Monday, May 15, 2017

Snow Falling on Video Games

Snow Crash
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson would have worked a whole lot better as a video game. There are countless fight sequences, chase scenes, and detailed descriptions of weapons and gear. Some of levels - ahem, settings I mean - are remarkably imaginative and would be very fun to play around in. Though many gamers don't go in for this kind of thing as much as I once did, the interactions between Hiro and the Librarian as well as some of the more colorful side characters would have entertained and inspired me quite a lot in the manner of backstory/literary/historical content heavy games such as Deus Ex and Alpha Centauri that I loved as an adolescent.

Unfortunately, Neal Stephenson made Snow Crash a novel, not a video game, although apparently his original goal was to publish it as a 'computer-generated graphic novel.' That sounds like it would have been a much more fascinating project. It also would have obviated the need for Stephenson to type up so many badly written passages. The cringe inducing dialogue would have been easier to forgive inside speech bubbles. I don't mean to be cruel here, but by the author's own admission on the 'Acknowledgements' page, he spent more time fruitlessly coding custom image processing software to produce the aborted graphic version during the production of the work than he did actually writing it. That indicates to me that his raison d'etre was something other than producing a great novel in the traditional sense.

As I said before, there are some pretty cool things in here. Some interesting ideas sluice about. It has promise. But the characters are flat and mostly lifeless. The creepily sexualized 15-year-old punk skater girl Y.T. is the worst victim of Stephenson's poor abilities at characterization. The scene in which she reaches orgasm literally in the first moment a hulking man two or three times her age sticks his dick into her is almost idiotic enough to qualify the book for a failing grade all on its own. At least have the decency to set your creepy rapey fantasies inside the Metaverse.

The plot manages to be overly convoluted and entirely simplistic at the same time. The ending in particular leaves one dissatisfied at the vague and unintentional anticlimax after all the build up of the previous 400 pages. The legitimately thrilling moment where Y.T. kicks the tablet out of the helicopter is squandered when it leads to a yet another series of overwrought chase and fight scenes.

The book strains in its attempts at humor, at profundity, at pathos, at suspense, at depth. Its potentially compelling vision for the future of endless franchise restaurants and logos as a form of light in themselves are undercut by a weird belief that soon-to-be-forgotten Reagan era figures such as Ed Meese would remain relevant enough to provide the name for trillion dollar bills and such. The inclusion of WWII and Vietnam as important events in the lives of its characters or their parents also rubbed me the wrong way - how near in the future are we supposed to believe this takes place?

My choice for sci-fi author par excellence, Phillip K. Dick, can be accused of writing bad dialogue, and of poor prose style more general. But at least his character possess enough humanity for you to actually connect with them as more than mere avatars in a boring, non-interactive video game. At least his ideas feel more original than the mishmash of undigested research that dominates too much of Snow Crash. Even when his stories are confusing, Dick's work is never as long and as pointless convoluted as this book is.

To wrap up this overlong whinge of a review - this novel is far too dull and obvious to justify its length. Perhaps it is obvious because reality has caught up with the world Stephenson imagines. But there's no excuse for it being dull - it wastes far too many fireworks for that to be intentional.