Snow Crash is the best-known book by science fiction author Neal Stephenson, and is generally considered a loving parody of the cyberpunk genre. The main character, ‘Hiro Protagonist’ – who has, like a player in a video game, chosen his own name because it’s memorable– inhabits two worlds: the physical world in which he delivers pizza for the mafia and shares a small apartment with his friend, and the Metaverse, a heightened reality where he rocks a leather kimono and swings swords. He teams up with a 15-year-old skateboard courier to find the source of a mysterious virus that has caused his friend to suffer brain damage.
Part of the appeal of some fiction – particularly many types of science fiction – is the lack of moral accountability. In a video game, the player can gleefully slay countless enemies with no consequences. Some genres – like the zombie apocalypse genre – require the rejection of morality in favor of violence and chaos.
Snow Crash falls soundly into this escapist amorality. When Hiro beheads a racist, we cheer without feeling a twinge of guilt. There is a supporting character, Raven – a biker with a nuclear bomb strapped to his bike that will go off when he dies – who has committed multiple brutal murders in the past. No characters ever attempt to address the possible moral implications of his actions. Instead, they call him “the baddest motherfucker in the world.” Snow Crash’s entire plot and characterization would fall apart if either the characters or the narrative abided by conventional morality. Instead, the book is gleefully amoral, in a way typical of its brand of science fiction.
Additionally, for a reader in 2017, fifteen years after the book was published, one of the most striking aspects of Snow Crash is the way that it explores the internet and its implications for morality. Under the protective cloak of anonymity, people can be cruel without consequences. In Snow Crash, the boundaries between artificially created worlds and the real world are largely nonexistent or arbitrary. The plot revolves around a virus that, when transmitted in the Metaverse, causes brain damage to people in the real world. Snow Crash was written in 1992, when the internet was young. There was not yet an precedent for internet posts that can ruin peoples’ lives. But Snow Crash seems to have predicted the kind of moral disconnect that the internet allows – and the consequences of this moral disconnection.
Moral Mondays is a running series here at 4/ir where we explore the moral implications of emerging technology. This week’s feautured author is Maya Chari, a student at UNC – Chapel Hill and reading enthusiast.
Stay tuned for next week’s Moral Monday!