Please enjoy this encore post on the literary intersections of cyberpunk, originally published on June 8, 2016.
If you walked into a middle-class early ’90s living room, it would look pretty similar to what you’d see today: TVs, personal computers, video game consoles. Our stuff is just smaller now, and we use some of it to stream information and entertainment rather than using cartridges and discs. I would guess that because of this sudden influx of home-based technology, the mid-90s saw a giant spike in worry about what that tech would do to our humanity.
And so into this world came two giant, happily maximalist books that seemed determined to cram every bit of pre-millennial tension into their pages. One was Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, and the other was Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.
Snow Crash begins with a blast of worldbuilding: Hiro Protagonist barrels down the privatized highway to deliver a Cosa Nostra pizza, his black car lit by the “loglo”, zipping between franchulates searching for the right burbclave. If he doesn’t deliver the pizza within 30 minutes, he’ll have to answer to Uncle Enzo, and he does not want to answer to Uncle Enzo. There’s just one problem: his pizza is already 20 minutes old.
Stephenson immerses his readers in a complete, finely detailed future from the very beginning of his story. Within the first pages we’re introduced to a teeming dystopia in which the United States government has collapsed, and corporations—“Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities” or FOQNEs—have rushed in to fill the power vacuum. Everything in Southern California has been subsidized and privatized, from the highways to the jails to the neighborhoods. These neighborhoods—“Burbclaves”—are small intentional city-states with their own constitutions and security. (An idea echoed in Malka Older’s recent cyberpunk novel Infomocracy.) Many of them, like New South Africa, White Columns, and Metazania, grant citizenship based on race. Some, like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong (not affiliated with the former Crown Colony of Hong Kong) will grant citizenship to anybody because they want to increase their population. Cosa Nostra Pizza is in fact run by the Mafia, because they, along with the Medellin Drug Cartel, are above-ground businesses now. The Medellin have rebranded as Narcolumbia, and the Mafia pushes the image of their capo, the lovable Uncle Enzo, to make themselves look like a warm family. Uncle Enzo can be a nice guy, but he really hates it when one of his pizzas is delivered late. In the pure capitalistic system of Snow Crash, every company has to be at the top of their game, even if it means torturing pizza delivery guys to death to make an example of them. (Hence, Hiro’s opening conflict.)
Oh, and the “loglo”? That’s the constant undulating light of thousands of billboards, each advertising a different franchulate, screaming for the attention of passing drivers.
Infinite Jest, released a few years later, tackles the same giant themes as Snow Crash, opening with a (terrifying) stab of worldbuilding, then diving into the intimacy of first person narration. Under the heading “YEAR OF GLAD” we are introduced to the teeming, fractured mind of a teenager, Hal Incandenza, who for unspecified reasons cannot speak. We learn immediately that he’s sensitive, hyperaware, cuttingly intelligent—but he can’t communicate with the college admissions officers who are trying to interview him. When he tries, he collapses into what appears to them as a seizure—and they describe it in terms that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lovecraft tale:
“what in god’s name are those…” one Dean cries shrilly, “….those sounds?”…
“But the sounds he made”…
“Like an animal”
“Subanimalistic noises and sounds”
“This strangled series of bleats and—”
“Yes they waggled…”
“the integrity of my sleep has been forever compromised sir.”
Only after this nightmarish introduction to Hal, a flashback to his childhood, and some ruminations on his past that seem to set up the plot of the book, do we jump across time and space to meet a new character. This is when the shape of the book, and the future it postulates, begins to come into focus.
This new chapter is headed with “YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDER-GARMENT”—at which point detail-oriented readers will begin to figure something out: in the future of Infinite Jest, time itself has been subsidized. This is borne out in subsequent chapters. The U.S. government hasn’t collapsed—in fact, the U.S. has grown by entering into a (highly unbalanced) relationship with Canada and Mexico to form the Organization of North American Nations—er, ONAN. The years have been subsidized to pay off some of the country’s debt. Time itself is being sold off to the highest bidder. In a symbolic move, the U.S. also auctions off the Statue of Liberty’s torch, replacing it with each year’s sponsor’s best product, e.g.: a burger in the YEAR OF THE WHOPPER, a Tucks Medicated Pad in the YEAR OF THE TUCKS MEDICATED PAD, a small Dove bar in the YEAR OF THE TRIAL SIZE DOVE BAR, etc. When people look to what used to be the United States of America, they see not a symbol of freedom, a guiding light in the dark, but an appropriation by pure capitalism.
Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest were tackling the same basic topics a few years apart, but from very different ends of life: Neal Stephenson was a coder with a background in science who developed into a professionally eminent futurist; Wallace had a background in philosophy, and hopped from college town to college town, writing fiction, and teaching kids how to write fiction. Where Stephenson strikes me as basically optimistic and forward-looking, Wallace struggled with depression and occasionally addiction throughout his life. Where Snow Crash is exhilarating and often thrilling to read, Infinite Jest’s length and attention to detail becomes oppressive at times. (Although it results in an incredibly immersive and moving reading experience…if you can stick with it.) There have been arguments about Infinite Jest’s sci-fi status since it came out 20 years ago. Personally, I’m happy to use the fuzzy phrase “speculative fiction” to classify the story, and leave it at that. It’s satire, it looked into what was then the future to make some broad guesses about where society was heading, but it was primarily satirizing mid-90s culture, not seriously predicting the future. It’s assuredly not cyberpunk, which is why it’s so interesting to put it in conversation with Snow Crash, which decidedly is.
Both books mirror the experience of the internet in markedly different ways. In Snow Crash, Stephenson describes the virtual “Metaverse” as a Tron-like world—an endless black grid, a canvas for infinite possibilities, where Hiro and the other hackers used to “write car and motorcycle software in order to get around. They would take their software out and race it in the black desert of the electronic night.” By the time we enter the Metaverse, however, this canvas has been filled with a simulacrum of Reality—a giant teeming street filled with shops and ads, defined by the same financial and class limitations that make Reality such a bore. People are judged by what sort of avatar they can afford: using an off-the-shelf ‘Clint’ or ‘Brandy’ is not only completely constrained to the gender binary, it also means you can’t code, and you’re too poor to afford a bespoke avatar. A bespoke avatar means you have money, but no coding talent. A truly good avatar, like Hiro’s, means you’re a coder, which allows you to transcend the financial and class barriers, but requires time and talent to learn. And if you appear in a scratchy black and white avatar, everyone will know that you’re too poor to even own a computer, and that you’re porting in from a public terminal—in other words, you’re a pariah in the Metaverse. Some people do choose wackier avatars, like animals or body parts, but what’s the point if society is just going to mirror reality? You might run into a seven-foot-tall talking penis, but does it have anything interesting to say? Probably not. Plus, you’re bombarded by floating talking ads the whole time you’re there. So by the time the reader visits the Metaverse, Hiro mostly uses the space as a library, where he can sit in his virtual office and speed-read facts about Sumerian history. In Snow Crash, the Metaverse had a small window of limitless possibility before it was co-opted into an extension of existing commercial and political structures, a process that has arguably played out in our own lives in the past two decades.
Infinite Jest has no real “internet”—or if it does, people don’t spend much time in it. People use computer/telephone-television hybrids called teleputers to call each other and watch TV, and a company called InterLace provides cartridge delivery and communications, but there’s no sense that people use it drop into a “virtual reality”. There’s a brief “videophony” fad, but videophones fall out of favor because of narcissism: basically, no one likes how they look on their videophone calls, which finally gives way to people realizing they might as well just revert back to old-fashioned, but cheaper and easier phones. This reversion is “culturally approved as a kind of chic integrity, not Ludditism but a kind of retrograde transcendence of sci-fi-ish high-tech for its own sake, a transcendence of the vanity and the slavery to high-tech fashion that people view as so unattractive in one another.” The lasting effect of the videophony phase is that the idea of the “self-image” becomes shattered. By the time the book begins, people are so paranoid by the idea that they’ll show up to events or dinners with friends, and disappoint said friends when they don’t look as hot as the D-List celebrity from their Tableaux, that the U.S. essentially becomes a nation of agoraphobes. This cultural shift is exploited by InterLace, who corners the market on communication (allowing most ONAN-ites to telecommute), entertainment (by delivering film and television ‘cartridges’ to people’s homes after the collapse of the television networks), learning (books are also uploaded into cartridges), and even food (most people get their groceries delivered, ala FreshDirect, rather than going out) so that by the time Hal is high school age, American society has become a homogeneous land of shut-ins. Our own lives are so accustomed to these services that they form an entire content delivery economy.
There are other parallels between the two stories, including some surface-level things, like how Snow Crash has a character named Y.T., for “Yours Truly”, while Infinite Jest has the point-of-view of a thief called “yrstrly”, and both authors are addicted to ridiculous acronyms. If you look a little deeper you’ll see that they both enjoy veering between “high” cultural references (Sumerian religion, Byzantinze art, avante garde film) and juvenile jokes (like naming the Canada/U.S./Mexico collective after a term for masturbation). But even deeper than that is the way both books wrestle with identity, and whether any sort of personal integrity can endure in the futures they’ve created. A future that we appear to be thoroughly ensconced within.
