Reading Playlist: AMERICA: The Books
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson | Distraction, Bruce Sterling
It’s often said that science fiction is less about the future than it is about the present. Gibson’s Neuromancer may not have gotten much right about the future (among other things, he predicted that the Soviet Union, payphones, and Matrix-esque leather and mirrorshades chic would still be around), but in the neuroses/obsessions/fears lurking under the veil of allegory, it is arguably as much a portrait of the 1980s as a McInerney or Ellis novel.
So what portrays the 1990s?
Snow Crash is today best remembered for coining the term “avatar” in context of virtual reality, and for being the inspiration for both Google Earth and Second Life. However, it stands on its own as a worthwhile read. There is no excuse to avoid a book that takes the “crammed prose” and deadly self-seriousness of the Cyberpunk movement and applies it to the esoteric art of pizza delivery, which is exactly how Neal Stephenson’s iconic novel starts. Snow Crash follows the exploits of Hiro Protagonist, a down-on-his luck hacker and virtual reality swordsman extraordinaire. After said breakneck pizza adventure, the book follows Hiro through a labyrinthine conspiracy somehow linking together climate-change refugees, rusting Iron Curtain remnants, evangelical megachurches, street drugs, virtual reality, ancient Sumerian cults, evil larger-than-life Southern demagogues, and a US government pared down to a Lilliputian size that libertarians could only dream of.
Stephenson took the trends and phobias of the early post-Cold War 90s and threw them into a blender with cyberpunk and a healthy dose of deconstruction, and glooped out a world Balkanized into hundreds of thousands of franchised “nations” the size of neighborhoods (ever notice how one McMansion cluster looks just like another one?), and filled with cyberpunk-style antiheroes with just the slightest, tiniest dollop of self-awareness (upon meeting Hiro, one skateboarder says, “Dumb name”, to which he replies “But you’ll never forget it”).
Distraction, written a couple years later, is Bruce Sterling playing Jimi Hendrix to Stephenson’s Bob Dylan. (I don’t know if Sterling consciously wrote Distraction as a response to Snow Crash, but blogs run on narrative, so let’s go with that.) The book follows Oscar, a political strategist, and his motley krewe as they uncover a labyrinthine conspiracy somehow involving climate-change refugees, rusting Iraq War remnants, Internet mobs, biowarfare, evil larger-than-life Southern demaogogues, and a US government locked in Byzantine deadlock that Republicans could only dream of.
Distraction is one of the most prescient novels I have ever read (just to take one example, he predicted both Obama’s ACA and the Republican backlash in a single throwaway line). Sterling’s work takes Stephenson’s and lets it rust, mold, and grow wild emergent plotlines into a world that is depressingly, wearingly close to ours. The too-cool-for-school anarchic jazziness of Snow Crash is replaced with a middle-aged black humor and wry apathy reflecting the looming shadows of the late 90s: financial crises, impeachment, dirty pointless little wars.
As a portrait of the American ‘90s in all their glory and shame, Snow Crash and Distraction form a solid one-two-punch of science fiction vision, not of the true future, but of the true history they came from.