Fiction and Reality Are Remarkably Similar


Like I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m in the middle of reading Neal Stephenson’s fantasy/hacker/Blade-Runner-meets-Matrix novel “Snow Crash.” I’m not typically in the habit of endorsing books — especially not books that, like this one, absolutely do not need any sort of further lauding — but Stephenson is one of the maybe five or six greatest living sci-fi authors in the world right now, and probably one of the 25 or so greatest of all time.
So if you were planning on going to see the — honestly, probably somewhat decent — film adaptation of homophobic wingnut Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” in a few weeks, I have a suggestion for a much more productive use of that $15: buy three used paperback copies of “Snow Crash,” keep one, and give away the others as gifts to your proto-nerd friends. They probably already have one, but they’ll be impressed.
Stephenson is still massively relevant: he was a runner-up for this year’s Stranger Genius Award — bestowed by a respected independent newspaper in Seattle — and his later books, like 1999’s 1,100-page “Cryptonomicon,” with its many, seemingly non-sequitur-esque digressions, have rendered him something of a modern-day Melville. And he looks kind of like a vegan Anton LaVey, so feel free to use that one when you’re making up your own Cards Against Humanity answers.
“Snow Crash,” however, is still his most widely-read book, and is fairly prophetic on several levels, predicting virtual reality (the Metaverse), online real estate and is the first documented use of the term “avatar” as we know it. On paper, the plot elements sound fairly stupid: the main character, Hiro Protagonist (yep), is a freelance hacker, master swordsman and pizza deliveryman who lives a good deal of his life in the Metaverse; the pizza delivery company he works for is the literal Mafia; one of his casual acquaintances is a skyscraper-haired Asian rapper named Sushi K; his roommate is the lead singer of a grunge band called Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns. It’s like Stephenson was transcribing the EKG of a fever-dreaming 10-year-old.
There is another character, one that I’m sure Stephenson was hoping would not prove prophetic: a hulking, terrifyingly intelligent, motorcycle-riding sadist named Raven. He is inhuman, calculating and brutal; after stabbing a pursuing officer to death (through several layers of quasi-Kevlar, to boot), he rips open the man’s femoral artery with a bowie knife, leaving him to bleed out. Somehow, though, the terror he inspires in the reader is inspired more by his nearly impossible physical dimensions than anything else:
“Maybe one reason he looks so big — other than the fact that he really is big — is the fact that he appears to be totally neckless. His head starts out wide and just keeps getting wider until it merges with his shoulders. At first Hiro thinks it must be some kind of avant-garde helmet. But when the man rolls past him, this great shroud moves and flutters and Hiro sees that it is just his hair, a thick mane of black hair tossed back over his shoulders, trailing down his back almost to his waist.” — Stephenson, 128
Soon after Raven’s initial appearance — during which he seems to engage in some sort of high-level drug transaction with a group of Crips — the reader and Hiro both learn that Raven has boosted a nuclear warhead from an old submarine, and now carries it with him everywhere he goes, stowed in the sidecar of his motorcycle. As a result, even though the man is obviously a tad psychotic and immensely dangerous — he murders three men within the first 20 pages of his physical emergence, and nearly breaks the neck of another — all security forces within a given area are geared toward, in a sense, protecting Raven. After all, as an Enforcer puts it, “You don’t declare war on a nuclear power.”
Maybe it’s because I’m trying so hard to avoid hearing about it — I’ve started reading cyber-punk novels for god’s sake — but everything I read, listen to or watch shoves forth a parallel to the ongoing government shutdown. It’s a bit like being lost in the woods: running in circles, nursing the futile hope that you can escape your isolation.
The relationship here is a pretty plain one: like Raven in “Snow Crash,” a small but vocal and ideological splinter group of the Republican party is all but holding the nation hostage; the GOP itself would more than likely prefer to cut the cord, but to do so publicly and wholly would mean risking primary defeat next year to a hard-line crazy — which, encouragingly, will probably not matter anyway, seeing as how many news sources are predicting that congressional Republicans could conceivably lose up to 24 seats to Democrats in the next cycle.
More interesting is Raven’s very first appearance: in the Metaverse. Inside a virtual nightclub called the Black Sun, he approaches Hiro, offering him a sample of the novel’s eponymous drug. Unlike most of the other individuals populating the club, Raven’s avatar is so haphazard as to be intentional, his body fuzzy, black and white, two-dimensional. Hiro, sensing something is off, declines the offer.
Republicans are losing this. They will continue to lose, and the scene illustrates why: even in a pretend world, built on spin and manipulation, they cannot help but be so transparent. We, their contemporaries, cannot help but see.

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