David Foster Wallace didn’t really concern himself with virtual reality because he was more worried about what was going on in our heads, and he tried to look at it without the filter of the internet, instead putting the focus on one human’s stream of consciousness before turning to the world. Unlike Stephenson, who is a professional futurist, Wallace was something of a Luddite. He only grudgingly used email; posited a future where we used “cartridges” rather than the CDs and LaserDiscs that were already on the market in the mid-90s; and, given his worries about TV addiction, I can’t imagine he was a fan of the internet. However when he wrote Infinite Jest he built the internet’s structure into the bones of the book. Infinite Jest hops around in time, sometimes labeling the year and sometimes not, sometimes jumping into a minor character’s consciousness without warning (once he switches POVs in mid-sentence by following a sheet of paper caught in the wind from one character’s line of sight to another’s) and most infamously, there are those endnotes. The final 200-ish pages of the book are numbered endnotes (not footnotes) and they make the book a far richer reading experience. What they are, essentially, is a mirror of the way most people use the internet, and I would argue, the way many of us think. You’ll be reading down a page, following Hal during a tennis match, for instance, and then your eye trips across a note. If you flip back to the note you’ll find more information: Sometimes an anecdote that directly affects the chapter you’re reading, sometimes a seemingly unrelated tangent, sometimes a complete list of James Incandenza’s filmography. Often the endnote will be more interesting or important than the main text—and that’s part of the point. If you read Infinite Jest the way you’re supposed to, what you get is a few hours spent on the internet, tabbing around and clicking links and watching the odd video. This pre-internet experience adroitly captures our current internet experience. This is the point that Wallace, a monstrously prescient person, ultimately makes about the fractured nature of modern identity.
Both books eye technology warily, but with a key difference. Snow Crash’s titular drug/program Snow Crash can do exactly what it says on the tin. If the right person, say a hacker, sees the flash of pure binary, it will destroy her mind, and leave her a drooling mess who can only mutter ancient Sumerian. If a hapless bored individual happen upon “The Entertainment”, one of James Incandenza’s avante garde films, they will find themselves so enthralled by the film that they’ll forget to eat, drink, use the bathroom…basically, they’ll forget everything, and dehydrate to death after a couple of days without ever noticing what’s happening to them. In Snow Crash, it seems to be the hacker’s curiosity/arrogance that can do him in: he hears about Snow Crash (the drug/program), scoffs at the idea that it’s as dangerous as people say it is, and before he knows it his brain has melted. In Infinite Jest, it’s people’s addictive tendencies and endless craving for entertainment that does them in. But Stephenson’s vision includes hackers who can battle Snow Crash, while Wallace’s is much bleaker: there doesn’t appear to be a cure for having watched The Entertainment, and certain people are only too eager to exploit the cartridge for full terrorism purposes.
What’s more unsettling is how intimate Snow Crash and The Entertainment become, and how they strike at the heart of the idea that information can be power and freedom. The sense of threat that hangs over these novels is not the Cold War fear of nuclear war, or the fear of plague or environmental catastrophe—it is entertainment turned lethal, and information itself that will destroy society. And even more than that—the threats are bound inextricably to the heroes of the novels. Hiro calls himself a hacker in the way a person would call herself a Methodist or a Libertarian—it’s his identity, it’s an intrinsic part of his self. In the world of Snow Crash, being a hacker means that you’re creative, you think differently than those around you, and you find ways around (or through) the obstacles an anarcho-capiticalistic-corprocracy throws at you. In the same way, Y.T. surfs the highway on her plank, going around or over traffic by being faster and more creative than those around her. The worst fate in Y.T.’s eyes is to be a “bimbo” in a minivan, or even worse, a pedestrian. These two are the book’s heroes because of their identities as hackers and in Snow Crash, the threat is bound into that very identity. Snow Crash can affect anyone, but it can only truly destroy a hacker. In Infinite Jest, James Incandenza is a filmmaker in the same way Hiro is a hacker—it’s his entire self-conception, the way he communicates with the world, and the only way he feels he can reach his son Hal. But here again it’s this identity itself that becomes poisonous. Entertainment, a thing that’s supposed to at least take away some of the weight of the world, and at best remind us what it is to be human, instead becomes far more destructive than any merely physical drug.
U.S. society has manifested a lot of the idiosyncrasies that both books predicted. Throwaway gags, like Snow Crash’s mention of new denominations called “Meeses” and Gippers” are coming true in the form of Tubmans—although those are just normal $20s—and you are under constant attack from pop-up ads when you’re on the internet. Broadcast TV has been largely supplanted by curated, delivered entertainment like Netflix and Hulu, and, well, the idea of an Entertainment that completely takes over your life has found life in the normalization of the bingewatch. In our current Golden Age of Television, it’s quickly become normal to spend a weekend watching an entire television series so you can be ready for Monday’s gifs and thinkpieces. Telecommuting, already a thing in some of the cooler professions in the ‘90s, is now much more standard, as are the predictable problems with work/life separation that come with being online all the time.
