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Shawn Sheehy

Snow Crash Showed Me the Power of Physical Books

I first read Snow Crash in the late ‘90s, probably over a summer during my grad school years. I was earning an MFA in the Book and Paper Arts, and I was geeking out over the history of the book, the moment in history when oral languages were codified into written languages, and the processes by which written words were accumulated and stored as texts. This history begins with the writing system known as Sumerian cuneiform, composed of characters pressed into clay tablets. There could not have been a better time for me to read this novel.

Snow Crash gets its name from the virus that is central to the action of this Neal Stephenson novel. This virus has dual forms; a biological blood-born pathogen, and a technological bug that infects computers and brains with equal virulence.

Stephenson traces his virus’s origins to ancient Sumer. There, the goddess Asherah sought to control the Sumerians through a brainwashing strategy that combined this virus with the common language of Ur. The god/hero Enki thwarted Asherah’s mind control plans with what Stephenson calls a nam-shub; alternative languages that he released into the population. The Sumerians were no longer able to communicate with each other, the transmission of the language/virus was stopped in its tracks, and, incidentally, the myth of the Tower of Babel was born.

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