The Power of Language in Snow Crash and Babel 17

Tracy Seneca
LIS 296A
Impact of New Information Technologies
Spring 1994


The issue of language has been a frequent theme in science fiction. It is most often an issue in works concerning contact with alien races and the impact that alien languages have upon humans, or how language influences the outcome of contact. Sometimes, such as in the Robert Heinlein's classic Stranger in a Strange Land, learning an alien language has the power to transform our understanding of the world. With the many opportunities to examine the power of language in science fiction, this theme is rarely at the core of the plot. Authors often dismiss language problems between alien races; a silly example would be Douglas Adam's proposed method of placing a small fish in one's ear as a universal translator, but even more serious books tend to overlook the potential role of language.

Upon reading Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash, I was struck by the crucial and fascinating role that language plays in the book. Here, Stephenson addresses the origin and power of language, in the sense that the language examined in the book has incantational or magical qualities. He also addresses the myth of Babel, and the notion that we all shared one primal language, a language that might reappear. I have seen these themes in other works, such as Leslie Marmon Silko's book Ceremony, and her short story, "Storyteller". In Ceremony, the theme of incantational language is used to explain the arrival of the white man. A group of witches are having a black magic contest, and the most powerful witch says "What I have is a story, go ahead and laugh if you want to, but as I tell the story, it will begin to happen" [1] The story he tells is of the conquest of the Indians by the whites, and the eventual destruction of the world. I find this idea of the power of words and the power of storytelling engaging, because it allows us to stand back and glimpse the power that we do possess in language.

The appeal of this theme in Snow Crash goes beyond the sort of general appeal of incantational language themes in literature. Stephenson links this theme with the influence of computers, with cyberspace, and with an atmosphere of extreme information overload. The setting is an exaggerated description of many of the issues we have discussed in this course. Pam Rosenthal's discussion of the 'magical' qualities of the GUI interface also addressed these themes - a magical view of the power of language and the influence of the 'information age'. In the following pages, I will discuss the theme of language in Snow Crash, in another science fiction novel, Babel-17, and the ideas that Rosenthal proposed in her discussion.

Neal Stephenson's novel offers a proposed future something like that in Neuromancer, though Stephenson's setting is much more plausible in its details. Like Neuromancer, Snow Crash presents the reader with a network world which has become so visually rich that it functions as a full alternate reality. Both novels have a very detailed image of this network world, which in Snow Crash is called the "metaverse". Here, online participants have virtual bodies, and the hackers can be spotted by the fine detail of their 'avatars' or virtual bodies. Other people who are noted for their metaverse realism are the disabled, who can have the image of fully functioning bodies and move freely in this alternate reality, and rock stars, who have lifelike avatars written for them. The general public can purchase low-resolution avatars at Wal-Mart, which come in the "Clint" or "Brandy" models.

Unlike Neuromancer, in my opinion, the portrayal of the actual world is both plausible and funny. In Snow Crash , the U.S. central government has collapsed, and the nation has dissolved not into states or fiefdoms, but into "franchulates" such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong". These are franchised city-states, to which one can obtain citizenship. Each has it's own creed, currency and political identity, but they are not associated with any geographic area, but crop up repeatedly throughout the country. The following passage conveys the setting somewhat:

The Alcan - the Alaska Highway - is the world's longest franchise ghetto, a one-dimensional city two thousand miles long and a hundred feet wide, and growing at the rate of a hundred miles a year, or as quickly as people can drive up to the edge of the wilderness and park their bagos in the next available slot. [2]

Other governmental functions have also been privatized and franchised, such as police forces and prisons, and all of these franchises rely heavily on advertising. "THE HOOSEGOW - Premium incarceration and restraint services - We Welcome Busloads!" [3] This proposed future takes all of the elements of consumerism, information overload and overpopulation to their logical extremes.

The two main characters are Hiro Protagonist, a pizza delivery guy and hacker, and Y.T., who is the equivalent of a bike messenger. Being in the pizza delivery business, Hiro has access to the fastest, most high-tech vehicles available, as he has to get wherever he is going in less than 1/2 hour. (This was clearly written before the lawsuit.) Hiro's obstacle in the novel is an entity called snow crash. Snow crash appears simultaneously as the name of a computer virus, and as the name of a drug, both of have catastrophic effects on those who come into contact with it. Here, as in Neuromancer, people have become so acclimated to a computer-driven reality, that they can suffer physical harm from events occurring in cyberspace. In Snow Crash, anyone whose computer becomes infected with the snow crash virus looses all regular neurological functions, and is left speaking in what sounds to be meaningless syllables.

