Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is one of the most popular sci-fi books of all time, and together with William Gibson’s Neuromancer it stands as a foundational text of the cyberpunk movement. Science fiction author Anthony Ha was blown away by Snow Crash when he first read it back in the late ’90s.
“This was a period when there were some clunky representations of virtual reality in movies and TV,” Ha says in Episode 487 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “So it wasn’t that Snow Crash was the first time I encountered that kind of iconography, but it was the first time it actually seemed cool.”
Snow Crash tells the story of Hiro Protagonist, a katana-wielding hacker who jumps back and forth between dystopian Los Angeles and a virtual world called the Metaverse. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley notes that the novel has inspired countless entrepreneurs and inventors, including John Carmack, Reid Hoffman, and Palmer Luckey. “I started making a list of everyone in Silicon Valley who’s cited this work as inspiring them,” Kirtley says, “and I just kind of stopped at a certain point, because it was basically everyone.”
Snow Crash is still as fun and stylish as ever, but some aspects of the book have dated poorly. Science fiction professor Lisa Yaszek says that from the vantage of 2021, the book has some weaknesses when it comes to race and gender. “If you’re someone who wants to learn a lot about the history and development of cyberpunk, I do still think it’s important to read, because it is an important intervention,” she says. “It’s the moment before cyberpunk really becomes a global storytelling mode, where all kinds of people—authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors—are really going to start using it.”
Science fiction author Sam J. Miller notes that the characters in Snow Crash also feel a bit thin, to the extent that a robotic guard dog named Rat Thing stands out as one of the book’s most sympathetic characters. “In a lot of ways I think that Rat Thing might be the character who comes the closest to having heart, and an emotional arc, and who made me really feel things,” Miller says. “Everybody else is like, they’ve got three pairs of sunglasses on they’re so cool.”
Listen to the complete interview with Anthony Ha, Lisa Yaszek, and Sam J. Miller in Episode 487 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
David Barr Kirtley on character development:
“Hiro seemed interesting, and he had this interesting background with his parents, and Y.T. had this relationship with her mom. But I felt like as the book went on the character development just kind of dropped out. We never really saw much of Juanita or Da5id—I mean, he’s in a coma but he could have come out of it. There were so many characters and so many organizations, and it got really, really complicated. It’s all cool, everything in this book is super cool, but I did kind of feel like the characterization [was lacking]. There was no emotional vulnerability or heart-to-heart moments really, or people feeling regrets or anything like that. It just felt very on the surface.”
Anthony Ha on backstory:
“The problem is that if you’re reading the book for the plot, the [backstory] becomes a distraction, where at key, climactic moments, suddenly Hiro will jump back to the library and have a discussion about [ancient Sumeria] with the Librarian when he’s about to have another sword fight or something like that. So especially on a first read, especially if you’re younger, I think your foot is just kind of tapping impatiently like, ‘Why am I reading this?’ … It’s a cool MacGuffin for the story, it was interesting learning about Sumerian mythology, but there were times when it felt like a lot of words just to have Stephenson essentially say, ‘Man, isn’t language just like a virus? Isn’t that cool?’ And I was like, ‘It is cool, but it’s not maybe worth quite so many words.’”
Sam J. Miller on floating cities:
“One of the things I did prior to writing Blackfish City was I visited—in Cambodia—a community of folks who are primarily Vietnamese refugees, who are essentially a floating community. They have a church, and a school, and all these things on floats, and they have a convenience store that sells lottery tickets and gasoline, and they have alligator farms. It’s amazing, and it’s also deeply tragic, and not a super high standard of living. In large part they’re there because their ability to live on land—because of immigration issues—is limited. [Floating cities] are a cool idea, but I think in practice it’s the kind of scenario that would only evolve by necessity, and would probably not be super great.”
Lisa Yaszek on economics:
“What’s interesting is the use that people put the virus to, which is to appropriate bodies for the production of goods that don’t go to those bodies themselves. So [Snow Crash] is thinking as much about labor as it is thinking about language, and that’s the part of it that I still find interesting. … In a lot of ways I think it’s a response to William Gibson. I like it because I’m a sucker for utopian thinking, but I think Gibson is often naively utopian about the ability of marginalized communities to resist incorporation and destruction by promissory engagement with capitalism. I think part of what this book does, and what I like, is that it explores how likely that would be—can you really stay out of the nets of capitalism or not?”
