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.


Tim said...

Hey nice post. I read Neuromancer in 1993 or 94. I had only just become dimly aware of 'pop culture' and it totally blew my tiny mind. I re-read it again after college and realized that I had forgotten much of the plot and characters, but vividly remembered several images and scenes.

But, in general, I agree with your assessment. Neuromancer is the theory, Snow Crash is the killer app. If they make a movie out of SC, they better find someone really awesome to play Hiro.

Now I want to re-read them both...

Eugene said...

Hmm, Neuromancer is on my to-read list (a few down after this Icelandic novel I am trying to finish). Now I am not sure I want to read it for fear of being disappointed (like how Ender's Game elicited a huge "meh" from me).

As for a SC movie, I think casting Hiro would be the easier job. Y.T. is harder. For some reason, I've always identified myself more with the free-spirited Y.T. than nothing-can-faze-me Hiro...

Jackie said...

Tim - Yeah, I wish I had a copy of Snow Crash to reread. It's possible that I haven't read it since 1996 (hope not too much of my post was just nostalgia -- but, man, when I first read the book, it was like Stephenson had read my mind and wrote a book just for me). And I like your "killer app" description. Spot on. Random question: in Neuromancer, The Dixie Flatline is a personality stored on a "ROM construct." Okay, so where does he store his interactions with Case? Ah, and now I've skipped past the threshold of acceptable geekiness into full-on dork-mode. ;)

As for the eventual movie, I'm guessing the chances of casting someone who's actually half-African-American, half-Korean are no better than 10%, no matter how long it takes to get a movie made.

Jackie said...

Eugene - You thought Ender's Game was 'meh?' I think it's overpraised, and I like one (can never remember which one) of the sequels better, but I wouldn't call it 'meh.' I'd say that at very least, I enjoyed Neuromancer for pure historical value. It's like watching Blade Runner for the first time and suddenly getting why the future looks the way it does in movies.

Oh, and I totally agree that getting Y.T. right is much tougher than Hiro. I shudder at how they'll destroy her character.

Eugene said...

Maybe it's just a jaded me when I read Ender's Game (in grad school)...the punchline was telegraphed 2/3 into the novel, so reading the last 3rd was basically a chore. It felt kinda like watching somebody play a cool video game but one I can't play myself. I can't find myself motivated to read the sequels after that.

Jackie said...

Eugene - I hate when that happens. Anyway, the sequels are very different stylistically (Ender's Game is very much a first book) but as far as I can tell only one is really worth reading and several, or maybe most of them, are probably very worth staying away from.

Tim said...

Yeah I concur - only the first and second books are any good (Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead). The last two are all philosophizing and increasingly little action. That said: SftD is very good, although very different than Ender.

Jackie: I have only faint memory of the ROM construct thing, but yeah, it doesn't seem to make sense. Although Gibson supposedly didn't know very much about computers when he wrote the book, and didn't actually own a PC until many years later. So that might explain it.