21 June 2009

Confusing the old guy in the room

David took at class this spring titled Artificial Intelligence and Science Fiction. It was a computer science course, but it could easily have been a philosophy course. The meaning of intelligence and the ethics of dealing with non-human intelligence were major topics.

One of the books on the recommended reading list was Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. I picked it up after hearing David talking about it and the discussions in class.

It took awhile to finish. Stephenson uses a lot of words and writes complex stories. And he has the need to explain many things in great detail. Some of his books have been 800+ pages. This one was only 440.

Most commentators label this book one of the cyberpunk novels, most famously represented by William Gibson's Neuromancer. The stories are set in dark, violent, anarchic, dystopic societies of the near future and focus on the actions of various heros and anti-heroes ("please, don't be too conventional").

The books reflect and inspire video games, anime, movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix, and industrial music.

One of the amazing things about Snow Crash is that it predicted (or publicized) in 1992 things like Second Life, Wikipedia, Google Earth, airport security systems, and attempts to unify the languages that computers speak.

The story is interesting and, at times, moves along swiftly and entertainingly. However, it's often interrupted by long lectures from "the Librarian" about the linguistic legend and history of Mesopotamia. From that mixture of a native human language, the story of a confusion of tongues at the tower of Babel (in Babylon), glossolalia, religion as a virus, and Ayn Rand individualism gone amok, Stephenson tries to explain how the world is ending (or something).

There are some interesting bits and pieces in there. "Information as a controlled substance," for instance. There are lots of facts, but you'd have to be a scholar to know how many. There are some interesting ideas and assertions, but you'd have to be a scholar and hear some discussion to really evaluate them. If Stephenson wanted to write a treatise on language and mind control, I might be interested. I tried to follow the lectures at first, but in the final two-thirds of the book, I just skimmed them.

For me, that stuff got in the way of a good adventure story and a hero in the model of the hard-boiled detectives that Raymond Chandler wrote about.

Stephenson's story is about the adventure of Hiro Protagonist (how's that for symbolism?) in his efforts to prevent the Reverend L. Bob Rife from using the mental virus "Snow Crash" to gain control of the minds of all the preternaturally talented computer programmers and thus becoming the super power in a modern world of sovereign private enterprises like Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong and Uncle Enzo's CosaNostra Pizza, Incorporated.

It connects to the lectures about ancient language because the tool that our Hiro needs is a magic word from ancient Sumerian recorded on a clay tablet excavated from an ancient Mesopotamian city.

Complex enough for you? I feel a bit more culturally informed. In terms of importance, I probably could have gotten similarly informed by watching a week's worth of "Entertainment Tonight" or "TMZ." Except then I'd know about present-day people who are famous for being famous, instead of obscure cultural references of the cyberpunk world.

I'll end here as the book ends, "Seems about right."

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