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Joseph Reisert, a government professor at Colby College, has found that science fiction novels such as Brave New World add a lot of value to his “Introduction to Political Theory” class.
“I wish I could claim that this idea was original with me, but actually I got the inspiration from the first political theory class I took as an undergraduate,” Reisert says in Episode 485 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The professor at that time assigned a political theory class that began with Plato and ended with Brave New World, and he made a lot of the connections for us then that I try to bring out when I teach it in my class.”
Reisert says that science fiction can help us imagine scenarios that we would never consider otherwise. “Science fiction enables us to try out, in literature, very different sets of social arrangements,” he says, “and through the medium of story maybe even get beyond that reflexive, ‘It’s different so it must be bad,’ and sort of play out in our heads, ‘Well, could this work? What would that mean? If we change this thing, what happens to these other things?’ I think fiction does that really well.”
Reisert is currently teaching Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed to help students understand Marxist ideas of a society without private property. “It’s the one imagining of a society without property that seems reasonably plausible to me,” he says. “I love that novel, and I think the central insight there is that to make that society without property work, even apart from the organizational challenges, requires a kind of moral transformation that’s not easy to accomplish.”
Another advantage of science fiction novels is that they tend to be more entertaining than political treatises, meaning that students are more likely to actually read them. “One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of having a light, easy reading at the end of a long semester right before people take exams,” Reisert says.
Listen to the complete interview with Joseph Reisert in Episode 485 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Joseph Reisert on Star Trek:
“Even as a kid I knew it was progressive—there’s still the Cold War going on and there’s a Russian on the bridge, and it’s interracial. But what struck me as a kid, and what I still really like about it is the optimism of the vision. I just found that so appealing, and the sort of mediating balance among [the characters]. If you think of Kirk as courage or spiritedness, and Spock as reason or intelligence, and McCoy as basically heart or friendship, all three of them turn out to be necessary. There are at least a few original series episodes where they come upon an apparently perfect but stagnant society that [puts] limits on intellectual inquiry, assertiveness, exploration, and daring, and the Enterprise folks bring it down.”
Joseph Reisert on Brave New World:
“[Bernard] is trying to impress Lenina Crowne by taking her to the Savage Reservation, and that’s where they meet John and Linda, and they bring them back to London. … When Linda dies, John kind of snaps and his disgust at the Brave New World is unleashed, and so he decides he’s going to liberate the Delta caste workers at the hospice for the dying by throwing away their drug ration. ‘Be men! Be free!’ he shouts to them. A riot ensues, and you’ve got to love the Brave New World, they break it up by foaming everyone with soma gas, and I think they have anesthetic water pistols so people fall asleep. And there’s the big, booming voice of their hypnotic instruction urging them to start an orgy. I think it actually ends with an orgy, this riot.”
Joseph Reisert on free speech:
“I definitely am pretty close to a free speech absolutist. Part of it is that anything I see being censored by somebody, I usually regard that as a reason to [think], ‘Well maybe I should look again at that idea, because somebody’s really afraid of it.’ It’s just so offensive to adults to say, ‘You can’t hear this’ or ‘You can’t hear that,’ and I think politically it’s just deeply corrosive. I think it’s much better to let people talk, because if they stop talking the next thing is violence. … There is a kind of—I don’t even think it’s a large group, but there’s a kind of loud, censorious, progressive set of students who really can’t abide having their pieties challenged at all, and they can make life difficult for people who would even want to talk about alternative perspectives, let alone actually embrace them. And I think that just has to be resisted at all costs.”
Joseph Reisert on Brave New World vs. Nineteen Eighty-Four:
“Even though I don’t altogether agree with [Mustapha Mond’s] defense of the Brave New World, he in some ways embodies all the virtues that nobody else in the Brave New World is really allowed to cultivate. … When O’Brien [in Nineteen Eighty-Four] is eating real chocolate or having real coffee, in a weird sort of way he’s tasting the sorrow of the other party. The point of it for him is the sadistic boot-on-face-forever. Whereas Mond is kind of wistful. ‘If they read Othello, they couldn’t understand it, and it would unsettle them. Yeah it would be nice if they could have real art, but the price would be too high.’ It’s not like he’s enjoying the deprivation of others, which is the vibe I get from Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
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The new Netflix series Masters of the Universe: Revelation, written by Kevin Smith, is the latest offering from Powerhouse Animation, which also produced the Netflix shows Blood of Zeus and Castlevania. Science fiction author Zach Chapman believes it’s superior to its predecessors.
