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The Web site of aleph · Index
The lethal text
Writing under erasure
Mesopotamian myth
The Gilgamesh legend
The nam-shub of Enki
The Tower of Babel story
The song of the Sirens
Plato's metaphor of the cave
"man's insanity is heaven's sense"
The Ultimate Melody
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Snow Crash

Once upon a time The Web site of aleph by Michael Chorost existed, but has since ceased. These texts represent a small measure of its content. Image from the short story ARI-L by Caza.

deoxy > philosophos

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

The object called "Snow Crash" is a computer program that, when activated, displays a pattern of dots to its user. It appears to be meaningless, but like the destroyer signal in Macroscope, it has the devastating effect of destroying the user's mind. As one character explains to another,

"The Brandy scroll wasn't just showing random static. It was flashing up a large amount of digital information, in binary form. That digital information was going straight into Da5id's optic nerve. Which is part of the brain, incidentally—if you stare into a person's pupil, you can see the terminal of the brain."

"Da5id's not a computer. He can't read binary code."

"He's a hacker. He messes with binary code for a living. That ability is firm-wired into the deep structures of the brain. So he's susceptible to that form of information. And so are you, home-boy."

"What kind of information are you talking about?"

"Bad news. A metavirus," Juanita says. "It's the atomic bomb of informational warfare—a virus that causes any system to infect itself with new viruses." (199-200)

The Snow Crash code is a lethal text. Snow Crash goes into the theory of lethal texts in detail, defining them as "speech with magical force." Another character, the Librarian, explains that the Sumerians developed what they called "nam-shubs", incantations which destroyed the ability of their hearers to understand language. These nam-shubs existed on a curiously dual level, analogous to the USE-MENTION dichotomy well known in molecular biology and information theory. They were stories of the the destruction of language which had the effect of destroying language. To hear the story—the nam-shub—forced the listener to experience the effect it described.

In Snow Crash, these ancient nam-shubs are being excavated, translated, and used by L. Bob Rife, a sinister industrialist with plans of world domination. He is using variants of them to reduce large numbers of the population to docility, and to kill off the computer hackers who might be able to oppose them.

In those it does not kill, the Sumerian nam-shubs have an interesting effect. It makes them prone to glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is a neurological phenomenon which is exploited by religion. Snow Crash further posits that glossolalia recovers a now-lost ur-language, the language which supposedly existed prior to Babel. In the world of Snow Crash, that language is Sumerian, which is in fact the oldest written language, and has no known descendants. Like the Babelian ur-language, Sumerian disappeared without a trace. The novel suggests that it disappeared as a consequence of the nam-shubs, which spread through the population like a virus and destroyed its linguistic unity.

The parallels between Snow Crash and Macroscope fascinate me. Both are about lethal texts. Both are about informational spaces: Snow Crash takes place in cyberspace, Macroscope revolves about a galactic library that is described in terms astonishingly prescient of the World Wide Web. Both are deeply concerned with the politics of information. Both incorporate glossolalia and Mesopotamian myth as plot elements. Both invoke the Babel myth and the myth of a pre-Babelian ur-language: in Snow Crash it is Sumerian, in Macroscope it is the galactic symbology. Both are deeply absorbing novels about language, information, and ideas.