And there is the true rub. Infinite Jest’s structure mirrors the self-induced attention fracturing created by the internet, and Snow Crash shows both the joys and the dangers of a place like the Metaverse. Real life has fallen somewhere between the two. One of the things I find most fascinating in looking at these books is the neither of them ever posits a portable internet. Hiro has to be able to plug his laptop to get to the Metaverse, “goggles in,” and can then see the Metaverse landscape through the goggles, or look over them to see Reality. Hal, meanwhile, has to sit in front of his large, stationary “teleputer” to go online or watch cartridges.
I don’t live in the Metaverse, but I work on the internet, so I am literally online all day. My phone is the first thing I see in the morning, and the last thing I see at night. My entire day is quicksand field of memes, gifs, cats, texts, Tumblr, podcasts, Facebook, inside jokes, outrage, Twitter, sloths, #amwriting, affirmation, and capybaras.
I’m not Franzening, here. I like being connected all the time, but having spent a lot of time in jobs that were essentially manual labor, and some time in office jobs that required a lot of non-internet computer time, this has definitely changed the way I think. I’ve always been a person who lives in my head, and that sense of unreality has been heightened to the point that I’ll lose all sense of physicality. I’ll become so immersed in what I’m reading or writing that I’ll only realize, an unspecified amount of time later, that I’m hungry, that my neck hurts, the maybe I should stand up and look at something that isn’t a screen for a minute. Even then I feel like I have a vague aura of words floating around me, like an afterimage of the screen has been burned into the air itself. If I have to interact with other humans during this period, I’ll often still be so involved in what ever I was working on that I’ll have to sift through a few sentences before I can come up with the correct greeting, or follow up question. My actual, human voice, coming out in little puffs of breath, seems weak and tenuous compared to the authorial voice I have on screen. I am slowly, I think, becoming more real online than IRL. The Entertainment has me.
I think it’s interesting that in the end, both books subvert expectations by focusing on unexpected, completely meatspace-based heroes. For the last two hundred pages of Infinite Jest, Don Gately, former thief, current Demerol-addict-in-recovery, refuses pain killers for a gunshot wound. He does this because he wants to honor his sponsors, his friends in AA. He wants to deserve the trust his boss, recovering addict Pat Montesian, has placed in him. He wants to earn the trust possibly-future-girlfriend Joelle Van Dyne has placed in him. Most of all, he wants to hold to the self he’s carved out of a terrible past. He wants to become the person he thinks he could be. Hal Incandenza, who seemed to be on track to be our hero given the opening of the novel, spends this time falling into a depressive haze, marathoning his father’s movies, and essentially abdicating the role of main character. When Gately takes center stage, his brand of heroism is not based in physical battle but rather in an internal struggle against himself. The actions of a hero are redefined as purely mental.
It seems smaller at first, but Snow Crash‘s defining moment is no less striking. When a Rat Thing is wounded during a battle, the sensible thing would be to leave it alone and stay well back as it overheats and explodes. Naturally, YT goes closer to get a better look. But when she sees real, red blood seeping out, and realizes that there’s a thinking, feeling mammal somewhere in that cybernetic creature, not just wires and code, she tells sense to take a hike and risks her life (and severe burns) to drag the Rat Thing back into its hutch. The built-in coolant jets save its life. What YT doesn’t know is that the Rat Thing, which is a cyborg pit bull, tells all the other Rat Things in the network about the nice girl who helped it. All she knows is that she saw an animal in pain, and she helped it because it was the right thing to do. A few hundred pages later, when YT is under threat from the creator of Snow Crash, it’s her kindness to the Rat Thing that saves her, as the RT network goes against programming to send one of their own to protect her, and along the way destroy the threat of the drug. While Hiro Protagonist proves himself as a swordfighter and a hacker, it’s ultimately Y.T.’s compassion that saves the world.
Both Snow Crash and Infinite Jest reflect the realities of my current life, despite being written well before it, and it seems that they both still have a lot to say about my future. In their ends, both stories drill down past the artifice of the Metaverse, The Entertainment, commodification, and so forth, to test how their character’s tend to their own needs, and to the needs of others. Beyond the infinite jest of our lives, after the latest snow crash, is this the purpose we seek?
Leah Schnelbach has to admit, she finds the idea of watching Infinite Jest until her brain melts tempting. Read her other works here on
The Entertainment, er, the Tor.com or find her on the Metaverse of Twitter.