Friday, October 29, 2010

Snow Crash

I just finished reading Neal Stephenson's novel "Snow Crash". It was written in the late 80s and early 90s, and is set in an unspecified future dystopian United States. The government doesn't exist in any form that would be recognizable to today's Americans. It's a world where everything is privatized and franchised, from Mr Lee's Greater Hong Kong to the mafia-run CosaNostra pizza delivery to Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates. Several times throughout the book a character quips, "if there were still laws..." Which is to say, it's a bit over the top, but it still hits uncomfortably close to home at times.

The prisons, for example, are franchised out just like fast food. If you're sent to jail, you're taken to a franchise of "The Hoosegow" or "The Clink." Like all franchises, they're run out of a 3-ring binder by a mindless bureaucrat. The military no longer exists as an organ of the state, but as private mercenary armies with names like General Jim's Defense System and Admiral Bob's Global Security.

Why do I say this hits close to home? Well, replace the silly names like General Jim's with Blackwater, DynCorp, Raytheon, or Titan. We already have private armies running around largely unsupervised, unaccountable, and unscrutinized (though Jeremy Scahill works tirelessly to correct that). As for prisons, well:

Private companies in the United States operate 264 correctional facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult offenders. Companies operating such facilities include the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc, and Community Education Centers.

Again, the names aren't as cheesy, but the underlying idea is startlingly close.

On a less serious note, Stephenson's vaunted Metaverse, in which the characters interact in virtual reality, bears a startling resemblance to Second Life. In one scene, a Kourier (basically a skate-board courier) describes her lack of helmet by explaining that there's an airbag in the collar of her jumpsuit. Well, lo and behold, there's a company working on exactly that for bicyclists! It's a good thing "Snow Crash" was written before Windows, because now it would be named "Blue Screen of Death." In addition to not having the same ring to it, the change would also screw up a central plot point of the story, so perhaps it's better this way. 

Overall, it was a very excellent book, chock full of humor, with a characteristically compelling story. It's the second Stephenson novel I've read, after "Diamond Age," and I highly recommend both books.


  1. Oh, if you liked "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age," you should really like "Cryptonomicon." That, and "Anathem" appealed to my dormant math/sci side -- much more so than the Baroque trilogy did.

    I also think, given your interest in politics, that you would like "Interface."

  2. Yeah, I almost picked up Anathem or one of the Baroque series books (I loves me some historical [science] fiction) while I was at Barnes and Noble Saturday. But then I stopped myself since I just grabbed two Philip K Dick books and an urbanism book from the library. I'll certainly be on the lookout for more Stephenson when I'm perusing used book stores in the future.