Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Look at the Future from the Past, Part III, or Before the Internet Got Cute

Way back in like the 1990s, the Internet was a dangerous place, peopled by cool, super-tough dudes who carried samurai swords and dared posers to mess with them.

Well, not really. Really, the Internet was a sparse place peopled by pale geeks who sat in their parents’ basements and waited fifteen minutes to download, line by painstaking line, a picture of the MIT solar car race team, because that was pretty much all there was on the Internet.

But what the Internet offered then, by the bucket load, was Possibility. Enough that even those pale geeks (ok, I was one of them) could imagine themselves in the roll of bad-ass samurai sword-carrying outlaw hacker.

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopic cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash, imagines a future where a worldwide computer network is represented as a virtual reality “Metaverse,” (basically a way cooler and way more dangerous Second Life). The virtual Metaverse is where hacker Hiro Protagonist, the aptly named central character, feels most at home. He, after all, programmed much of it.

After Hiro loses his day job back in reality, delivering pizzas for a mafia-run franchise, he returns to hacking and information gathering (and thus the Metaverse) full time to pay off his considerable debts and keep himself out of trouble. He adopts an unlikely partner in YT, a teenage girl who works as a skateboard “Kourier.” She rides a high tech board outfitted with smart wheels that can navigate any terrain, and catches tows from cars by “‘pooning” them.
In the Metaverse, Hiro discovers “Snow Crash” a bit of programming that, it turns out, is both a kind of computer virus, attacking a user’s computer, and a kind drug, attacking and reprogramming the user’s mind. Driven both by the moral imperative to rid the world of something so poisonous and the promise of money, Hiro and YT set out to discover the origins of Snow Crash.

In the strange future world the pair navigates, the American federal government has broken down and exists only as shattered memory. The once formidable American defense department, for instance, has fractured into several organizations such as “General Jim’s Defense System” and “Admiral Bob’s National Security,” armies for hire. There seems no longer to be a central source of law and order in the world, all the jobs of government have been privatized, even the courts. People congregate in whatever communities can best protect them from what seems to be an increasingly hostile outside world. “Burbclaves,” each with its own border police, arise to protect those with enough wealth to own property. Hiro lives with a roommate in a converted U-Store-it, one of the nice ones, with its own door.

There are endless corporations to sell products and services to these communities; there are gangs to steal from them or exploit them; and there are churches to proselytize salvation to them. But where a corporation ends and a church or gang begins is difficult to tell. Cosa Nostra Pizza, Hiro’s former employer, for instance, is the corporate manifestation of the mafia, with a truly religious devotion to on time pizza delivery.

The most illustrative community of Snow Crash’s vision of the future is the Raft. Part cult, part self evolving nation, the Raft is a community composed of millions of boats, barges, abandoned military sea craft, pretty much any form of flotsam, all strapped together to form a kind of floating hodgepodge nation that drifts here and there about the Pacific Ocean. The Raft, separated from the last shreds of remaining order on land, attracts criminals, religious zealots and other outcasts, yet somehow forms its own kind of order.

Odd constructions like the Raft confront the reader on virtually every page of this novel. But every weird technology or fantastic community or oddball occupation has a logical reason for existing here, and Stephenson is generous with explanations. When confronted with a problem, human beings will find a creative and expedient solution, but generally one which brings with it its own set of problems. Stephenson simply follows these webs to create ever more intricate settings and plot points.

The real Internet that has emerged since the publication of Snow Crash is every bit as strange as Stephenson’s vision, if not quite as dangerously hip. It certainly has its own seedy, near criminal elements (extensive porn, gambling, wild-fire viruses, devious site hackers, etc.) but the real world Internet also has a cute face. Even the early Internet gave rise to the Hamster Dance. Funny infants dominate YouTube. eBay was originally created to trade in Beanie Babies. One can “Poke” people on facebook, and for your avatar, you can be Hello Kitty or a Fuwa. It’s fun, and nice, and ever so inviting. But you just wouldn’t come across endless laughing baby videos in Hiro Protagonist’s Metaverse. I sometimes miss that.

So, apparently, do many others. A collector’s edition of Snow Crash, selling for up to $200 a copy was released recently from Subterranean Press. It sold out in just weeks. Fortunately, you can still get the old trade paperback for a pretty standard price. You can also still get your hands on the collector’s edition. You’ll just pay $500 to an Internet reseller for the privilege.

Ah, the Internet.

Crossposted on Critique de Mr. Chompchomp.


Sarah Stevenson said...

Also, the book's got a subtle and wicked sense of humor. It's a classic of the genre in itself, but also manages to poke fun at the fact that a lot of cyberpunk books take themselves so, so seriously.

I think I've got that earlier trade paperback edition. It's got Hiro (presumably) on the front standing in a crumbling doorway to cyberspace, sword raised overhead like the Highlander.

NYCentrist said...

I loved Snow Crash, and I really like your description of it. It's impressive how quickly technology changes that Snow Crash is already something to feel nostalgic about.

mr chompchomp said...

You're right, a. fortis, that excessive seriousness is part of why I can't manage to get through a Gibson novel.

And matt, technology has changed fast, but what is also frightening is that the book is already a full sixteen years old, old enough to drive.

NYCentrist said...

I'm fairly certain that in internet terms, sixteen years ago puts it in the late Jurassic period.