Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review: Snow Crash / Diamond Age

Snow Crash is one of those books that just by reading the first chapter you are a better person - it's that damn cool. Authors often put a lot of effort into making their opening pages memorable - but I still don't think I've read or heard anything that caught me in quite the way Snow Crash did. Even if you have no interest in reading the book itself, I strongly encourage you to read that first chapter, or even better have it read aloud to you Snow Crash and Diamond Age are two very similar novels, both written by Neal Stephenson, that interweave moral and intellectual lessons amongst an incredibly realistic, fantastic and sexy cyberpunk world.

The world is a logical progression of our own, where everything has been compartmentalized and corporatised until everything from housing estates to homeland security is run as a franchised business. It is presented from the point of view of a variety of characters, the main characters exist somewhat outside this social order and are able to get a good glimpse of the way that all the different factions fit together, while the minor characters show what life is like for those strongly affiliated with a particular faction. The story mainly follows two main characters, Hiro and Y.T. Hiro is a freelance hacker, and Y.T. is a Kourier: a skateboarding delivery girl in an age where skateboarding along behind cars is not an extreme spot - it's a career. They are as cool as you could ever want too characters too be, always acting with confidence and style, yet getting into enough trouble for them to never be truly arrogant.

For the purposes of this blog, the book is interesting in the way that it is in some ways similar to a YA novel, only it's a YA novel for a 20 something guy. As well as having all the good characteristics a typical 20 something male would want to have, Hiro also has something in common with most male geeks I know, which is a sense that even though they know what they are good at, they haven't quite worked out how to use it yet Hiro is a great role model, because he is a kick arse male character who isn't afraid to try and work out what the hell is going on with his life. Similarly, for girls, Y.T. is a rockum sockum young women who is never ever afraid to say what she thinks. They both act with honor, but in a 'this is obvious' way rather in a preachy way.

The setting and early plot would both be suitable for a young adult audience, but the only thing that makes me hesitate before thrusting the novel into the hands of every person I meet is the heavy intellectual info dumps during the middle of the book. While they are not very subtly written as conversations between Hiro and the librarian, and they are arguably important to the plot, they are still quite heavy reading in the midst of this otherwise fast paced and engrossing book. While I really support Neal Stephenson's attempt at educating people through literature, and find the content of Crytoponomicon fascinating, I just found that I don't always have much interest in Sumeraian history. Some parts of it were interesting, but mostly even I was just waiting to get to the action again.

Diamond Age is also almost suitable for young adults - everything up to the underwater sex cult is fantastic. The book is also more YA in theme, focusing on an incredibly special volume called The Young Ladies Illustrated Primer and the people who have interactions with it. There are four main viewpoint characters, John the creator of the book, Nell the little girl who finds it, Judge Fang, who becomes curious about it's whereabouts, and Miranda, the voice actor who narrates it. Rather than presenting a broad view of the world, Diamond Age instead focuses on every day life for individuals of the various factions, and these characters provide a good cross section. The world of Diamond Age is very similar that of Snow Crash, but the franculates are more society based, rather than business based. One of the particularly interesting aspects of the book is the lifestyle of the Neo-Victorians, a group of society which is focussed on proper behavior, and making things the old fashioned way, but who also happen to be some of the best nanoengineers. It's a curious mix of cyber and steampunk, that will most likely be a good read for anyone interested in either genre.

However it's not just the fantastic setting that drives my fascination with this story, mostly it is the book it is about. Imagine for a moment growing up with a book that taught you everything you needed to know about the world, tailored just for you. It could teach you how to read, how to fight, how to survive, or how not to be completely brainwashed by the perfect society you live in. It observes the world around you and teaches you what you need to know - using your friends and family to fill the roles of classic mythological archetypes, and educate through fable. This is a particularly interesting idea to me, because in case you haven't noticed by now, the idea of educating through literature is one that fascinates me. The book may be more about the concept of education through literature than it is actually doing it, but just like Snow Crash, I consider it inspirational to a group of people that don't usually have fiction targeted at them, in this case teachers and parents.

Both books can be read on a number of levels, from the purely fun to the deep and meaningful. Usually I think that liking books is an individual thing, that not everyone will like every book, but I am willing to make an exception in this case, especially for Snow Crash. I strongly encourage you to give one or both of these books a try. As I send in the beginning of this review - even if you don't get much further than the first chapter, you'll still be a cooler person for it.

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At February 19, 2010 at 4:35 PM , Blogger ´´Saray´´ said...

Hi Nicole! I got the link to your blog via Bookmooch on that discussion where this book got such bunch of mixed reviews. It certainly sounds intriguing (science-fiction is one of my top 5genres to read) so I have placed this on my wishlist on Bookmooch :)
Greetings from Spain.

At March 1, 2010 at 5:55 AM , Blogger Nicole Canal said...

I hope you like it! Thanks for your comment and I'd love to know what you think!


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