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
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, incidentallyif 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,
"What kind of information are you talking about?"
"Bad news. A metavirus," Juanita says. "It's the
atomic bomb of informational warfarea 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 storythe
nam-shubforced 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
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.