Sunday, April 17, 2011

History is the Key

Personally, I am a sucker for historical continuity. By this I mean that I love seeing a historical connection, a "What if?" scenario, or some other sort of historical reinterpretation that is incorporated into a work of fiction set in the modern era. Snow Crash is just that, a look back through the millennia at human historical figues, cultures, and knowledge through the lens of a computer scientist and the knowledge of a biological "machine code." Hiro's presentation to Uncle Enzo, Mr. Lee, and Ng was riveting and piqued my interest by combining a new theory with a multitude of historical "references" simultaneously.

Peter Bruegel the Elder's Interpretation of the Tower of Babel.

The lynchpin in Stephenson's Snow Crash is that the Biblical (and other sources') story of the Tower of Babel was in fact, literally true. In a bid to encourage humanity to expand, diversify, and grow, Enki releases a helpful neurolinguistic "antivirus" which infects Sumerian society and soon the world. The antivirus has a near 100% "infection" rate and causes its "victims" to create a linguistic "user interface" over the basics of their respective brains. The "infection" prevents an understanding of the Sumerian language (the human "machine code") which Hiro likens to a normal computer virus. Thus language is not only a means of communication, but also shields the baser brain functions from "hacking" (basically mind control). Stephenson also explains the human desire for religion as us seeking as sort of "operating system" from which we can function in union with each other yet also remain individuals. Thus religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all encourage precise transcription of their respective "systems" (their holy books) to ensure purity and prevent "hacking" by the cult of Asherah.

This picture of YT was too cool to pass up

As unpoetic as my writing may be, I found all of Stephenson's ideas fascinating and stunning in their simplicity yet depth. In one fell swoop (pages 394-403), he has rewritten human history in a new light while also retaining the truth of most of these past actions. The three Abrahamic religions thus remain based upon maintaining certain key cultural norms (avoiding promiscuity, maintain human relationships yet continue advancement, etc...) while also functioning as a shield against the fictional Metavirus (courtesy of Asherah). Jesus was a shot in the arm for Semitic culture as a bid to prevent the Pharisees from repeating Sumer's mistakes. The core truth remains but a hidden agenda is revealed. All the while, human civilization advances.

Thus Stephenson has also addressed two key parts of human history: the development into civilization and the push to religion despite the rise of the age of science. The former is summarized quite effectively by Hiro in that the first civilizations and cultures were "viruses" within an otherwise normal mammalian species. Fundamentally, humans and apes are not that different on a biological level, yet have vastly different brain functions. Admittedly some of this is attributed to raw brain size, however, the key is the "operating system." Comparing us to monkeys is then like comparing two similar computers: one might be slightly newer and thus mechanically faster, but the key is that it also has the new interface which makes it several times more powerful.

This brings us to the second idea: that various religions (or a similar belief systems) are sought by humans to be this "operating system." The reason why random cults are suddenly popular is because people incorrectly believe that they have found a superior system, etc... What have been seen as random impulses are now understood to be simple, human-specific biological functions to always seek self-improvement (or a better system). For example, Juanita is both a confident Christian and incredibly knowledgeable thus allowing her to "cure" herself of the Asherah infection.

So religion is about what's under the hood just like the Mac v. PC war

In summary, Snow Crash was a fascinating read for me because it seemed to link, explain, and answer many of the recurring principles and questions about the history and development of humanity. While still Science Fiction in the sense that the novel is built upon (the currently) impossible premise of the "brain code," it is still amazing how well Stephenson was able to tie together religion, technology, civilization, and knowledge together through such a simpler idea (at least in our age of the computer).


Post a Comment