Friday, May 23, 2008

On Researching/Teaching Stephenson: Student Perspectives on Snow Crash

As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.

Two teams gave presentations on Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.


Gary gets the ball rolling for the first team:

I presented on Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson. An excellent book that I really enjoyed reading. It is one of the few books that I have actually laughed out loud while reading. The opening with the Deliverator, and the memo on toilet paper use are pure gold. What I liked most though is that the writing didn't get stuck focusing on just characters or just plot. I think there was a good mix of character driven story and plot growth. Most of the characters seem multi-dimensional and the plot doesn't quit as it did in some of the other books we've read.

I also loved the world in the novel. It almost seems like a real life internet to me. Each of the corporations and Burbclaves controls a small section where they have absolute power. They can say who can come in and what is allowed there, just like moderators on a website. I really like the way that this fits with the Metaverse. In the Metaverse people buy land area and can do whatever they want with it. The biggest difference between the Metaverse and reality is in one you use the highway to travel between sites and the other you use the Street, and also in one you can die.

In the end I thought Snow Crash was an exciting and funny read. Its action scenes are great, it dialog scenes are deep, and neither seem forced for the sake of creating the other. I would recommend it to anyone who loves the internet, cyberpunk, or books.


Chris continues:

Personally, I enjoyed Snow Crash. I thought Stephenson did a great job of creating a universe that responded to other authors such as Gibson while still being distinct and interesting. His universe was evocative and stylized, and when reading it, I came across three basic parts of the novel that I came to enjoy. The three major aspects of the book I liked were: the technology, the interesting characters, and how the story was thought-provoking but humorous.

Concerning the technology, I loved the various machines and software that the author had created. This, I must admit, was more of a superficial reason for me liking this novel. I “oooo'ed” and “ahhe'd” at the technology shown, just like some kid going to the zoo and watching the animals. The robo-dog and goo gun were good examples. The goo gun wasn't quite as flashy, but it was an interesting item, that definitely could get some real-world use. And of course, the Metaverse was extremely interesting. This technology could revolutionize entertainment and communications, creating a real gap between physical and digital life.

The characters were also interesting. Of course, Hiro Protagonist was an odd character, but interesting. His odd mix of hacker, samurai, and (at least from our time) lowly pizza delivery boy was humorous, but showed many interesting concepts in this world. The idea that someone could be a celebrity online while unknown in real life is something that is rare today, but becoming more commonplace. Also, his mixed ethnicity created some an attachment to our time, in that the racism in our world has not disappeared, even in this novel's time, when people can be anyone they want in the Metaverse.

I also liked the female characters who came into the story, especially Y.T. and Juanita. Y.T. was another odd character; a valley girl turned skateboarder with some overactive hormones. Y.T.'s sexuality was an odd aspect of the character, and made me question why she was so sexual. Was it just the hormones (most likely), or just some weird idea of the author's? Either way, she was our eye into the skateboarder culture, which was an extension of our times. As for Juanita, I really identified with her. She was a strong woman, but instead of being cold or mean, she was realistically made, as she was simply hard to get close to. And her strength was a personal toughness, as she was able to live on her own, and withstand pain with ease.

And finally, I enjoyed how the novel remained funny without becoming purely entertainment. The suburbs, for example, didn't fit the glitzy world outside of them, and made a mockery of the escape of whites to the suburbs in the US in the 1950s. The lack of a central authority was humorous also, but also pointed out how, in normal life, a city block can be its own country, with a different culture and way of living. The racism was an example of the world wouldn't change on some levels, but still mocked the way we stereotype people.

I loved this book. It was funny, serious, original, and stylized. Its humor, characters, and technology captured my mind, and refused to let go. Yet, it still had meaning within its humor and characters, and made it so that I was both wiser and happier when I stopped reading the novel.


Ross concludes his team's reflections:

Upon researching Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, I made two major discoveries. One is that Stephenson’s creation was ahead of its time, that his ideas influenced later technology. Just as William Gibson’s Matrix pre-dated the modern internet, several of Stephenson’s concepts have, in time, become a reality. The second is the sheer size of the novel’s fan base. While running searches on Google, I came across entire archives of information related to Snow Crash and collections of essays with diverging perspectives of specific themes within the book. Simply put, the process was not very difficult.