Hiro's first question is how the computer virus can be related to the drug, and how it can have such an effect on those exposed to it. His first clue comes during an encounter with a character named Lagos, who appears to be somewhat off his rocker. Lagos warns Hiro that he is susceptible to snow crash infection via the computer:

"You're a hacker, that means you have deep structures to worry about, too."

"Deep structures?"

"Neurolinguistic pathways in your brain. Remember the first time you learned binary code?"


"You were forming pathways in your brain. Deep structures. Your nerves grow new connections as you use them - the axons split and pushed their way between the dividing glial cells - your bioware self-modifies - the software becomes a part of the hardware. So now you're vulnerable - all hackers are vulnerable - to a nam-shub. We have to look out for each other."

"What's a nam-shub? Why am I vulnerable to it?"

"Just don't stare into any bitmaps..." [4]

Hiro learns that snow crash is a digitally encoded virus that infects hackers via the optic nerve, and that the drug on the street is chemically processed blood serum taken from those infected with the virus, causing the same symptoms as the hackers experience when infected.

As events in the book progress, the core of the plot plays itself out in cyberspace with the assistance of "the librarian". The Librarian is a program, something like a know-bot, only with the physical appearance of a person in cyberspace. The program was devised by Lagos, a researcher at the Library of Congress who was beginning to see the connection between snow crash - the drug, and snow crash - the computer virus. Hiro gains access to this program, and through the librarian's explanation of the book's events, we get to the substance of the plot, which concerns the power and origins of language. The name of the program that invokes the librarian is "BABEL - INFOCALYPSE" Hiro notes early on that the symptoms of contact with snow crash is that people speak "Just a bunch of babble. Babble. Babel."[5]

Since the librarian is only a program, there is a limit to the information that he can convey to Hiro; the Librarian can only answer specific questions, so Hiro must learn to ask the right questions. The only guide Hiro has to the sorts of questions he should be asking are the files that Lagos has already requested from the librarian. These files concern a wide range of topics - the biblical story of Babel, incidents of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, files on the Summerian language and files concerning other key characters. It is up to Hiro to make the right inquiries and piece together the evidence.

In their first meeting, the librarian quotes the passage in Genesis 11:6-9 concerning the story of Babel:

"Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now stop them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad form there all over the face of the earth and they left off building the city.[6]

Later, the Librarian establishes a connection between the story of Babel, and the glossolalia, or 'babble' experienced by those infected with the snow crash virus. The Librarian cites instances of glossolalia from around the world and through history:

"The Tungus tribesmen of Siberia say that when the shaman goes into his trance and raves incoherent syllables, he learns the entire language of Nature."

"The Language of Nature."

"Yes, sir. The Sukuma people of Africa say that the language is kinaturu, the tongue of the ancestors of all magicians, who are thought to have descended from one particular tribe."

"What causes it?"

"If mystical explanations are ruled out, then it seems that glossolalia comes from structures buried deep within the brain, common to all people." [7]

The word Lagos used in the passage cited earlier, nam-shub, is defined as "a speech with magical force. The closest English equivalent would be 'incantation'" [8] Lagos used the word in connection with bitmaps and the transmission of the snow crash virus. The Librarian refers to the "nam-shub of Enki" to demonstrate the meaning of the term. This was a poem which describes the event of Babel. The Librarian elaborates:

"The nam-shub of Enki is both a story and an incantation. - Lagos believed that in its original form, which this translation only hints at, it actually did what it describes." [9]

The Librarian comments on the connections that Lagos made between all of these elements:

"He believed that Babel was an actual historical event. That it happened in a particular time and place, coinciding with the disappearance of the Sumerian language. That prior to Babel/Infocalypse, languages tended to converge. And that afterward, languages have always had an innate tendency to diverge and become mutually incomprehensible - that this tendency is, as he put it, coiled like a serpent around the human brainstem."

"The only thing that could explain that is - "

Hiro stops, not wanting to say it.

"Yes?" the Librarian says.

