Sci-fi Book Reviews: Snow Crash and Year Zero

I’ve always had a soft spot for sci-fi that goes off in crazy directions. I also love how they speculate the future, especially stories published in the ’80s and ’90s. They imagine our (current) world to be an technological utopia. Truth be told, we take for granted a lot of tech in our daily lives, but we’re still far, far away from flying cars and teleportation and space colonies.

With that said, the first book I read was Snow Crash, which I went into with trepidation. It’s considered one of the greatest cyberpunk novels of all time, and there was so much hype from friends and the Internet that I (almost) believed it wouldn’t live up to the great expectations that were hoisted on it.

I was pleasantly and gloriously wrong.

Despite being published in 1991 (or 92?), Stephenson captures the very essence of 2018 culture and technology. The use of the Metaverse, which is presented in both 2D and 3D as VR, is close to the idea of the Internet. Hypercards, avatars, “hacking,” and AI that were presented could be represented with contemporary tools and technologies.

Depictions of people in the Metaverse is also spot-on, especially in the ways they interact with each other. Yes, there are some dated bits (quite interestingly, buying software off the shelves), but for the most part it’s futuristic-ness is something that can be considered contemporary.

Y.T. and Hiro Protagonist, as imagined by editmode

World building is excellent, too. I loved how he depicted the “franchulates” and the breakdown of countries as we know it. He captures the idea of electronic visas (as barcodes on people’s bodies) as brilliantly as possible. On top of that, the bureacracy and office politics that go on in government offices – oh god, the US government building was the best representation of that. The idea of cybersecurity, bionic people, and the mashup of organic matter with metal bodies – all these are explored in very interesting ways.

Thankfully, the book does not take itself too seriously. It’s light-hearted tone helps set up the protagonists Hiro and Y.T., both of whom have enough spunk and heart to stand out in a world that has grown cynically dark and bitter. They’re both badasses in their own ways, complementing each other very well.

To be fair though, Y.T. felt more developed than Hiro. She had more genuine moments and character development than any other character in the story. Having said that, ancillary characters are almost cardboard cutouts, they’re introduced and disposed of without much fanfare.

While the story is brisk, it gets slightly bogged down in the middle, especially with the very academic discussion of language and how it can be used to program people. I found the concept of the memetic, neurological virus amazing, especially in the way it tied into computer programming (or was it the other way around?). But the academic discussion surrounding it was almost tedious.

Don’t let that stop you from reading this seminal work though. It may not be deep or thought provoking, but stands out as a work that you will positively remember in the crowded cyberpunk literary landscape.

Intergalactic Music Piracy

I still remember the days of Napster. We used Limewire extensively in Bangladesh at the time, downloading (or trickling, which is more appropriate since our net speed was stupendously slow) albums as they came out. Music piracy is still massive in this subcontinent, though it’s slowed in the past few years with the advent of local Spotify equivalents.

And that’s why I chose Year Zero next. It’s a brilliant take on the absurdity of copyright law. What I didn’t know was that this book also channeled Douglas Adams’ style. Yes, I know, I know: Douglas Adams is inimitable. His imagination fires off in all directions, never sure just what he’s going to say next. Reid doesn’t imitate Adams but channels his genius in ways I didn’t think was possible. Year Zero is a fantastically ridiculous story that doesn’t stray too far from Adams’ style.

If your interests cross over between music (piracy), computers, and aliens, then this is best story for you. We start off slow and easy and eventually build into a crescendo of fantastic images that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The idea of the “Refined” league is preposterously awesome. Reid builds an incredible universe of aliens that are so in love with human music that they’ll hold lip-sync concerts, make faux reality shows, and carry around the entire library of human music. Oh, and when they listen to our music, they go into so much ecstasy that it literally kills them.

But that’s not all. The aliens are as strange as they can be. Between 2D entities, insect-like creatures, cute teddy bears with sharp weapons, and humanoid sluts, you’ll never see what’s coming. Reid channels his inner Adams in hilarious ways that even Adams would have appreciated.

Most notable is the fact that the most powerful organization in the universe – the Guardians – are impotent. In contrast, the actual most powerful organization in the universe is the Union, which is a government workers union.

What the book does best is music. From the peppiest pop to the heaviest metal that can be, this book covers them all. You won’t be disappointed at all by the music references, though many of them are from the ‘70s and will be lost on younger audiences.

I also loved the geekiness it exudes. It’s filled with jabs at computers, especially the whole Windows vs. Mac debate. And there’s a wonderful reference to why a particular operating system is such a pain in the ass. I didn’t see that coming.

The biggest star of all, however, is the human characters. While they aren’t exactly developed in detail, the characters still feel real and work well within the story. Without spoiling too much, I loved how the lawyers were represented as ruthless, inhuman machines with a soft corner for legalese, money, and rappers.

I haven’t had as much fun with a book in a long, long time. If you’re looking for something geeky and fun, then go pick this up right now. Just don’t pirate any music while you’re doing so!

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