A particular piece of writing that I read presents an opinion which I had never considered before. Basically, it calls the entertainment value of Snow Crash into question. It accuses The Metaverse of being boring and tame. “There is little consistency in his [Stephenson’s] method,” says Matthew Hutson, author of the article. “Why is it that one’s avatar can’t be taller than one’s real body but one’s avatar can be a huge penis?” Hutson uses this example to contrast Snow Crash with Gibson’s Neuromancer. In Neuromancer, he points out, people “can fly or swim around through grids of data and break through sheets of ice.” He asserts that while Stephenson’s conceptions are merely “mildly imaginative,” Gibson’s are “drastic,” “far-fetched,” and “risky.” The Metaverse, he concludes, is “largely more boring than real life.”

In my opinion, The Matrix and The Metaverse are not really that different. Aside from the corporeal and dimensional laws that are present in Snow Crash and absent in Neuromancer, each portray a similar experience of jacking in. One still travels through data and uses code to crack code in either story. Additionally, the height limitation on avatars does not constitute an adequate argument for The Metaverse being “more boring than real life.” It is true that a denizen of The Metaverse cannot create an avatar that surpasses their own height. Regardless of this, a person’s actual body is unable to be taller than itself and is also incapable of being a giant penis. Logic tells us that, at least in this respect, the Metaverse has more going for it than reality.

This is but a small bit of the contemplation that resulted from my research. Having been a fan of Snow Crash for some years now, I was surprised to learn of its devoted following and its impact on popular culture. Indeed, before taking this class I would never have thought that it would be required reading in a college level course.


Jared kicks things off for the second team:

Coming into Snow Crash I was completely unfamiliar with the impact it had on technology and the computer science industry. I had not heard of the author or book outside of the class and I was pleasantly surprised by the satirical tone the author presented. The book read more similarly to a comic book or manga than the more serious science fiction such as Foundation or Neuromancer. I had assumed that this book must exist as an outcast in the world of science fiction as science fiction is so often criticized as an illegitimate genre not meant for the serious reader. Unfortunately it is this false pretentiousness that legitimizes many subpar works and drives readers away from such gems of literature as Snow Crash.

As I read I kept in mind that it has been criticized as sloppily written due to the pace quickly changing from action to a slower, more reflective mood. Looking back on the book I cannot understand what this criticism means. I can imagine what a choppy pace would read like but I fail to understand how Snow Crash fits into that criticism. Realizations such as this force me to question if I am a more simple minded reader than the critics. Regardless I had a fun time reading Snow Crash if for no other reason than to spite those who criticized it for being satirical.


Alex concludes:

I loved Snow Crash. The book was recommended to me a few years ago by a friend, and I had liked it at the time, but it didn’t really seem like anything special. So it sat on my shelf gathering dust for a couple years, and after I finished I was really glad to have revisited it.

There were two things in particular that I found especially interesting about Stephenson’s novel: A, the overwhelming influence of Sumerian myth in the plot, and B, the satirical style of the novel (something I actually didn’t get the first time I had read it). The Sumerian mythos present in Snow Crash is the story of Inanna, a goddess of sex and war. Juanita is strongly associated with Inanna in the story, doing many things similar to Inanna, such as heading directly to the “underworld” (L. Bob Rife’s giant raft) and confronting Enki (Rife) and stealing the Me (stealing Rife’s work and becoming a “neuro-lingustic hacker”). The part that got me most about the satire aspect of Snow Crash was the fact that I had missed it the first time around. Stephenson pokes fun at almost everything--from pizza delivery to the government to religion to the internet to the mafia--it’s all there, and it’s pretty funny. One of the best parts of the novel is the very beginning, probably one of the best openings to a novel I’ve read. It goes on for three pages and it’s just epic statement after epic statement about the Deliverator, his car, and living life under the mafia.

One thing that did bother me a little bit about Stephenson’s style was that his characters were fairly flat, and very similar. They don’t have much emotional reaction to their surroundings--the most that we get is Hiro and Juanita’s relationship, and while it’s interspersed throughout the novel, the bulk of it is at the end, and it’s not deep to the extent that other writers have made such relationships out to be. The rest of the novel is mostly butt-kicking. The fact that most of the characters seem to be James Bond analogs seemed to send somewhat mixed signals to me, as it’s hard to get a reading on some of the moral implications of the characters' actions. For example, the sex (rape?) scene between Raven and YT--YT is clearly too young, but she can’t really do anything about Raven’s advances, and even almost welcomes them, and doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction to them after the deed is done.

Despite its James Bond Clones, I really did enjoy the book. It’s an excellent example of satire and of cyberpunk, and I’ve since recommended it to many of my friends.


Editor's note: Among the many useful Stephenson/Snow Crash pages out there, I'd particularly recommend fUSION Anomaly's Nam-Shub of Enki and George Landow's students' Snow Crash site.

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