Future Forecasts from 1992: What Snow Crash Got Right

snow-crash
Copyright © 1992 by Neal Stephenson

After one very crazy year, I’ve decided to seek solace in a few familiar titles from the science fiction genre. For me, I’d usually jump straight back into reading Neuromancer for the 30th time or so, but this month I wanted to go back to a novel that I’ve only ever finished once before. A novel that belongs to the same cyberpunk category as Gibson’s literary debut, but from a different angle.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a classic in my mind. It takes all the cheese that then-contemporary gritty sci-fi could conjure up and serves it on a hot pizza delivered at 100 miles per hour by a badass katana-wielding deliveryman. With concepts like the Metaverse, it showed us a glimpse of Internet culture before the World Wide Web was anywhere near as integrated into our lives as it is today.

Since I’ve already reviewed the novel, what I’d like to focus on this time around is what Snow Crash is prophetic about in the year 1992. Let’s see how good of a guide to our modern day this book really is.

1) Avatars and social activities through the Web

Neal Stephenson definitely got how social (and perverted) the Internet could become. In his model, the Metaverse is a virtual reality simulation where everyone can interact using cheap or custom-designed avatars for every kind of interaction, from dating to live-streaming rock concerts to basic business negotiations. Reading about Hiro’s swordfights in the Verse or his dialogue with other users wouldn’t be out of place to anyone who’s ever played an MMORPG or logged several hours on Facebook. When we can stay in touch on our daily commute via smartphone, reading about Hiro using the Metaverse while sitting in traffic doesn’t seem too farfetched for us.

2) The rise of online databases and searches

Even though virtual reality isn’t as big a deal in our world as it is in Stephenson’s, he did nail how our ability to access and organize information through the Web would evolve. In the book, Hiro is a freelance contributor to an online encyclopedia called the CIC, he’s able to use a geographic mapping program called Earth, and he spends half his time feeding queries for information into a semantic search engine called the Librarian. Anyone today would recognize these early precursors to Wikipedia, Google Earth, and Google in a heartbeat, but it’s uncanny how well our perception of such software fits into what Stephenson wrote.

3) Privatization gone wild

Even in 1992, privitizing or deregulating sectors of the economy was nothing new thanks to the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. What is surprising is how well the themes of privitization in Snow Crash fit the modern realities that we face.

Snow Crash features a booming housing market and the explosion of surburban enclaves (literally known as “Burbclaves”), as well as a cultural shift toward private security forces and increased competition in the global economy. With all manufacturing jobs overseas, it’s no surprise that the United States in Snow Crash has learned to adapt and focus on being the best at “music, movies, microcode (software)” and, of course, “high-speed pizza delivery.” It’s practically a forecast of the impact that trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP could bring.

4) Strong multiculturalism

Tying into globalization, the world of Snow Crash has a very diverse cast of characters and even side characters, highlighting how immigration patterns change on a mundane level. Hiro is a mixed-race protagonist (half-black, half-Japanese), while his opponent Raven hails from the indigenous Aleut people. And the sheer number of  migrants from the Middle East working as taxi drivers and pizza delivery managers that Hiro encounters would be no surprise to anyone living today in North America or Europe (even if they are treated as one big stereotype in the book).

5) Rising evangelicals

And speaking of the Middle East, religious fervor and evangelicalism plays a huge role in the plot of Snow Crash, as Hiro and Y.T. team up to take down a pseudo-Christian televangelist who wants to take over the world using the Metaverse and a drug known as Snow Crash. Obviously, there’s no real-world counterpart to Rife, but the threat of Islamic terrorism (especially ISIS at the time of this writing) does match the same blanket of dread that Rife’s Infopocalypse movement evokes. We see today how terror networks can prey upon impressionable minds and attract thousands to a single hotbed of violence, much like how Rife’s followers flock to “The Raft” in the novel.

Of course, Snow Crash is as much an anachronism in our time as it is a useful predictor of what’s commonplace in the 2010’s. Technology is far less clunky than it was in Neal Stephenson’s day and the Web allows some of us to avoid the corporate dominance that most cyberpunk authors believed was just around the corner. Its plot and style might not be for everyone’s liking, but if you have the patience for it, this book can be a fun and informative read, no matter what generation you belong to.

