Sunday, April 13, 2008

Clash of the Cyberpunk Titans

Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk classic Snow Crash was published in 1992. I read it in 1996 and thought it was awesome. William Gibson's Neuromancer was published in 1984. Would it be possible to read it in 2008 and still find it brilliant and groundbreaking? Unfortunately, no. It's hard to read it fresh when you've read and seen it many times already. If you've read Snow Crash or seen The Matrix; Cowboy Bebop; (the hilariously terrible) Hackers; Ghost in the Shell (especially Ghost in the Shell); or any number of other books and movies I've never seen or forgotten, then you've already seen some or all of Neuromancer.

That certainly doesn't make it a bad book to read, but the relentless ripping off of Neuromancer does give Snow Crash an edge in the clash of the cyberpunk titans. That's also all you really need to know if you want to read either of those books. For kicks, I'm going to break it down and match up the two books point by point.

Characters: Neuromancer features Case, a drug addict and hacker, and Molly, a badass street-samurai, who for reasons totally unfathomable, and in a scenario that screams fanboy wish-fulfillment, repeatedly has sex with Case. The protagonist of Snow Crash is the aptly but incongruously named Hiro Protagonist. He is also a hacker and his female sidekick is Y.T., a hilariously obnoxious 15-year old skateboard Kourier. They do not have sex -- which the author wryly comments on.

Case and Hiro are bland compared to Molly and Y.T. In the battle of the sidekicks, Molly is a lot more badass, but she's also basically masturbatory material and in an supremely annoying character development, the author lets the plot grind to a full stop so Case can go running after Molly to make sure her feelings haven't been hurt by the mean man and she can reveal that, in order to pay for the cybernetic modifications that made her the badass she is, she prostituted herself. Sigh. Since I've been on this science fiction reading kick, I've lost count of the number of times a female character has been portrayed as a literal or figurative whore. Oh, science fiction! You've given me so much and yet enraged me as a woman so often. Was is that Molly was too much of a badass that she required a sad/tragic past to make her seem more fallible? Or is there some sort of mandate that all female character in science fiction need to be literal sex objects? Y.T. isn't exactly perfect: she's rather postfeminist in the "Ally McBeal on the cover of Time magazine" vein, when I'm much more a fan of old, reliable feminism. Still, Snow Crash prevails.

Plot: I was a little surprised to find out that Neuromancer is basically a heist movie: Case is recruited into a team to do a job. That said, it seems to be missing the element of a heist movie that I like the best -- the part where they show exactly how they plan and prepare to pull off the job. The plot in Snow Crash is a little more free form -- Hiro and Y.T. investigate a mysterious new drug, "Snow Crash" -- and, like other Neal Stephenson books, it has a beginning and a middle, but it doesn't quite have a ending. This one's a draw.

Setting and Tone: Both books feature dystopic futures where corporations have made an end-run around governments and where technology has allowed humans to interface with each other and with computers in an artificially created environment. This is where Snow Crash really starts to kick Neuromancer's ass. Stephenson takes the same premise and brings it to its logical conclusion -- creating whole corporate governments and instead of focusing on the nameless/faceless nature of corporate bureaucracy -- a trait, he instead assigns to the federal government -- he gives them brand identities. And aside from the purposefully mysterious Tessier-Ashpool group, places and corporations in Neuromancer serve only as backdrops to the overall feeling that the characters exist outside of any authority.

The differences aren't an academic matter of artistic choices but lie deeper. Put simply, Stephenson is one of us: he's a geek. And he uses Snow Crash to geek out about computers, linguistics, and Mesopotamian mythology -- topics which, coincidentally, I'm interested in too. Gibson's book, on the other hand, isn't really about computers; it's all 1960s counterculture, a cyber acid trip, manipulated human or machine consciousness. Cyberspace in Gibson's world is humans interacting with mainframes. Stephenson's Metaverse is a lot more familiar as the virtual reality version of today's internet -- 2008 probably looks more like Snow Crash than 1992 does. And it's built on code not hardware. Gibson's ambivalent and slightly wistful about the rapidly shifting technological landscape, while Stephenson's written the ultimate young man's book, running entirely on adrenaline.

Movie Aspirations: Unbelievably, neither book has yet been made into a terrible Hollywood movie. Yet. I thank whatever nerdy powers that be for having prevented a Snow Crash movie long enough that when the time comes the appropriate movie executive probably will not be saying, "Ooh, cyberpunk action movie. Can we get Keanu Reeves?" I hope. But still, somewhere, right at this moment, someone in Hollywood is pitching Y.T. as 'sassy' and I die a little more on the inside.

Random Thoughts: In Neuromancer, in order to distract the authorities while inflitrating the corporate headquarters of a media conglomerate, several people call in fake terrorist threats to the police from pay phones.

Near the end of Neuromancer, while Case is breaking in via cyberspace, he also needs to sneak in via the real world, so he spends time moving his computer around and looking for a place to plug it in -- it's like he's you or me at the airport.

Also, Bonn is a nuclear wasteland in Neuromancer.

Conclusions: It wasn't a fair fight, but I'm giving this one to Snow Crash. It's just more fun.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I Need a Theme Song

I have no idea what this blog, The Sneeze, is about, but it has its own theme song by Cloud Cult. I've blogged about Cloud Cult before and they're real, professional musicians (with a new album, I haven't heard yet). How cool is that? And why don't I have my own theme song?


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Expandable Posts with Peekaboo View

I've got a few blog ideas that I haven't had time to write up, but somehow I did have time out my day to fiddle with my blog layout so that I could make expandable posts with peekaboo view for my longer entries. I found the instructions on this blog, Hackosphere. I tried it out on all the posts on this page. I'm super excited because I've been feeling like some of my posts are too long for a single page, but I would really hate to add "read full entry" links which appear whether or not there's more to read (that really annoys me). I haven't yet mastered the art of knowing what to hide and what to show, but what do you guys think so far?