"If there was some phenomenon that moved through the population, altering their minds in such a way that they couldn't process the Sumerian language anymore. Kind of in the same way that a virus moves from one computer to another, damaging each computer in the same way. Coiling around the brainstem. "

"Lagos devoted much time and effort to this idea" the Librarian says "He believed that the nam-shub of Enki was a neurolinguistic virus" [10]

The snow crash virus is thus a 'cure' to the original 'babel' virus, and leaves those infected speaking the 'language of nature' - the language that all people are neurologically equipped to understand. The danger of this is that it leaves these people completely vulnerable to those who know how to manipulate the incantational powers of this language. Those infected with the virus become unwitting assistants in a conspiracy, which Hiro must prevent. It is never fully explained why this is such a threat in the novel if the loss of this language had originally been an 'Infocalypse', but it is clear that one language is something that the 'good guys' do NOT want.

An earlier treatment of a similar theme occurs in Babel-17, written by Samuel Delaney in 1966. The book itself has an entirely different flavor from Snow Crash. In the discussion above, I have still barely touched upon most of the goings on in Snow Crash; it was a definite page-turner. Babel-17, I must say, was one of the most poorly written books it has been my pleasure to read in a long time. Much of it was well beyond implausible, including a great deal of the dialogue. The space-ships, for instance, could only be navigated by a team of people involved in a menage-a-trois. Death, for reasons both unexplained and unnecessary to the plot, was no longer an obstacle. When people died, they could be called back to serve as discorporate members of space-ship crews.

The setting of Babel-17 is that of an intergalactic struggle for power. The Alliance of planets, which Earth belongs to, is threatened with invasion by an alien race. The main character, Rydra Wong, is a formerly autistic poet, with telepathic powers and a knack for languages who is called in by the Alliance to break a code called Babel-17. This code is recorded from alien transmissions each time there is an attack on the Alliance. Very early on, Rydra discovers that Babel-17 is not a code, but is a language.

As Carl Malmgren points out in his article on Babel-17, much of the plot concerns communication and language. As a poet, Rydra is concerned with perfectly conveying her thoughts in language. As a telepath, she is haunted by the fact that so much of what people think is never expressed in their language. The ship's crew, both dead and alive, speak a variety of languages, and must learn to communicate with each other in order to operate the ship. And throughout the book, Rydra is gaining an increasing knowledge of Babel-17.

At the beginning of the book, Rydra comments on her impressions of this new language:

"There's something about the language itself that scares me even more than General Forester. - the language itself, it''s strange."


"Small", she said. "Tight, close together - That doesn't mean anything to you, does it? In a language, I mean? - I have to find out who speaks this language, where it comes from, and what it's trying to say. - Most textbooks say that language is a mechanism for expressing thought. But language is a thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language. The form of this language is ... amazing. - And as I begin to see into this language, I begin to see too much." [11]

As she learns Babel-17, Rydra realizes that the language is so descriptive of reality, that it deeply alters her ability to act and respond to reality. Malmgren describes a passage of the book, where Rydra uses her knowledge of Babel-17 to escape from a web she has been trapped in.

Locked into English, Rydra awakens to a certain reality - she is trapped in a strange restraining web. In desperation she switches in her thoughts to the language Babel-17, which she has partially mastered: "She looked down at the - not 'webbing' but rather a three particle vowel differential, each part of which defined one stress of the three-way tie, so that the weakest points in the mesh were identified when the total sound of the differential reached its lowest point." The perspective afforded by the new language enables her to see the weakness of the webbing: "By breaking the threads at these points, she realized, the whole web would unravel". Switching to another language creates another reality: Rydra is able to free herself." [12]

Rydra uses Babel-17 in a variety of situations, and each time, the language allows her mastery of the situation. She notes that "Thinking in Babel-17 was like suddenly seeing the water at the bottom of a well that a moment ago you thought had only gone down a few feet. She reeled with vertigo." [13]

As the plot progresses, we learn that Babel-17 is in fact an alien weapon. The language is formulated to cause anyone who learns it to oppose the Alliance. The moment she begins to understand Babel-17, Rydra begins sabotaging her own ship, then blocking these acts out of her memory. She discovers this when she telepathically contacts another character, 'The Butcher'. This character speaks English, but does not have words for "I" or "you", and is consequently a sociopath. Rydra contacts him telepathically in order to teach him "I" and "you", and once in his mind, discovers that he thinks in Babel-17.