Snow Crash is available through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

A Second Look at the Game Life is Strange

It’s hard to believe that the first episode of Life is Strange came out over a year ago, but here we are. Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix did a fantastic job of designing a realistic world in the Pacific Northwest with a cast of memorable (if somewhat tragic) characters. After the final episode came out last October, I didn’t have the heart to play the game again. But in March of this year, I did just that and it was an amazing trip seeing the entire story in one go.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned since I played through the entire game again (and be warned that, if you haven’t played any of the 5 episodes yet, there will be spoilers).

1) The Prescott family threats and Native American mythology clues are red herrings.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Back when the game first came out over the course of several months, fan speculation about the many mysteries of the plot ran rampant. I had an idea in my head that Max’s powers were the manifestation of some elemental spirit in Arcadia Bay, designed to combat the corrupting influence of the Prescotts who ruled her town and her school. And the game itself had tons of Native American symbols scattered throughout, from the Tobanga statue to quotes from a Hopi prophecy, that I figured there was some tribal influence on the course of Max’s destiny.

But no, none of that actually matters. I won’t say the game is terrible without that layer of meaning, but at the time, I felt robbed for not seeing it come to fruition. Still, replaying LiS has helped me see how personal the conflict really is, with Chloe and Nathan acting as proxies for Max and her true antagonist.

2) Chloe is, in some ways, the real hero of the story.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Perhaps it’d be better to say that Max and Chloe are co-heroes of this game. Max is our hero protagonist, who jump-starts the adventure across time and space, but Chloe has her own journey. When we first meet her, she’s a self-centered and impulsive punk rock girl who can’t seem to stop getting into trouble. But as the game progresses, her character arc does, too. Chloe learns to follow Max’s lead even while Max becomes more outspoken herself. And by the end, it’s Chloe who gives Max the final chance to fix everything, even if it means letting the storm annihilate the town and riding off into the sunset together. Without Chloe, Max would be caught in some never-ending loop of isolation and nothing would change.

3) Warren is not a total creep.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Warren is not my least favorite character in the game, but he’s close. However, that’s only because it was hard for me to reconcile his two natures. As a science geek and a guy who’s not afraid to take a few punches, Warren Graham’s a solid dude who can be helpful to Max and Chloe at the perfect time. But being male myself, I can recognize a lot of “nice guy” antics in Warren’s behavior (hell, I was even that way toward a few people myself when I was his age), and it’s not what I’d call romantic.

Chloe, at least, manages to grow and becomes a better ally to Max, but Warren loses sympathy points for me when he pursues Max early on and yet so completely ignores Brooke’s interest in him. He’s useful to the plot, but he’s not so harmless as a friend that I’d consider pairing him with Max.

4) The “Sacrifice Chloe” ending isn’t as horrible an option as it seems.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Like many players who learned to love Chloe, I felt Max’s anguish over having to choose between sacrificing her best friend (and possible love interest) and the entire town. It didn’t help that when I played the final episode last October, my mother had passed away a few weeks earlier after a sudden illness. As you can imagine, I was very emotionally raw when I watched through the first ending and so, of course, the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending was more satisfying to me.

But after seeing how this game plays through, I can say that it’s not so hopeless when you choose to let Chloe go. Because like my mother, Chloe was ready to accept her fate and go peacefully, full of love for the people that were in her life. And like me, Max had the chance to say goodbye after spending time with her. As the butterfly at the coffin proves, Chloe’s death doesn’t mean she’s gone forever. It means she lives on in spirit, no longer bound to a world of suffering and free to stay with Max wherever she goes. By accepting this loss, Max not only wins justice for people like Kate and Rachel, but she also leaves behind her anxious, isolated past self for a more mature path with friends and family. She can become the person that her best friend always knew her to be.

Whether you like or hate the ending to Life is Strange, you have to admit that it can be a powerful act of storytelling. I consider it one of my Top 5 Favorite Video Games and I can’t wait to enjoy other games that offer this same style of play.