“I think the animation actually surpasses Blood of Zeus—for sure in the designs, and redesigns, of a lot of the characters,” Chapman says in Episode 478 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And then just in the quality of the animation itself. The battle scenes are, on average, better and more interesting than Castelvania.”
Masters of the Universe: Revelation picks up the story of He-Man as he appeared in the 1983 children’s cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley enjoyed the show, but was surprised that it strayed so far from the classic He-Man formula. “I was disappointed that the show seemed to be sidelining the characters that I actually remembered,” he says. “My initial reaction was that I wanted to see more of the He-Man that I remember, where he’s switching back and forth between Adam and He-Man.”
TV writer Andrea Kail also had issues with the characterization of Teela, who emerges as the focal point of the series. “They frequently do this with women characters, where their lives are fine: She just got promoted, she’s got a great relationship with her dad—she was just hugging him—and then she finds out that somebody lied to her, and it’s like, ‘That’s it. I’m throwing down my sword and walking out, and I’m never talking to you again for years and years,’” Kail says. “It perpetuates the stereotype of the hysterical, overemotional woman who holds a grudge. So I really wish they hadn’t done that.”
But fantasy author Christopher M. Cevasco found Masters of the Universe: Revelation to be a near-perfect mix of classic characters and new ideas. “It ticked all the boxes that I was hoping it would, as someone who loved the show in the ’80s,” he says. “And I loved the new directions that they took it in from that starting point. So to me I just think it was the best of both worlds, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.”
Listen to the complete interview with Zach Chapman, Andrea Kail, and Christopher M. Cevasco in Episode 478 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
David Barr Kirtley on Skeletor:
“The guy who invented Skeletor, when he was a kid he went to some amusement park, and was in the haunted house, and this corpse on a noose dropped down in front of him and scared the crap out of him. And he’s like, ‘That’s a real dead body! I know that’s a real dead body.’ And it turned out it was a real dead body. There was this outlaw who died in a shootout with police, and no one came to collect the body, so the guy at the funeral home decided to embalm him and charge admission to see him. And then a conman came and cheated him out of it, and sold it to a carnival or something. It changed hands a bunch of times, and eventually people didn’t realize it was a real dead body, and it finally ended up in this amusement park. … So that’s what inspired Skeletor.”
Christopher M. Cevasco on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe:
“I actually used to record the episodes on VHS, and would watch them back and take careful notes for a planned project&mdsah;which of course never came to fruition—where I wanted to make a big compendium of the entire world, with details about the history and geography, and biographies of the various characters. … I loved the fact that it wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill cartoon where everything is on the surface. With various episodes throughout the run, you find out layers and layers of history behind characters, and they bring certain elements back, and the relationships that develop and the mythology behind the world get more and more developed as it goes along.”
Zach Chapman on Beast Man:
“I thought that Beast Man should have been against Triclops for reasons other than, ‘Hey, don’t hurt Evil-Lyn.’ Why is his alliance with her? His alliance should be with the beasts that he controls. [The Triclops cult] takes these nano-machines, and they drink them, and they become part machine. So Beast Man, being a beast, being of the natural world, should be opposed to this mixing of technology with flesh and polluting the natural world. I thought it would have been way cooler if they had gone that way. Immediately, I was like, ‘You’re making this guy just a bodyguard, when he could be way more interesting.’”
Andrea Kail on women writers:
“As I was watching [Masters of the Universe: Revelation], I watched the credits right at the beginning, and it stood out to me that there’s only one woman writer, and the main character—for all intents and purposes—is a woman. I just don’t understand why you can’t get more women writers in there. And no women directors either—it was just two guys. Watching the [Power of Grayskull] documentary this morning, they had more women working on the original show in the ’80s than they do on this. … There’s a call now for more strong women characters, and that’s great, but we need more women behind the scenes. We need more women writing women’s stories.”
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William Gibson published his classic novel Neuromancer almost 40 years ago, but it still feels fresh today. Science fiction author Matthew Kressel has been a fan of the book ever since reading it back in 1987.
