XW INFLUENCES PART TWO: SNOW CRASH

[Heyo! To promote my ongoing Kickstarter campaign for Crossed Wires Volume 1, I’m writing a series of short essays on works of film and literature that have influenced Crossed Wires’s creation. If you’d like to read the comic, you can at http://crossedwires.irisjay.net, and if you’d like to pre-order a slick, fancy printed copy of Volume 1, you can at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/irisjay/crossed-wires-volume-1. Peace!]

snow-crash

What happens when a book written to ridicule a zeitgeist becomes something that defines it instead?

Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash as a hamfisted send-up of cyberpunk literature and culture, but what he intended and what the book actually became are two very different things. Practically since it hit bookstore shelves, it’s been praised as a cyberpunk cult classic, a fast-paced fusion of near-future sci-fi action and sardonic wit. It cemented Stephenson’s rep as a Big Name in the geek literature scene, and it’s widely credited for being the origin of the word “avatar” to describe a physical online manifestation of self (though this is debatable). Buzz over comic, TV and movie adaptations still surfaces occasionally today, but so far every Snow Crash project outside the book itself was either dropped or sunk into development hell, a source of eternal frustration for its fanbase. Still, not bad for a supposed goof.

shit, though, if they made a movie out of cloud atlas i guess anything’s possible

When I was in my late teens, I remember thinking Snow Crash was the absolute coolest book ever written. I loved that the neo-noir bones of the book had been fleshed out with some of the weirdest characters and set pieces I had ever read. Everyone remembers the pizza delivery company run by the Mafia and the guy with the hydrogen bomb strapped to his motorcycle, but what about: The burn victim who had an armored truck for a wheelchair and an addiction to freon? YT’s skateboard fight through the federal office building? Hiro’s first gory real-life swordfight inside the inflatable trucker bar? The nuclear-powered dog? (Nuclear powered dog!!) The book is a grab bag of weird unrelated ideas, shaken together with a half-finished thesis on Sumerian mythology and a handful of counterculture cynicism. (Nowadays I feel like the whole “three ring binders are a virus that spreads corporate franchises!” thing is pretty reductive and short-sighted, but at 17? I was like, “WOOOOAAAAHHHH.”)

This approach does produce some genuinely neat ideas. William Gibson’s Neuromancer first gave us a taste of 3D cyberspace, but Snow Crash’s Metaverse isn’t just raw information– it’s a hub for entertainment, socializing, and endless commerce, bearing a striking resemblance to the Web of today. I also feel like Hiro Protagonist, despite having a blatant lampshade of a name, is a fairly interesting character. He’s unemployed but highly regarded, biracial but a denizen of the Metaverse at heart, and though he’s absolutely the best at what he does, his skills have extremely limited applications and rarely help him when dealing with real people. Mixing religious themes with technological ones is a nifty hook, too, though the effect is lessened somewhat when you realize “programmers = gods” more or less became the running theme for Stephenson’s entire body of work from Snow Crash forward.

LIKE... WHOOOOAAA, MAN
SERIOUSLY, DUDE! WOOOOAAAAHHH!!!

But I feel like there’s also a weirdly elitist, impersonal bent to it that I’ve never enjoyed in geek fiction. It’s the Rorschach from Watchmen angle: Look at these scum, scampering around in the wastelands of their lives, chasing a fleeting high or the almighty dollar. If they had a single idea what we [INSERT DEMOGRAPHIC OF CHOICE] have to deal with, their idiot heads would spin off their idiot shoulders. Even though its main characters have their own quirks, they all still linger at the far ends of the bell curve: THE BEST at swordfighting. THE FASTEST at courier-ing. THE DEADLIEST at murder. THE MOST ACCURATE in rigging avatar faces. THE RICHEST, NUTTIEST telecom giant. While some characters are more well-rounded than others, none feel realistic, and they don’t get any more engaging as the story’s snark wears thin in the second act.

And then there was the soggy multi-chapter Sumerian infodump in the middle. And the jarring dead stop of an ending. And the the many instances of weird cultural appropriation. And the creepy underage sexualization, culminating in one of the skeeziest, most unwanted sex scenes in a genre chock full of skeezy, unwanted sex scenes. It’s a book with a lot of serious problems, and while I used to be able to overlook them due to awesome hacker fights, I can’t really say the same now.

yeah that's... about the size of it
yeah that’s… about the size of it

Still, a lot of things in Crossed Wires have Snow Crash‘s DNA in them. Alan is a familiar flavor of sword-wielding self-professed badass in a leather kimono (though he gets talked out of that Fashion Yikes pretty quickly). NULL/VOID is more or less a stand-in for the Black Sun, an ultra-exclusive low-key lounge and meeting place for hacker elites. But the biggest thing I took from the book was this: Despite its many, many issues, Snow Crash has confidence in its own narrative voice. It is an extremely campy book, but it is self-assured in its campiness– not entirely straight-faced, but serious enough to assure you that even the strangest of cartoony details will have serious implications down the line.

Crossed Wires is an attempt to capture a similar tone set in a more familiar world with more down-to-earth, believable characters. It’s a story where serious real-life dilemmas can have an impact on the ludicrous cyber action, and vice versa. Even over-the-top action can feel emotional when the stakes at hand feel real and personal. There’s still a teenage boy inside of me that loves explosions and swordfights and dancing on the ashes of what serious comics should be, but the femme adult he’s stuck inside of is a sharper lady who demands substance in exchange for raw anarchy. After all, you can’t break something down without taking responsibility for building it back up.

[Again, you can read Crossed Wires at http://crossedwires.irisjay.net. Preorder a print copy of Volume 1 at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/irisjay/crossed-wires-volume-1. Thanks for reading!]

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