 

Flash Fiction: “The Dark Water Candidate”

April’s arrived, and you know what that means. It’s a month where both William Shakespeare and I share a birthday. To celebrate, here’s a nice story courtesy of one of my latest meetings with the good folks at Write Up! Burbank.


The Dark Water Candidate, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 773

Amy lifted the tape recorder to her lips. She fought to ignore the deathly chill that came with a sudden sea breeze.

“October twenty-ninth,” she rattled off into the mic. “Still no sign of the Great Beast. I fully expect that every pundit back home is laughing their asses off at us.”

She paused to grab at the railing. The bow of the boat tipped forward a few inches and Amy waited for her stomach to settle once more.

On the other side of the deck stood Bill, a silver-haired man who wore his shirt sleeves rolled up. He leaned over the railing to marvel at the deep blue waves chopping against the side of the boat.

“Isn’t this something!” he called out. “I’m sure we’ll find it out here!”

“Ignore the babbling idiot,” Amy hissed into her recorder. “He’s only running to be nominated for Secretary of State.”

This, then, was how her career would end. Amy had hopd that becoming Bill Donaghy’s Presidential campaign manager would be a real feather in her cap. It was only after two years of impromptu camping trips, a 6-hour-long press conference, and one memorable “summit” with the local Girl Scout chapter that Amy realized her mistake.

A senior Congressman from Indiana didn’t have to be sane to run for President after all.

And he knew it, too. That was why Bill had chartered this expedition to the Arctic Ocean. “So that our greatest minds can discover the secret residents of our oceans, with whom our State Department can open diplomatic relations by November.”

Amy no longer cared. They’d lost three interns already and one of the pollsters had stolen a life raft somewhere around the coast of Newfoundland. While the boat—the SS Julius Caesar—was in no danger of sinking, Bill’s campaign almost certainly was.

“Starboard side!” Bill hollered. Jumping back from the railing, he grabbed a young staffer by his life vest and shouted, “Tell the captain! We’ve spotted something!”

“Terrific,” Amy muttered. She added one last message to her recorder before putting it away. “If this is my last hour on this earth, please, whoever’s listening, tell my kids I love them and spit in my ex-husband’s face.”

She moved to join the Congressman at his side of the deck.

Then, she froze.

Something emerged from the water on their starboard side. Something long, slick, and covered in pink scales. With multiple eyes and a gaping maw. When she looked inside the thing’s mouth, all Amy could see were teeth.

Rows and rows of teeth.

Not that this scared Bill Donaghy. As a born-and-bred Hoosier, he put on a winning smile and stuck out his hand. “Greetings! As the Representative of Indiana’s Third District, I welcome you to—”

What happened next was too fast to track. Years later, Amy would rewatch the footage that someone had taken with their phone, but even then, it still didn’t register. One minute, the Congressman was there. Then came a pink-gray blur, a short cry of panic, and, finally, a very meaty crunch.

Amy stood motionless on the deck. She looked into the sea creature’s eye—well, into one of its eyes—and waited for another attack. When it didn’t occur, she calmly turned away and headed down to the cabin.

There, she found the captain and his first mate standing dumbstruck.

Amy said, “We’re done here.”

Neither man responded. They hadn’t even heard her.

But they did pay attention when she picked up the harpoon gun hanging on the wall and pointed it at the first mate’s head.

“As campaign manager,” she snapped, “I am ordering you to take this boat back to Maine. Are we clear?”

“C-clear!” the first mate answered.

“Good.” Amy paused to look out the window, to where everyone else on the campaign staff, men and women of all ages and races (in accordance with their diversity quotas) ran around screaming. All it took was for Amy to lean out and whistle sharply to restore order.

Meanwhile, the sea creature, apparently satisfied with a single human morsel, let out an obscene burble before sinking back beneath the waves.

At the press conference on the following morning, every news outlet from Los Angeles to New York was covering the late Congressman’s final adventure. But every camera and microphone was pointed at the podium, where Amy’s epic closing remarks would soon become the talk of every cable news program and late-night talk show.

