Art Reads: Snow Crash

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Hiro Protagonist, goggling in, burbclaves, ‘pooning, the Metaverse, hackers, Babel.

Written in 1992, Snow Crash mostly predicts our present time in 2019. The Kouriers in the book are Postmates, burbclaves are gated communities with their own pseudo-laws, and the book’s opening chapter detailing an extremely timely pizza delivery predicts our current-day Dominoes app where you can see the name of who makes your Pizza and an Absolute Pizza Status update.

Anyways, if you’ve ever worked in Pizza Delivery, you’ll love Snow Crash. If you’re a software developer you’ll be screaming yes at it. If you’re a linguist you’ll think it’s the bomb. If you’re a war historian, a pathologist … let’s just say Snow Crash takes on a lot of things, possibly All the Things, without being too much. I don’t know how Neal Stephenson did this, but he did.

A couple of the book’s more fanciful inventions are just too cool for school, or too cool for our time. It’s hard to say when Snow Crash happens - maybe 2010, maybe 2020. You get the idea that Hiro and his friends would have to be about 30 or 35 in 2019. But, as future-flung science fictions go, Snow Crash predicted our dear actual 2019 much more closely than Blade Runner or Akira.

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Some science fiction books run the risk of acting like the smartest guy in the room. We all know this guy. He drops references, analogies, always with a raised eyebrow to see if you’ll react. But Snow Crash isn’t that guy. Neal Stephenson believes that author and reader are on a level playing field, we are all in this insane boat together. We are all the smartest guy in the insanity boat.

A lot of books and movies have ripped off Snow Crash, and it isn’t mere references or winking homages, it’s some of the most blatant ripoffs I’ve ever seen. If you read Snow Crash after you’ve seen or read Ready Player One or the Matrix, you’ll be facepalming into a horrible blue oblivion. I for one, sure did. The sheer amount of Snow Crash ripoffs feel like going to the club on the week that Michael Jackson died - everyone was playing Michael Jackson but it for all the seethingly wrong, unfortunate reasons.

There were a couple places in the book where two characters started talking each other through a linguistic mystery, and I lost track of who was talking, but I didn’t exactly care - I was there for it. The excitement to tell just bleeds from the pages during these dialogues. It’s like chatting with your friend with a PhD in Comics Studies who can’t wait to tell you all about the vast expanse of the Captain America universe.

As I was thumbing through page after page of Snow Crash on the DC Metro, I thought to myself “I could draw every page of this, I could make multiple drawings per page for this.” Turns out there’s a good reason for this feeling. In the book’s afterward, Stephenson goes on to say that at one point, the book was supposed to be a graphic novel. He mentions Snow Crash was hard to write (I’ll bet) and even harder to visualize. Conceived imagistically, it was far ahead of its time, yet in its time.

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I looked for artist Tony Sheeder, but I couldn’t find anything on him. This is the closest I got, I hope it’s right:

I made the drawing below while thinking about Snow Crash - in the novel there is a character who has barcodes on the chest of her outfit, and these barcodes act like mini scannable passports which allow her to enter x number of small nation-states or burbclaves. The barcodes sort of look like military stripes.

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While making this drawing I was sort of thinking about tags or small markings or screens and interfaces as forms of identity, much in the same way that they worked for the character in Snow Crash. Maybe the problem is that artists just can’t help but rip off Snow Crash, but I hope this is more of an homage rather than making millions of dollars that Neal Stephenson should have made. Snow Crash is just so freakin cool, man.

Perhaps because it was meant to be a graphic novel, or because Neal Stephenson is just a super chill rad dude who I would totally get a beer with, women in this novel have the same kind of inner thoughts that men do. At first I didn’t notice this, but when I looked at it more closely, it just blew me away. Women have the same internality that men do. Women have the same internality that men do. This doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but I’m over here jumping up and down on a couch over it. I felt like I hadn’t even been screaming, but someone heard me nonetheless.

I think Snow Crash ultimately works better as a novel - as a movie or graphic novel, it would have been sealed in 1992 like a mosquito in amber. As a novel, it grows with us as technology grows. It doesn’t feel like looking at a Netscape Navigator interface or like watching the dated animations in Johnny Mneumonic. It feels like looking at a 1990s painting of Google Chrome or Second Life or the Dominoes Pizza app, and the painting is astonishingly, psychically correct.

Artist Takeaways:

Snow Crash is so good that it’s hard to NOT make art about it

We should all buy whatever stocks Neal Stephenson buys