By way of explanation, Rydra compares Babel-17 to Fortran, the 'ancient twentieth century artificial language'. She elaborates on the transformative power of Babel-17:

"Babel-17 as a language contains a pre-set programme for the Butcher to become a criminal and saboteur. If you turn somebody with no memory loose in a foreign country with only the word for tools and machine parts, don't be surprised if he ends up a mechanic. By manipulating his vocabulary properly you could just as easily make him a sailor or an artist. Also, Babel-17 is such and exact analytical language, it almost assures you technical mastery of any situation you look at. And the lack of an "I" blinds you to the fact that though it's a highly useful way of looking at things its [not] the only way."

"But you mean that this language could even turn you against the alliance?"

"Well," said Rydra "to start off with, the word for Alliance in Babel-17 translates literally into English as: one who has invaded. You take it from there. It has all sorts of little diabolisms programmed into it. While thinking in Babel-17 is becomes perfectly logical to try and destroy your own ship and then blot out the fact with self-hypnosis - It 'programmes' a self-contained schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it..." [14]

Unlike Snow Crash , Babel-17 does not explore the splintering of language, or the story of Babel directly; it does, however hint at these themes, in the title and in the constant references to people bridging communication gaps. Delaney also proposes a physiological aspect to the power of the Babel-17 language, but again, only by hinting at it. Each time Rydra uses the language, she is left totally exhausted by the effort, and can only use it in dire circumstances. With only indirect references to the way that this language works, Delaney's explanation of Babel-17 and its influence is kind of sketchy. Rydra's comment that the word for 'Alliance' is 'Invader' is supposed to sound alarming, but her word for the aliens is 'Invader' as well.

The major differences in their treatment of language in these two novels may stem on part from their different settings. Babel-17 was written before the onset of the network, and the idea of 'information overload' was less of an issue at the time. The real concern that shows up in this novel is the influence of the cold war, and how language might be used as a coercive force by our enemies. Throughout the book, the characters are concerned with communication, and with bridging the gaps that their different languages create. There is a sense of desperation that people must learn to communicate or else they face destruction, and a sense of fear of what other people's languages do to their thinking.

Though the logic of Babel-17 is somewhat faulty, and the cold-war politics give the book an entirely different sense, Babel-17 does bring up some of the same issues as Snow Crash. Both propose the idea of language as a virus, and as a mechanism for gaining control of people. Both toy with the notion of a communication language that works like a programming language, giving the speaker a magical or transformative power. And in both stories, the splintering in the story of Babel is something that must be maintained. The proposition of a singular language leaves people too vulnerable to manipulation in both scenarios.

In her lecture to this class, Pam Rosenthal discussed the "stories we tell ourselves at the computer screen", and their connections with myth, fairy tales, and romance. She suggests that the use of the Graphical User Interface desktop and icons are examples of common actions with 'magical' consequences.

For the first time, really, in history, the dream of the gnostics and hermeticists contains some physical truth. Magical names and powerful agents are wired into the cosmos. Objects that have the power to influence loans, payments and safe landings can be grasped, or at least pointed to and clicked on.

The 'magical' aspect of computing is more true for the average user, who neither has nor needs a full understanding of how computers work. People often learn the individual commands they need for certain tasks without learning the rest of the language, so that the commands don't fit into any formal structure. They simply make certain things happen. I am told that one common solution to computer failures at the Library Systems Help Desk is the category "It fixed itself.". [15] This is an explanation that maddens the systems employees, who have some sense that this is not possible. To the average computer user, however, this explanation not only makes sense - it is glaringly obvious and happens all the time. If one merely writes out the word "retrieve", and by doing so, something is actually retrieved, it is not such a leap of faith to think that the machine fixed itself.

The sense of a magical environment which Rosenthal attributes to our experience at computer terminals is a sense that is applied to language in both of these books. Rosenthal says that

The gnostic, hermetic and allegorical traditions, related of course to astrology and alchemism and numerology, were ways of trying to find power points, if you will, in the universe. Sometimes, it simply depended on knowing magic words, as in the Kabbalistic tradition. But words and names and actual demonic forces are not separated in this way of looking at things.