“When I first read Neuromancer, everything I had read before that was golden and silver age [sci-fi]—Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Asimov, all that stuff,” Kressel says in Episode 477 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “So when I encountered Neuromancer, I was like, ‘What is this? This is completely different.’”
Science fiction of the ’40s and ’50s tended to evoke a consensus future of jetpacks, flying cars, and domestic robots. Neuromancer helped crystallize an alternative view of the future, one dominated by hackers, drugs, and mega-corporations. This darker view, which came to be called cyberpunk, proved far more prophetic. “More than any other science fiction book that I can think of, Neuromancer conveys what the future is going to feel like,” says Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley.
Science fiction author Sam J. Miller constantly finds himself discarding story ideas because he realizes that Neuromancer beat him to the punch. “The ideas are so dense and exciting,” he says. “If you were to rip off half the things in this book and use them in a book now, it would be amazing. It wouldn’t feel dated.”
In the ’90s Gibson largely abandoned the cyberpunk genre, focusing instead on novels set in the present and near future. Horror author Theresa De Lucci has remained a devoted Gibson fan through each phase of his career.
“He was sort of the gold standard for the [cyberpunk] movement at the time,” she says. “But time goes on. His novels have drastically changed in focus and scope, so he’s still doing his thing, and just being authentic to his voice and his interests.”
Listen to the complete interview with Matthew Kressel, Sam J. Miller, and Theresa De Lucci in Episode 477 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Matthew Kressel on description:
“Someone can’t walk into a room without [Gibson] describing the make of their shoes and what kind of tie they’re wearing, and where they got their jacket. In Spook Country there was this hitman, this killer, and he checks into a hotel room, and then he’s remarking on the type of metal that they used on the faucets in the bathroom. And I was like, ‘Well … maybe? He’s a sensitive killer. That’s cool.’ … I wonder if [Gibson] is just trying to draw our attention to how materialistic the society has become—everybody’s just so brainwashed by capitalism that the first thing they see is the material that someone is wearing, not the person.”
Sam J. Miller on representation:
“One of the things that I love about William Gibson is how interconnected his world feels. There’s the realpolitik of Russia, and Japan, and China, and Germany, and the United States, and wealth, and poverty. That’s throughout his books—they’re always really diverse, there are always lots of people from lots of different backgrounds. … But the one thing that’s missing is queerness. There might be a little bit of it here and there—I think it’s in Pattern Recognition where she thinks that this one guy is gay through the whole book, and they’re best friends, and then in the end she finds out he’s not and they hook up. There’s queerness in very small, very spare brush strokes. That’s the only part of his worlds that I wish were different.”
David Barr Kirtley on technology:
“I feel like one thing that this book gets ‘wrong,’ that pretty much all science fiction gets wrong, is not being able to see just how ubiquitous and commonplace technological advances are going to be. This book still presents the internet as something that only super-special, super-cool people will be able to access, and doesn’t take it that step farther to say, ‘Oh wait, no, even just the most average person will be on this.’ I think that’s a really hard leap of speculation to make—to imagine something that seems so amazing to us, and realize, ‘No wait, everyone’s going to have this.’”
Theresa De Lucci on cyberpunk:
“Coming up in the ’90s, in the goth industrial scene, we did play with a lot of the imagery of cyberpunk. I mean, there were cyberpunks, but then there were cybergoths—the pictures I have of that era are very embarrassing, with lots of neon hair, and plastic, and goggles. It was like The Matrix before The Matrix came out—and then once The Matrix came out, then it got even more popular and more outré. So William Gibson definitely had a big cult of personality there, which I think he would really laugh at, because you’re never going to find William Gibson in a goth club. Even when he was at his youngest, it’s doubtful he would be at a place like that.”
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Robert Sheckley, author of classic stories such as “Is That What People Do?” and “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?,” was one of the top sci-fi authors of the 1950s. Humor writer Tom Gerencer corresponded with Sheckley regularly for nearly a decade.
“He was so open to talking to me, this nobody who just liked him, and answering my questions about writing, and about his work,” Gerencer says in Episode 475 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “He was just an amazing man, an amazing talent, but also just an amazingly kind, gracious person.”
Sheckley’s brand of mordant cynicism helped pave the way for writers such as Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and J.G. Ballard, and his novels Dimension of Miracles and The Prize of Peril prefigured genre classics such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Running Man.
