation of literary fiction as being just about relationships I think highlights a certain blindness to what the genre can purvey. This way of thinking about literary fiction focuses on the story and the way the plot develops, rather than about the ideas that the author might be exploring in his or her book. A good case in point is Anthony Uhlmann's 'Saint Antony in his Desert', which I reviewed recently on the blog. At the beginning of the novel it's not even certain who is in the opening scene, which takes place in a cafe on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst. Identities gradually coalesce around a group of young men, who then go off to another location (the ABC's old studios on William Street, near Kings Cross, where Triple-J used to be located) where a young woman is introduced who will be important to the development of the plot later in the novel. All the time, character is being built up slowly by the author.

In this slow, accretive process ideas are discussed. By the end of the book, a whole array of themes will have emerged that we now, today, think of as important in public debates. The novel is set in the spring of 1981, so we are taken back to another time. And the action all takes place over the period of one evening and night, just like it does in the classic Modernist masterpiece, 'Ulysses' by the Irishman James Joyce. The ideas that are explored include gender identity, economic inequality, Aboriginal sovereignty, and the role of the intellectual in society. But almost nothing happens in the book. The young people move from house to shop to bar to the street and have conversations about things that are important to them. Romance is introduced in order to help develop both character and advance the plot. The book ends with a joke in the form of a physical manoeuver one of the characters performs. It's a very Sydney book, and for me it was a delight. By your method of determining what constitutes a good read the book would be a failure. I see it as a modern classic-in-the-making.

Matt Moore said...

So I was pondering this discussion as well as the truism that there are no boring topics, only lazy writers. It is absolutely possible to take the quotidian and make it spellbinding and to provide new insights into the human condition. I don't read a lot of fiction these days but back when I did, I read a great deal of the "literary" stuff and enjoyed it.

However I still stand by my point that literary tastes and values are not the only possible tastes and values. And that novels that don't just show your own world in a new light but show you new worlds have value.

Matthew da Silva said...

I'll be posting a review tomorrow of Ursula Le Guin's 'The Left Hand of Darkness', so we can continue this discussion there, but it's possibly salutary to note as well that literary fiction (i.e. novels) is a fairly recent thing in historical terms. Until Dickens, novels were considered to be junk culture, something like rap music is nowadays. Poetry was the predominant form of written culture until the 19th century. Even Jane Austen when she finally got around to publishing, didn't put her name on her productions when they appeared out of the presses because in her day it was more than slightly disreputable to be seen to be a woman publishing a novel. It wasn't until she died in 1818 that her family decided to link her name with the famous novels that she had already published. So the dominance of novels per se is a recent phenomenon.