Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why "Snow Crash?"

Even though I've now published 100+ editions of Snow Crash,  no one has ever asked me "why do you call your blog Snow Crash?"  This means that either (a) everybody already knows the referent of my title or (b) nobody really cares.

If the answer is (a) then I'm dismayed by the demented character of my readers.  If the answer is (b) then I'm pleased to bore you with an explanation you don't really want to hear.  Here goes.  Be advised this will be a bit convoluted and perhaps unnecessarily detailed, but I'll get to it eventually.

I'm a long-time fan of science fiction.  When I was still in grade school I talked my parents into letting me join the Science Fiction Book Club, which sent me selections every month by famous authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and Robert Heinlein.  I devoured these books at a young age, thus warping my mind and leading to a life-long addiction.  During my working years my academic pursuits required keeping up with the literature in my field, often in the form of research articles in scientific journals.  This form of writing required very careful analytic attention and many cups of coffee to get through.  I had to forgo any enjoyable reading until summers lest it lure me away from my professional commitments -- then for a few months I plunged back into science fiction again.  Now that I am retired my reading includes several different genres, but although my addiction to science fiction has faded somewhat, I still have a great fondness for it.

In the late '80's and early 90's a sub-genre of science fiction appeared called Cyberpunk .  One of the prominent authors of this type was (and is) Neil Stephenson, who in 1992 published a book titled...wait for it...Snow Crash.  Cyberpunk was noted for its dark, dystopian view of the future and for the flawed nature of its leading characters.  The social decay depicted in these stories usually involved a concentration of power in the hands of a despicable and corrupt minority, as did the earlier works of George Orwell and Ayn Rand, but the character of cyperpunk despots was notably different.  In this view of the future private and sovereign corporations have for the most part replaced governments as centers of political, economic, and even military power. As critic David Brin has described it:
" ...a closer look [at cyberpunk authors] reveals that they nearly always portray future societies in which governments have become wimpy and pathetic ...[they]... do depict Orwellian accumulations of power in the next century, but nearly always clutched in the secretive hands of a wealthy or corporate elite.
In cyberpunk plots much of the action takes place online in "cyberspace" (in this context, a term often credited to cyberpunk author William Gibson), where the border between actual and virtual reality is blurry and porous. "A typical trope in such work is a direct connection between the human brain and computer systems. Cyberpunk depicts the world as a dark, sinister place with networked computers dominating every aspect of life" (Wikipedia).  The protagonists in these stories are criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits who struggle against the social order but usually with limited success -- they are the "punk" component of cyberpunk.  Note, these works were published when the internet as we now know it was in its infancy.  Personal computers were rare until the late 1970's and the World Wide Web wasn't invented until 1991.  Also note that the cyberpunk themes are quite consistent with my generally anti-authoritarian personality and fondness for strangeness.

Now, back to the question of "Why Snow Crash?"  The term "Snow Crash" has at least a couple of meanings, one of which is tied directly to the cyberpunk plot of Stephenson's book and one of which is less directly related but is still relevant here. Stephenson once explained that "snow crash" was his term for describing the result of a system failure in the early Mac computer, a phenomenon fundamentally distinct from the failure of a Windows operating system:  "When everything went to hell and the CPU began spewing out random bits, the result, on a CLI [Windows] machine, was lines and lines of perfectly formed but random characters on the screen -- known to cognoscenti as 'going Cyrillic.' But to the MacOS, the screen was not a teletype, but a place to put graphics; the image on the screen was a bitmap, a literal rendering of the contents of a particular portion of the computer's memory. When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set--a 'snow crash'."(Stephenson, 1999, my emphasis).

In the plot of Snow Crash Stephenson used the term to refer to something far more sinister and complex.  There it is the name of an ancient and very dangerous virus that can infect both computers and biological systems through certain linguistic patterns, brain activity, and computer code. Whoever can control this virus and its inoculating "vaccine" will effectively rule the world. And since in Stephenson's  cyberpunk vision of the future there are many greedy, power-hungry ne'er-do-wells who would love to capitalize on such a capability, this is definitely a bad thing.

So on the one hand my blog title suggests the content of my posts is simply gibberish, the result of my mind's operating system breaking down.  This meaning is likely the correct one, and it certainly has the appeal of portraying humility.

On the other hand, I'm certainly not adverse to taking over the world -- I've often said I could solve all the world's problems if people would just do things MY way. So just maybe my blogs contain a certain pattern of hidden linguistic code that is slowly turning your brain to mush, infecting all of your digital devices, and eventually making you a slave to my will.

Notice any odd symptoms lately?????


Christopher Wolfe said...

I've been enjoying watching you snow crash since we taught that book together in the 1990s. You my be on your way to world domination but I seem to be heading in the gibberish direction.

Cecilia said...

We have a similar household saying for gibberish, "memory dump in octal" which is what you used to get after a fatal error in your program on one of those mainframe computers. It doesn't, however, have the some social criticism connotations which make your title so interesting.

don parker said...

I don't view Ayn Rand in the context you depict. I found her work disgusting when I first read her many years ago and that hasn't changed after revisiting.