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Metaphysical and religious topics in Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash"

April 30, 2020

Like all of Neal Stephenson's works that I've read, "Snow Crash" is a very ambitious title, perhaps too much so. Its central plotline is so far out there that I had trouble maintaining my suspension of disbelief. Stephenson evidently does not know God, though he does attempt to be sympathetic. From my reading, he comes off as an agnostic atheist, but perhaps open to a conversion later in his life. Perhaps not. The narrative describes a shift in world religion on the order of Jesus' coming in its own context. A (likely illegal) copy of the book is available on archive.today

Stephenson's erudition is apparent, perhaps moreso than his comprehension. In the book's mythos, the central event of history was recorded in the Bible as the story of the Tower of Babel, where the languages of men were confused. Stephenson takes as canon not the Hebrew account but rather a Sumerian account: "The Nam Shub of Enki". (Incidentally, there is a fantastic musician who goes by that title.) The text derives from the legendary Sumerian account known as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. The text referenced by Stephenson is found in the segment labeled 134-155. I am not a Sumerian scholar, and the intricacies of the text are beyond me, but as I read it, it combines narrative elements from the Fall of Man (Adam leaving the garden, specifically the curses of God for Adam's sin) with the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel.

A recurring theme in the book is glossolalia. Specifically, the Pentecostal and Charismatic behaviour of "speaking in tongues" is referenced. The justification of this behaviour usually derives from the text of the book of Acts, chapter 2. I don't consider "speaking in tongues" to be virtuous. The account in Acts 2 does not exalt incomprehensible babbling, as is the typical Pentecostal belief. I believe that the true nature of the miracle is reflected in Acts 2:6-8.

Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?

As these verses make clear, the point of this miracle was so that "every man heard them speak in his own language": comprehensibility underpins the meaningfulness of the miracle. If all anyone heard was incomprehensible babbling, the history recorded in the book would read very differently. Now, the theology I was raised in--which is the one reflected here--is Baptist. This is one of the reasons why we are not Pentecostal or Charismatic. I am not the ultimate arbiter of the charism of tongues. The Lord is. It is very possible that there are miracles and signs performed by those who speak in tongues where the tongues are comprehensible. I have no evidence of such. If the topic of Christian tongues interests you, Herbert W. Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God wrote an exceptional explanation of the matter.

The narrative of Snow Crash revolves around the meaningfulness of incomprehensible information. "Snow Crash" is an old jargon term from early Macintosh computers. When they suffered a serious system crash, apparently, they would display a white and black static screen like old analog TVs used to when tuned to a channel with no signal. In the novel, "snow crash" is the name of a "drug" that works in the VR Internet. To activate it, the user tears a hypercard. A woman appears holding a scroll. Meaningless words are whispered into the user's ears, and a scroll is opened to show an image that looks like black and white noise, like a snow crash. Taking the information in causes psychiatric changes; the coder who is exposed to it is hospitalized for the rest of the book. As the book progresses, the characters learn more about the mechanics of this kind of effect in bits and pieces, tying them all back into ancient Sumerian culture. Finally, the main character (named "Hiro Protagonist", which gives a very clear sense of the author's lighthearted and whimsical approach to writing) puts it all into context for another.

We've got two kinds of language in our heads. The kind we're using now is acquired. It patterns our brains as we're learning it. But there's also a tongue that's based in the deep structures of the brain, that everyone shares. These structures consist of basic neural circuits that have to exist in order to allow our brains to acquire higher languages...

[W]e can access those parts of the brain under the right conditions. Glossolalia—speaking in tongues—is the output side of it, where the deep linguistic structures hook into our tongues and speak, bypassing all the higher, acquired languages...

Under the right conditions, your ears—or eyes—can tie into the deep structures, bypassing the higher language functions. Which is to say, someone who knows the right words can speak words, or show you visual symbols, that go past all your defenses and sink right into your brainstem. Like a cracker who breaks into a computer system, bypasses all the security precautions, and plugs himself into the core, enabling him to exert absolute control over the machine...

Because they access the machine at a higher level, which has now been overridden. In the same sense, once a neurolinguistic hacker plugs into the deep structures of our brain, we can't get him out—because we can't even control our own brain at such a basic level.

That deep structures language, in the book, is the Sumerian language. The recorded laws, known as "me", in Sumerian culture, caused the society to stagnate. Enki liberated the culture using his Nam-Shub, which was effectively a linguistic spell that caused language to be confused. The antagonists have developed modern exploits using this backdoor system, one of which is the Snow Crash drug and are using it to control the masses. If you're aware of what is going on in modern media, the parallels are striking. Hiro ends up using the Nam-Shub of Enki to disrupt the control system and liberate the afflicted.

The book does not explore what happens to those who are exposed to the Nam-Shub in the course of the narrative. I find this choice peculiar. Exposing Sumerian culture to it caused the proliferation of language in the Tower of Babel story, allegedly. This was a rather apocalyptic event and suggests serious implications to exposure. Perhaps Stephenson simply recognized that it is a gaping plot hole and chose to ignore it rather than try hanging a lampshade on it.