“A lot of his ideas are so prescient,” Gerencer says. “He was just extrapolating, basically looking at problems and saying, ‘Well, if that keeps going in that direction, in another 50 years it’s going to be like this.’ And you look at it and say, ‘Yep, we’ve gone closer to that now. It’s worse that way now.’ So I think they’re such classics in that sense.”
Sheckley is often remembered as a writer whose talents declined over the years, but Gerencer thinks the reality is more complicated, and that Sheckley never really lost his knack for funny sci-fi. “I don’t think it was that he couldn’t do that kind of stuff later, I just think it was that he didn’t want to,” Gerencer says. “He found that kind of frivolous, and he wanted to write about things that mattered to a 70-plus-year-old man, which aren’t the same things that matter to a 20-something or a 30-something-year-old man, and those things, unfortunately, aren’t the things that a science fiction readership is going to care about as much.”
Sheckley’s work has enjoyed a minor renaissance in recent years. Many of his best stories are collected in the 2012 book Store of the Worlds, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich, and an audiobook version of Dimension of Miracles was released in 2013, read by John Hodgman. Gerencer says that Sheckley was a consistently inventive writer, and that anything he wrote is worth reading.
“I read somewhere that he’s written over 400 stories, and I feel like I’ve read maybe 150 of them, and loved them,” Gerencer says. “And I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s 250 more out there?’ I would love to discover the rest of them.”
Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer in Episode 475 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Tom Gerencer on discovering Robert Sheckley:
“In the course of becoming a fan of Douglas Adams, I read some interview snippets with him; I think it was in Neil Gaiman’s book Don’t Panic, which has some interviews with Douglas Adams in it. But in there, he asks Douglas Adams about Robert Sheckley—this controversy about ‘people say you’ve copied Robert Sheckley,’ and Douglas Adams is like, ‘Well, I had never read his stuff, but when I did I was like, “Wow, it’s really similar to my stuff.”‘ And so I was like, ‘Oh, really similar to Douglas Adams? Let’s check it out.’ I used to go into old bookstores all the time, and just look in the science fiction section, and I found a Robert Sheckley collection of short stories and loved it, and have always been on the lookout for more ever since.”
Tom Gerencer on corresponding with Robert Sheckley:
“In 1998 I was like, ‘I’m going to see if this guy is still around. Because I know his stories were written in the ’50s and ’60s, but I want to see if he’s still around.’ So I Googled ‘Robert Sheckley email address,’ and an email address popped up—an aol.com address—so I emailed him. … I struck up a conversation with him that lasted for years, and I asked him, ‘Hey, could we ever collaborate on a short story?’ And he said, yes, he’d be happy to. And it grew and grew and grew. We went back and forth with notes, and it became a novel, and at some point it became kind of overwhelming for both of us. I don’t know if I was a good enough writer, and also I think he had a crisis of faith about himself, where he thought, ‘I don’t know if I can make this work.’ We just sort of fell away from it, and tragically, I think it was in 2005, he died. It was very sad.”
Tom Gerencer on Robert Sheckley’s reputation:
“In other countries—in Russia, in Italy, all throughout Europe, in China, all over the world, outside of the US—he was undergoing this renaissance of his work, which I think is now starting to happen here, maybe. I’m starting to feel like it is, and more power to him—if anybody deserves it, it’s him. He’s just brilliant. But back then he was telling me, ‘I’m traveling to Venice. It’s a vacation, but I’m going to be talking about my stories. I’m being interviewed by this person over in Italy, I’m traveling to Russia on a book tour.’ … And he was loving it, you know, I think he was eating it up. He was just like, ‘This is so nice. I didn’t expect this to happen, but it’s fun.’ That was happening for him, and I was really happy that it was happening.”
Tom Gerencer on writers and alcohol:
“I don’t know where that stereotype came about, but it’s so unfortunate, because it’s so not true that you have to experience pain before you can write. Don’t worry, life will give you plenty of pain, you don’t need to go out and seek it through a bottle. But I thought that when I was a kid. I remember buying bottles of Scotch and being like, ‘I’m a writer. I’ve got to have a bottle of Scotch in my apartment.’ And then thank god I stopped, and got away from it. And now that I’m older and I know some successful authors, they don’t do that. … It’s the ones who are disciplined, and who understand that that stereotype is just a stereotype, who I think really end up making it.”
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