These traditions are mentioned in Snow Crash as well as the Librarian discusses the virus with Hiro:

"The belief in the magical power of language is not unusual, both in mystical and academic literature. The Kabbalists - Jewish mystics of Spain and Palestine - believed that supernormal insight and power could be derived from properly combining the letters of the Divine Name. For example, Abu Aharon, and early Kabbalist who emigrated from Baghdad to Italy, was said to perform miracles through the power of the Sacred Names."

"What kind of power are we talking about here?"

"Most Kabbalists were theorists who were interested only in pure meditation. But there were so-called 'practical Kabbalists' who tried to apply the power of the Kabbalah in everyday life."

"In other words, sorcerers."

"Yes. These practical Kabbalists used a so-called 'archangelic alphabet', derived from first-century Greek and Aramaic theurgic alphabets, which resembled cuneiform. The Kabbalists referred to the alphabet as 'eye-writing,' because the letters were composed of lines and small circles, which resembled eyes."

"Ones and zeroes."

"Some Kabbalists divided up the letters of the alphabet according to where they were produced inside the mouth."

"Okay. So as were would think of it, they were drawing a connection between the printed letter on the page and the neural connections that had to be invoked in order to pronounce it."

"Yes. By analyzing the spelling of various words, they were able to draw what they thought were profound conclusions about their true, inner meaning and significance." [16]

Both Rosenthal and Stephenson imply that these traditions demonstrate a predisposition in human thought to invent something that works like a computer. In Snow Crash, mankind has to have reached a point where there are hackers before the 'Infocalypse' can happen again. Both of these books also imply that there is a physiological response to language. Both Snow Crash and Babel-17 are filled with the same kind of 'disembodied' sense as Neuromancer. In all of these books, it is commonplace for people to radically alter their bodies via plastic surgery. In Snow Crash this is less of a theme, though Stephenson does present us with genetically engineered nuclear powered dogs. But in the Snow Crash Metaverse, people get extremely creative with the physical appearance of their avatars. In Snow Crash and Neuromancer, cyberspace has a physically deadening effect. The main characters are taxed to the limit when they find themselves having to intellectually navigate cyberspace while physically responding to the real world at the same time. In Babel-17, as mentioned earlier, some of the ship's crew have to already be dead in order for space travel to work. In Snow Crash, the hackers must be disengaged from their physical bodies and present in the Metaverse in order to be vulnerable to the virus. In Babel-17, Rydra is physically exhausted by her efforts to learn the new language. The only reason she escapes its brainwashing effects is because of her telekinetic powers which, as I have noted, are related to her physicality. It is people's bodies that she reads, not necessarily their minds. All of this implies that access to some special form of knowledge requires some distance from one's everyday physicality. In both cases, access to a transformative language precludes ordinary physical existence.

I do find it interesting that Stephenson presents the possibility of a single shared language as disastrous. Snow Crash is very much a response to an information-filled, networked world. Much of the current appeal of the internet is the promise that it will somehow link people of all walks of life. As the MCI commercial promises, "There will be no there, everything will be here". This appeal is more emotional than practical; the problems that different scripts present on the internet are enormous. Still, there is a sense that with faster and easier technology, we can overcome the influence of Babel. The divisions between people will be mended, and this will be a good thing. In Snow Crash, a happy ending amounts to leaving us where we began, in a world so splintered and disintegrated that even small towns can't hold it together, and people proceed from franchise to franchise, each in their own exclusive niche of the world.

[1] Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York; Penguin Books, 1977. p.135.

[2] Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York; Bantam, 1992. p. 292.

[3] Ibid. p. 50.

[4] Ibid. p.126.

[5] Ibid. p.74.

[6] Ibid. p.108

[7] Ibid. p. 206.

[8] Ibid p. 211.

[9] Ibid. p.217.

[10] Ibid. p.218.

[11] Delaney, Samuel. Babel-17. London; Victor Gollancz, 1966. p. 23-24.

[12] Malmgren, Carl. "The Languages of Science Fiction: Samuel Delaney's Babel-17." Extrapolation. Vol. 34, No. 1. 1993. p. 10.

[13] Ibid. p.100.

[14] Ibid. p. 188-189.

[15] Conversation with Lisa Rowlison - UC Berkeley Library, Information Systems Instruction and Support.

[16] Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York; Bantam, 1992. p. 274-275.

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