Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

How science fiction should be

Sometimes I’m wondering: if one day I had enough time, confidence and inspiration to write a science fiction novel, how would it be? No doubt, the best thing about sci-fi as a genre is that you can develop any wild hypotheses of the future, without strict restrictions imposed by the boring present. And it doesn’t even have to be the future – a hypothetical present built on alternative ideas in politics and philosophy is something even more interesting to speculate about. The good sci-fi writers are those ones who can make their hypotheses sufficiently structured, giving the craziness a sense of consistency.

A few weeks ago I’ve read the Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – and it was pretty much the combination of everything I thought a sci-fi book should include, if I was writing it myself. A mix of radical ideas in politics, contemplation of amusing theories in the philosophy of language… speculations about Sumerian mythology after all.

One of remarkable features of Stephenson’s writing is that his characters are never basic or predictable. I have no sympathy for basicness, and nothing is more annoying than characters you have no sympathy for.

So the main characters of the story are the Afro-Japanese sword-fighter and hacker Hiro Protagonist (pronounced as ‘hero’ – how smart!) and a 15-year-old courier girl on a skateboard called Y. T. (pronounced as… Whitey – the only white protagonist in the book – yes, characters without interesting ethnic background are boring too). The main villain is an indigenous Inuit assassin from an Aleut tribe converted by the Russian Orthodox Church (aka ‘Orthos’) carrying a portable hydrogen bomb stolen from a Soviet nuclear missile submarine in his motorcycle cabin.

And there’s also… Vitaly Chernobyl – the frontman of a Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge band.

If I was writing a story myself, I would have definitely tried to put as many peculiar details into the characters too.

The future is depicted in a marvellous way. America is split into the numerous autonomous city-states (more about them later). The Raft – a giant floating colony of refugee ships – is floating through the oceans, occasionally springing out boats with refugees, or… just the skeletons of what used to be them. This is also the place where a weird type of a new religion is starting to evolve.

Philosophy and linguistics

The whole book is based on… the idea of Noam Chomsky – a proponent of the universalist school in linguistics, who, as opposed to relativists, was arguing that languages are ‘hard-wired’ into our minds, being rooted in some deep structures of the brain.

And if languages are really hard-wired, is it possible to use them both ways – not only as an output, but also input, a pathway into the fundamental brain parts? Stephenson speculates that yes, and makes his main antagonist a neurolinguistic hacker capable of programming people’s minds.

‘All human brains are more or less the same – The hardware is the same, not the software’

So the cyber-punkish part of the book is dwelling on the original idea of the virus that affects human minds and resets their ‘brain software’. As expected, a system reset of such a type makes the mind defenceless and susceptible to any informational BS – or informational viruses. Infectious ideas, memes of Dawkins, religions: things that all essentially spread like viruses.

Wait a minute, this Snow Crash thing – is it a virus, a drug, or a religion? – What’s the difference?’

In the plot of the book, this is what religious leaders decide to take advantage of. Which is easy to believe – some real-world sects actually used the same approach (see for instance, the Lifespring phenomenon – and some horror stories related to it).

And then come the Sumerians. Stephenson speculates that the Fall of Babel story was, as he calls it, an ‘Infocalypse’ event – an event that compartmentalized the humankind into diverse cultures and languages in order to prevent an uncontrollable spreading of informational viruses.

(Exciting. Won’t lie – I had to instantly order a book by Noah Kramer for conducting further research into the Sumerian stuff)

Libertarian utopia

When it comes to politics, Stephenson’s visions of American future are always fascinating. In his most recent novel, The Fall, he for instance portrayed the American society split into the barbarian ‘Ameristan’ fallen under fundamentalist version of Christian faith, and a ‘civilized world of the Blue States’, where people are not mentally strong enough to browse the Internet without information being selectively curated for them by the specialists beforehand.

In turn, the Snow Crash depicts a libertarian dream of a country split into dozens of micro city-states with their own institutions: constitution, police force, military, etc. City-states, virtual states, state franchises – the libertarian future of America seems bright.

And in line with the libertarian fondness of the freedom of association, some of the Stephenson’s city-states choose to have their own code of social organization: such as… apartheid, or other radical forms of social segregation. Some cities have their own nuclear arsenal. Some of them consist of just one person. Lovely!

As expected, monopolies have overgrown states. US government has isolated itself into a totalitarian entity that ‘does stuff that private enterprises don’t bother with, which means there’s probably no reason for it; you never know what they’re doing and why’. Not even telling employees what they’re working on, subjecting them to polygraph tests and… cavity searches on entrance.

High-tech low-life

Stephenson has a refined sense of language aesthetics and the finest ability to come up with elegant expressions. His descriptions of the low-life future are exquisite:

Lepers roasting dogs on spits over tubs of flaming kerosine. Street people pushing wheelbarrows piled high with dripping clots of million and billion dollar bills that they have raked up out of storm sewers. Road kills – enormous road kills – road kills so big that they could only be human beings, smeared out into chunky swaths a block long.

The door is open so that the ocean breeze and jet exhaust can blow through.

But there are worse places to live… slum housing, 5-by-10s and 10-by-10s where Yanoama tribespersons cook beans and parboil fistfuls of coca leaves over heaps of burning lottery tickets.

Of course, the storyline of Vitality Chernobyl and ‘the rise of Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge collectives in LA’ is majestic:

They fanned out across Southern California looking for expanses of reinforced concrete that were as vast and barren as they ones they had left behind in Kiev. They weren’t homesick. They needed such environments to practice their art.

Or descriptions of a place called the Terminal Island Sacrifice Zone’:

The cap was placed on the really bad parts to prevent windblown asbestos from blizzarding down over Disneyland.

Discarded asbestos from the shipbuilding industry. Marine antifouling paints that are full of heavy metals.

Some relatable stuff

As already mentioned, none of the Stephenson’s characters is basic. For instance, I could identify myself with a few female characters from the book:

Your brain has an immune system, just like your body. The more you use it – the more viruses you get exposed to – the better your immune system becomes. And I’ve got a hell of an immune system.

She dressed like she was interviewing for a job as an accountant at a funeral parlor.

She has always been a dirty scum dog of the highways, not one of these happy singalong types. Maybe the Raft is just the place for her.

Or, the following description of the social disorientation of the main character is something portrayed very precisely – I can affirm it as someone equally disoriented:

Hiro would have chalked it all up to class differences, except that her (Juanita’s) parents lived in a house in Mexicali with a dirt floor, and his father made more money than many college professors. But the class idea still held sway in his mind, because class is more than income – it has to do with knowing where you stand in a web of social relationships. Juanita and her folks knew where they stood with a certitude that bordered on dementia. Hiro never knew. His father was a sergeant major, his mother was a Korean woman whose people had been mine slaves in Nippon, and Hiro didn’t know whether he was black or Asian or just plain Army, whether he was rich or poor, educated or ignorant, talented or lucky. He didn’t even have a part of the country to call home until he moved to California, which is about as specific as saying that you live in the Northern Hemisphere. In the end, it was probably his general disorientation that did them in.

In other words, the details, ideas and theories of the book are portrayed with glory. The art of plot development is refined to a much lower degree, but who cares – as long as the Ukrainian nuclear grunge is featured.

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