Columns > Published on July 1st, 2013

Book Brawl: Lexicon vs. Snow Crash

During the opening scenes of Lexicon, Wil Parke, abducted by mysterious attackers, almost dies when an SUV ploughs into his kidnappers’ car. As Wil struggles free, he notices that it has just begun to snow.

Snow. Crash. Could it be Max Barry, author of Lexicon, is trying to send me a message? Is this a knowing wink to those of us who think it entirely improbable that there can be no points of similarity between two books which have at their heart the idea of language as ultimate weapon? Could it be that Barry is not only using that idea as a plot device, but has harnessed it in his prose and is at this very moment creating an army of zombified readers?

Whatever the answer to these questions, Max Barry’s invasion of the hallowed territory carved out by Neal Stephenson’s iconic work is a brave move. But which is better? The only way to find out is to put them in the ring—Snow Crash versus Lexicon—hand them gloves and wait to see which one struggles out alive.

Round One: Are you a dog person or a cat person?

As you have probably gleaned from the intro, both Snow Crash and Lexicon operate around the same big idea: the existence of an original language, long thought extinct, but the source of unspeakable power. While Snow Crash revels in its subject, with lengthy excursions into linguistics, origin myths, coding, virtual reality and cryptography, to name but a few, Lexicon strips away the frills and focuses on the ticking plot device. Barry populates his big idea with deft insertions of emails, forum posts and news items which play to the concept that language is used to manipulate our beliefs and behavior to a far greater extent than we'd like to admit.

In Lexicon, Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders have been hired by the government to find ways to make us comply. When the men in black raincoats ask are you a dog or a cat person? they aren’t conducting market research, they’re deciding Matrix-fashion how best to control your mind.

Snow Crash is inclusive but messy. Lexicon takes the same idea and avoids information overload.

Round One goes to... Lexicon!

Round Two: How much will you want to shag the characters?

Stephenson populates his story with a hero whose business card reads ‘Last of the freelance hackers and greatest swordfighter in the world.’ His heroine, YT, seduces uber-thug Raven and renders him (accidentally) unconscious with her vaginus dentata.

By contrast, Lexicon’s Wil and Woolf would make much less exciting, if safer, amours. Wil spends most of the novel suffering from memory loss and Woolf is one of those street-urchin-to-Nikita-the-killer-damaged-goods female characters whose emotionally charged antics don’t so much elicit sympathy as the sneaking urge to smack her upside the head.

Round Two goes to... Snow Crash (so long as YT remembers to remove her dentata first).

Round Three: Would you want to live there?

Lexicon inhabits a US and Australia so resolutely present day that it even name refs Facebook and (shudder) LinkedIn. Barry restricts his descriptions of place to the names of cities and this minimalism does make for a lean, plot-focused read. Snow Crash goes the other way, not only giving us a near future, but a densely elaborated one of privately owned mini-states called ‘franchulates’, so-real-it’s-scary virtual gaming and a flotilla of cool tech, with YT’s multi-wheeled skateboard top of the list of things I would like to own.

Here the books are so different that which you prefer depends what floats your boat. Round Three is... a tie!

Round Four: Plots twists or straight and narrow?

Despite all the deviations into interesting corners of human knowledge, Snow Crash plays the narrative game very straight, with the main characters uncovering the plot stepwise and in linear fashion. Lexicon, by contrast, throws in a couple of good twists and keeps the reader guessing about just who is who and who did what until well over the halfway mark.

Round Four goes to... Lexicon, for drawing out the suspense in true thriller fashion

Round Five: Will it make you roar with laughter or hide behind the sofa?

Both books have plenty of action: Lexicon’s in the form of shoot outs and car chases and Snow Crash giving us a plethora of baddies and risky situations for its heroes to escape from. Lexicon is arguably the more creepy, with its Serenity-style evocation of a ghost town with the skeletonized population lying where they mysteriously fell. But nothing beats Stephenson’s stylish engineering of Hiro’s barfight, where heads roll and blood drops spin helices in shot glasses of vodka.

As for humor, Stephenson’s tongue is never far from his cheek – with a main character called Hiro Protagonist, how could it not be? Barry plays it more or less straight, although anyone who pretends he thinks Paul Auster is a poet must be kidding. Right?

If Barry is a humorist, the jokes are too dry to be perceptible. Round Five goes to... Snow Crash!

The score is tied 3 all. On to the decider…

Round Six: Which will we be reading 100 years from now?

We’re still reading Snow Crash because it broke new ground. Lexicon makes more of the central idea, but is still treading in the footsteps of a giant.

The last point goes to... Snow Crash!

Which makes it the winner, but by such a narrow margin the only way for you to make a proper assessment is this: buy both books, read them and decide for yourself.

What do you think?

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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