There is a linguistic hypothesis known as the "Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis. Stated simply, it is the theory that a man's thoughts and actions are determined by the language that he speaks. While generally accepted to be true in a weak sense, it is very difficult to prove concretely. In positing the Sumerian ur-language (this pun ought to be way funnier than it is), Stephenson asserts that Sapir-Whorf is false. Ironically, I actually agree with him on this point: I believe that language reflects and is determined by reality, rather than the other way around. An intelligent man will bend the rules of language to express an idea that the rules of language might not permit. The practice of bending the rules in this manner is known as "poetry".

The metaphysical premises behind Snow Crash are very non-Christian. The concept that our minds are not our own is foreign to Christian metaphysics. We are promised that nothing can separate us from the love-connection we have to the Almighty. The existence of these neurolinguistic vulnerabilities directly contradicts prevailing Christian belief in our inseparability from God after conversion.

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38,39

Of course, that Stephenson doesn't track Christian theology well is apparent from many other points in the book. The sympathetic Christian character, Juanita, states that "[a]nyone who takes the trouble to study the gospels can see that the bodily resurrection is a myth". The most fundamentally Christian behaviour is testimony of Christ's resurrection. This testimony is not about external proof, but about internal. The individual Christian testifies to Christ's power in his life, Christ's manifestation to him, as personal evidence of the resurrection. Testimony in this vein is institutionalized in Orthodoxy as the Paschal greeting: a call and response between the faithful of "Christ is risen" and then "He is risen indeed!" Stephenson's low concept of the faith isn't surprising given an exchange preceding the previous quote. '"Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing—is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?" Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"' Later on, the book describes "Pentecostal Russian Orthodox". To Stephenson's credit, they're branded as heretics, but the proper Christian understanding would be that they were Pentecostal converts from Orthodoxy. Pentecostal behaviour like tongues is not Orthodox.

Even Stephenson's focus on the "me" of Sumeria inverts Christian thought. The closest Hebrew parallel to "me" is "torah", which means direction, instruction, or law. Once again, given the anarcho-capitalist bent of the novel, it's hardly surprising that his worldview is consistent, that law would cause stagnation. "Anarchy" literally means "without ruler". Without ruler, there is no authority to define law, which results in anomia. It's also historically-illiterate. The Christian Law, which is to say the Way of Christ Jesus, is the direct antecedent to the explosive dominion of Christendom and the successful development of scientific thought. Society flourishes because of the Law, not in spite of it. Dr. Gary North, one of my intellectual heroes, places Biblical history behind the development of modern contractual law. He has written about the matter extensively, but one entry point is his description of the Covenant between God and man. Modern contractual law (and North's free-market economic philosophy) are modelled after how God relates to man through law.

None of this is to imply that Stephenson is provably wrong, just that I disagree with him (or agree, where noted). The packaging of all of these concepts is superb and relatable, though Stephenson is not the greatest at building rich characters. Despite delving deeply into areas that I have formed my own opinions, barring philosophical objections that result in disruption of suspension of disbelief, he brought me some new knowledge.

Stephenson makes remarks about Judaism that might be perceived as "anti-semitic". "...to quote Gershom Scholem's translation, 'The speech of men is connected with divine speech and all language whether heavenly or human derives from one source: the Divine Name.' The practical Kabbalists, the sorcerers, bore the title Ba'al Shem, meaning 'master of the divine name.'" This particular reading is remarkable to me. While it's true that "ba'al" does mean "master", and likewise does "shem" mean "name", there's ambiguity here, and peculiarity. Hebrew uses the prefix "ha" to denote what English considers the definite article. "Hashem" is well-known as "The Name". Orthodox Jews use it instead of speaking God's name or even attempting to render God's name. So then, the rendering of Ba'al Shem suggests more "master of a name". It's doubly peculiar because the name "Ba'al" is the name of a Palestinian demon whose worship drew ancient Israel away from the worship of God. In a sense, the Kabbalists are proclaiming the name of Ba'al. Now, granted, my Hebrew is not anywhere near good, but the consideration held my interest. Occultists rarely refrain from making their unholy nature obvious, and this lack of restraint manifests in fractals. Where some occultists may think they are being sneaky, their nature manifests in other dimensions. Often, they will announce their allegiances in symbols, because making their position obvious but indirected enables them to gaslight victims more effectively. In this manner, although "Ba'al Shem" does literally mean "master of a name", they are also invoking the name of Ba'al, whereas they religiously refuse to invoke the name of their God. I have no such compunctions about invoking the Lord my God, Yahweh Elohim. May He bless you, my reader, as He has blessed me!

Snow Crash, as a book, while having its flaws, is also evocative enough to merit this kind of critique. The cyberpunk technologies represented are suitably spectacular. The plot is diverse and engaging. The motivations of the players are complicated, and the way the narrative plays out is unpredictable.