“It’s a shame,” she told the press. “If I could’ve taught that beast how to speak in front of a camera, he would’ve been a great Secretary of State.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Acknowledgements

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their contributions that make stories like this one possible. This story is dedicated to Links Drop.

To see more content like this, please visit my Patreon page and become a proud donor today.

My Favorite Women Writers

A little while ago, this tweet was making the rounds in Science Fiction and Fantasy circles:

Now, this isn’t a bad query to throw out given how toxic Twitter can be right now with the Presidential election and whatever legislative nightmares are being passed in the South this week. But it does show that a lot of good female authors and writers aren’t getting their due. Especially in light of journalist Gay Talese failing to name a single woman whose writing inspired him.

Well, I’m game to throw my hat into the ring, so here’s a quick list of my favorites:

Mallory Ortberg (Co-founder and editor – The Toast)

Jaya Saxena (Staff writer – The Toast)

Susan Cain (Author – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking)

Jenn Granneman (Founder and editor – Introvert, Dear)

Mara Wilson (Actress, author, playwright, and blogger – MaraWilsonWritesStuff.com)

Emma Bull (Author – War for the Oaks)

Rebecca Moesta (Co-author – Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights series)


Have you got a few women writers that you want to add to the discussion? Please let me know in the comments section.

First Look: The Love is Strange Visual Novel

Image Credit: Team Rumblebee, 2016
Image Credit: Team Rumblebee, 2016 (loveisstrange-vn.tumblr.com)

Ever since I found out about visual novels, I always liked the concept and wanted to play one, but I never had the time or energy to get one going. Fortunately, VNs are now a popular medium for fan-based and indie game developers. I’ve backed one by PangoDango Games called Lovely Little Thievesand this month I’ve become enamored with a fan-produced VN called Love is Strange, based on the popular game Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment.

Set in an alternate reality where Chloe never got shot, Rachel Amber never went missing, and Max never got time travel powers, the visual novel puts the player in charge of Max’s fate once again. This time, however, her goal isn’t to save the world, but to find a partner from among her circle of friends for a photo contest and pursue a deeper relationship with one of them. With enough approval points earned, true love can blossom in an atmosphere of total joy and trust in the familiar grounds of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.

The game itself lets you pick between 4 possible LGBT romance options:

  • Chloe Price, your childhood best friend and current teen rebel
  • Kate Marsh, a Christian with a heart of gold and a talent for art
  • Victoria Chase, your snooty, ambitious rival in Photography class
  • Rachel Amber, a mysterious, popular girl with striking good looks

The programmers and writers at Team Rumblebee put so much love and effort into every level of the game’s design, with plenty of homages to Life is Strange, such as collecting in-game photos and following along in Max’s journal entries. Every romance path also takes something tragic about each character from the original game and turns it into a less violent but still melancholy hurdle for Max to overcome (e.g., Chloe’s plan to leave Arcadia Bay for a while by the end of the week, as opposed to nearly dying all the time). And what would any Life is Strange game be without its choice-based mechanic? Fortunately, these choices are more about what encouraging words to offer your love interest and what kind of gift you should give her during the middle of the week.

The visual novel doesn’t use any voice acting. Instead, it relies on its text, sound effects, and background music to set the mood and create deep, emotionally powerful scenes in the player’s mind. Not to mention that every character sprite for Max and her classmates is wonderfully detailed in a soft palette that adds to each heartwarming storylines. In my opinion, this is especially well done when it comes to the Rachel Amber route, since she’s not nearly so well developed as a character in the original game.

But more than that, this is a project that was made to answer the needs of the fan community. It’s a love letter to the LGBT-friendly paths that Max could take in the original 5-episode game, especially for anyone who chose to romance Chloe. And for everyone who’s played through the heartbreak of the final episode “Polarized,” the visual novel’s light, playful atmosphere is a welcome breath of fresh air, a beautiful refuge after a year’s worth of tortured feelings.

The Love is Strange visual novel is free to play and available for download from the game’s official Tumblr page.