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After reading Snow Crash, I have to wonder if any of the premise or main/supporting plot points are backed by any science, or even plausible based on our current understanding.

For example:

The whole idea of a metavirus, the metavirus coming from outside of earth, the nam-shub, being able to program humans with with a primitive base language, a biological virus being implemented as code, hackers being susceptible because of certain pathways...etc.

Little seems to actually be based on science, even at the time it was written. Was it just speculation to further the plot or is there something to it?

  • 'Is X science fiction' questions are off-topic, as per the FAQ. The problem is that it's too subjective (considered by who?) where the boundaries of genre lie. If you just want to know if there is any scientific basis in the story, then you could edit the question to reflect that. – Tony Meyer Feb 16 '12 at 7:27
  • Questions about "Is X science fiction" are explicitly off-topic for this site. Please read the FAQ. – Mike Scott Feb 16 '12 at 7:29
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    @Tony fixed the quetsion, although I don't think the definition of science fiction is too subjective. It has a pretty standard and well accepted definition. Are questions about "hard scifi" on topic, since that indisputably has a firm definition? – Julie B Feb 16 '12 at 7:42
  • The edit looks good to me (I can't undo the close vote, but it will expire by itself, and I doubt there will be any further close-votes). – Tony Meyer Feb 16 '12 at 9:02
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    @JulieB There's no such thing as a "standard and well accepted definition" of science fiction, except maybe Damon Knight's "Science fiction is what I point to when I say 'science fiction'", which is indisputable but not very helpful, especially since Knight himself is no longer around to point to things for us. – Mike Scott Feb 16 '12 at 9:37
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No, not by any current science nor science at the time. Most of Snow Crash is made up of very interesting pseudo-science or promising (in 1992) proto-science.

As to the idea of a human "base language" - the search for a "universal language" has been a common theme of myths, occult groups, pseudoscience, and pre-analytic philosophy since time immemorial. The reality is that it is a completely open question in modern, fact-based linguistics as to whether there is even a single genesis of language in humans. Let alone something as detailed and universally applicable as what's present in Snow Crash. Most modern linguists and psychologists also believe that language evolved continuously from non-language, i.e. there wasn't a primate who "could not" speak, and then her child who "could" - rather that communication grew gradually more complex over generations.

When Snow Crash was written, the field of memetics was popular. Depending on who and when you ask, memetics is either an excellent explanation of cultural transfer, a reasonable model of cultural transfer not tied strongly to reality, or a useless field that, at its best, provides a more complicated explanation for things we could already explain. "Memetics" survives today primarily as a way to alert someone they're going to be looking at cute cat pictures; one thing about a protoscience, is that very few successfully play out into real sciences.

The bare idea that language acts can influence people's views and actions is of course true, but by no measure can that statement, at that level, be called science.

  • Great answer, thanks! – Julie B Feb 18 '12 at 23:00
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Depends on which elements you are referring to.

The idea of ideas behaving like genetic biological agents (aka memes) is definitely supported by science, as of 1976, way before "Snow Crash":

The word meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα Greek pronunciation: [míːmɛːma] mīmēma, "something imitated", from μιμεῖσθαι mimeisthai, "to imitate", from μῖμος mimos "mime") and it was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976)

The idea that there may be a confluence between memetic information and genetic one is a fairly obvious one (for random example, think about genetic predisposition to obedience/rebellion).

The idea that "hackers being suspectible because of certain pathways" is somewhat plausible if ill defined. You can make a case that all good hackers have a form of Aspergers, and that has non-zero heritability and thus genetic influence.

  • I don't think a meme is what is talked about in Snow Crash. Memes can't directly program a person to do actions or cause overdose like symptoms. – Julie B Feb 18 '12 at 12:00
  • @JulieB - um. "72 virgins". – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 18 '12 at 12:12
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    -1 for "[memes are] definitely supported by science" and "all good hackers have a form of Aspergers", neither of which can be reasonably supported. Memetics is a proto-science at best, and one that I get the impression is falling out of favor in the cogsci community for some years now - cfpm.org/jom-emit/2005/vol9/edmonds_b.html. The other statement is just bullshit. – user1030 Feb 18 '12 at 17:07
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    Yes, I do understand. I also understand that many good hackers tend to be introverted and self-diagnose themselves with aspergers. I also know there are many good hackers who are not introverted or socially awkward and don't have Aspergers' like symptoms. Aspergers' at the moment seems to be like ADD was in the 90's. – Julie B Feb 18 '12 at 23:13
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    @DVK I know plenty of hackers as well. I have an IQ over 130 for all that is worth and make a pretty decent coder. I still think it's BS. It's become trendy to self-diagnose as an aspie if you're smarter than average and socially awkward. Doesn't make it so. I'm also skeptical of the claim that all decent hackers can fool trained psychologists. But we are way off topic now, so let us agree to disagree. – Julie B Feb 27 '12 at 23:17

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