I’m not sure which book is more popular. If you’re running in cyberpunk circles, Snow Crash is heavily lauded; even used as somewhat of a framework for post-cyberpunk literature. That is, cyberpunk which struggles and subverts the tropes that were established during the movement, or first wave of cyberpunk literature.
Snow Crash satirizes the genre to varying degrees of success. However, no matter what you think about the novel the most interesting part of it, at least for me, has to do with the reimagining of The Tower Of Babel myth. Snow Crash is a drug created to make the population susceptible to inputs that would essentially be able to “program” humanity.
It posits that the ancient Sumerian language is more-or-less the first speech mankind ever had. It also made people susceptible to programming, drawing a parallel between the human mind and a computer running a BIOS. The programs, called me, running on this BIOS “organized” Sumerian culture. Used, of course, by the people in power to maintain the status quo of their own devising.
An ancient god developed a counter-hack to this, however; creating a program which ended the enslavement of the mind by allowing other languages to develop by making the brain no longer process Sumerian. Losing the original language… but gaining many other languages.
Snow Crash, the drug, is an attempt to bring back this programming by way of an addictive substance and a computer virus that hackers are susceptible to because of how they interact with computers.
Please keep in mind that is all very condensed and skirts some of the nuances of the plot line and myth. But Pretty cool, right? Language as a virus riffed on with computer viruses in cyberspace!
While this is the central plot, it sometimes doesn’t feel like it. In fact, it feels like it’s merely in the background because of the bombastic cyberpunk imagery and, in general, the sure amount of absurdism found in the book. The satirical notes that make it iconic also subvert anything actually important it has to say. The main character is called Hiro Protagonist and is a pizza delivery guy. Another, Y.T, is an underaged sexualized courier with very little agency. There’s cyber doggos, swords, avatars in cyberspace building worlds not bound by the laws in the Real World. It’s salacious and meant to be fun so the plot generally takes a backseat.
After recently reading The Player Of Games for the first time, I think it could also be classified fairly squarely as cyberpunk.
It has a heavy focus on exploring technologies which alter human life in meaningful ways. Not specifically cybernetics, but entire civilizations and their technological progress and how those dynamics have directly affected how The Culture interacts with The Empire. After all, the game is a sophisticated, futuristic technology and is central to the fiction. The stratification of class is perhaps one of the main themes explored, and actually influences the main plot quite a bit (as well as the ending). The flaws and evils of capitalism are also examined. The politics of the book are in line with cyberpunk, only really missing the aesthetic of DIY punk.
Punk attitude is here in spades, though. Someone who is meant to lose (and be subjugated while doing so) helps to show citizens the cracks in the foundation of their oppression when he stands up against The Empire. Pretttttty punk, in my opinion.
When Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a person who’s been designed from conception to live a better life than most people outside of The Culture; a civilization which is highly advanced and governed by their technological minds. Citizens of The Culture have traded, essentially, their cultural “will” for a good life where they only need worry about their own happiness. Advanced bodies which allow them to change their sex and live until they pretty much just want to die are featured. They are a Utopian society. Which is subsequently examined throughout the book.
Gurgeh is bored with this life and seeking something new. He generally wins the games he plays and has a pervasive aimlessness to his life despite his winning. He ends up treating his life, as well as others, like a game. This sort of uplifted existence has a pervasive apathy about it.
Circumstances allow him to leave society and go to The Empire. A society far behind The Culture… but have developed a game that is the ultimate expression of their society, named Azad. To interact with The Empire’s citizens he learns their language and he studies their game on a long journey across the stars.
To The Culture, The Empire is archaic in its power structures, which mirror our own; especially in post-capitalistic society. People regard specific sexes, of which there are three in The Empire, as either dominant and subservient. Those power dynamics permeate their language and their culture. But also the game Gurgeh attempts to master.
By consuming The Empire’s culture and the game, Gurgeh undergoes a fundamental change in himself. The way he thinks alters when he speaks their language predominately, almost forgetting The Culture’s own; which reflects the ideals and dynamics of its society. He begins to take on the characteristics of The Empire in order to win, which becomes his primary function and ultimate goal.
To win, essentially, he must become them. The only way to play and win Azad is to embody the ideals the game rewards in its structure, which, of course, are the characteristics The Empire holds dear when maintain it’s oppressive power structures over the majority of the populace.
“To Know Your Enemy is to Love Them. Only when you know them, can you completely annihilate them.” — Enders Game
This notion parallels Snow Crash’s posit that language is a sort of firmware for the brain, which then changes a persons’ personality and identity. And because it does this on a grander scale while rooting it on a personal level by way of the main character, the book is fundamentally “about” that. Its message and exploration is much better realized than Snow Crash.
In the end, putting these two books “against” one another for the central plot may even be good test to see what fans of the genre prefer.
They have similar explorations… but one is steeped in a rich aesthetic that satirizes pop-culture and cyberpunk (although, this aesthetic now ironically embodies cyberpunk for many fans of the genre).
The Player Of Games has little of the cyberpunk aesthetic but arguably explores some of the foundations of cyberpunk much more thoroughly, all the while maintaining the same notion as Snow Crash’s central plot. There is no myth in The Player Of Games, though. Just as uncomfortable a look at this specific facet of society the author could muster at the time, 4 years before the publication of Snow Crash.