And now, Hiro's succinct plot summary and explanation...
"I'm here on the Raft looking for a piece of software - a piece of medicine to be specific - that was written five thousand years ago by a Sumerian personage named Enki, a neurolinguistic hacker."
"What does that mean?" Mr. Lee says.
"It means a person who was capable of programming other people's minds with verbal streams of data, known as nam-shubs." Ng is totally expressionless. He takes another drag on his cigarette, spouts the smoke up above his head in a geyser, watches it spread out against the ceiling.
"What is the mechanism?"
"We've got two kinds of language in our heads. The kind we're using now is acquired. It patterns our brains as we're learning it. But there's also a tongue that's based in the deep structures of the brain, that everyone shares. These structures consist of basic neural circuits that have to exist in order to allow our brains to acquire higher languages."
"Linguistic infrastructure," Uncle Enzo says.
"Yeah. I guess 'deep structure' and 'infrastructure' mean the same thing. Anyway, we can access those parts of the brain under the right conditions. Glossolalia - speaking in tongues - is the output side of it, where the deep linguistic structures hook into our tongues and speak, bypassing all the higher, acquired languages. Everyone's known that for some time."
"You're saying there's an input side, too?" Ng says.
"Exactly. It works in reverse. Under the right conditions, your ears - or eyes - can tie into the deep structures, bypassing the higher language functions. Which is to say, someone who knows the right words can speak words, or show you visual symbols, that go past all your defenses and sink right into your brainstem. Like a cracker who breaks into a computer system, bypasses all the security precautions, and plugs himself into the core, enabling him to exert absolute control over the machine."
"In that situation, the people who own the computer are helpless," Ng says...
"Right. Because they access the machine at a higher level, which has now been overridden. In the same sense, once a neurolinguistic hacker plus into the deep structures of our brain, we can't get him out - because we can't even control our own brain at such a basic level."
"What does this have to do with a clay tablet (the software) on the Enterprise?" Mr. Lee says.
"Bear with me. This language - the mother tongue - is a vestige of an earlier phase of human social development. Primitive societies were controlled by verbal rules called me. The me were like little programs for humans. They were a necessary part of the transition from caveman society to an organized, agricultural society. For example, there was a program for plowing a furrow in the ground and planting grain. There was a program for baking bread and another one for making a house. There were also me for higher-level functions such as war, diplomacy, and religious ritual. All the skills required to operate a self-sustaining culture were contained in these me, controlled by a priest/king called an en. When someone needed bread, they would got to the en or one of his underlings and download the bread-making me from the temple. Then they would carry out the instructions - run the program - and when they were finished, they'd have a loaf of bread.
"A central database was necessary, among other reasons, because some of the me had to be properly timed. If people carried out the plowing-and-planting me at the wrong time of year, the harvest would fail and everyone would starve. The only way to make sure that the me were properly timed was to build astronomical oberservatories to watch the skies for the changes of the season. So the Sumerians built towers 'with their tops with the heavens' - topped with astronomical diagrams. The en would watch the skies and dispense the agricultural me at the proper times of year to keep the economy running."
"I think you have a chicken-and-egg problem," Uncle Enzo says. "How did such a society first come to be organized?"
"There is an informational entity known as the metavirus, which causes information systems to infect themselves with customized viruses. This may be just a basic principle of nature, like Darwinian selection, or it may be an actual piece of information that floats around the universe on comets and radio waves - I'm not sure. In any case, what it comes down to is this: Any information system of sufficient complexity will inevitably become infected with viruses - viruses generated from within itself.
"At some point in the distant past, the metavirus infected the human race and has been with us ever since. The first thing it did was to spawn a whole Pandora's box of DNA viruses - smallpox, influenza, and so on. Health and longevity became a thing of the past. A distant memory of this event is preserved in legends of the fall from Paradise, in which mankind was ejected from a life of ease into a world infested with disease and pain.
"That plague eventually reached some kind of a plateau. We still see new DNA viruses from time to time, but it seems that our bodies have developed a resistance to DNA viruses in general."
"Perhaps," Ng says, "there are only so many viruses that will work in the human DNA, and the metavirus has created all of them."
"Could be. Anyway, Sumerian culture - the society based on me - was another manifestation of the metavirus. Except that in this case, it was in a linguistic form rather than DNA."
"Excuse me," Mr. Lee says. "You are saying that civilization started out as an infection?"
"Civilization in its primitive form, yes. Each me was a sort of virus, kicked out by the metavirus principle. Take the example of the bread-making me. Once that me got into society, it was a self-sustaining piece of information. It's a simple question of natural selection: people who know how to bake bread will live better and be more apt to reproduce than people who don't know how. Naturally, they will spread the me, acting as hosts for this self-replicating piece of information. That makes it a virus. Sumerian culture - with its temples full of me - was just a collection of successful viruses that had accumulated over the millennia. It was a franchise operation, except it had ziggurats instead of golden arches, and clay tablets instead of three-ring binders.
"The Sumerian word for 'mind,' or 'wisdom,' is identical to the word for 'ear.' That's all those people were: ears with bodies attached. Passive receivers of information. But Enki was different. Enki was an en who just happened to be especially good at his job. He had the unusual ability to write new me - he was a hacker. He was, actually, the first modern man, a fully conscious human being, just like us.
"At some point, Enki realized that Sumer was stuck in a rut. People were carrying out the same old me all the time, not coming up with new ones, not thinking for themselves. I suspect that he was lonely, being one of the few - perhaps the only - conscious human being in the world. He realized that in order for the human race to advance, they had to be delivered from the grip of this viral civilization. So he created the nam-shub of Enki, a countervirus that spread along the same routes as the me and the metavirus. It went into the deep structures of the brain and reprogrammed them. Henceforth, no one could understand the Sumerian language, or any other deep structure-based language. Cut off from our common deep structures, we began to develop new languages that had nothing in common with each other. Further transmission of the metavirus was blocked."
"Why didn't everyone starve from lack of bread, having lost the bread-making me? Uncle Enzo says.
"Some probably did. Everyone else had to use their higher brains and figure it out. So you might say that the nam-shub of Enki was the beginnings of human consciousness - when we first had to think for ourselves. It was the beginning of national religion, too, the first time that people began to think about abstract issues like God and Good and Evil. That's where the name Babel comes from. Literally it means 'Gate of God.' It was the gate that allowed God to reach the human race. Babel is a gateway in our minds, a gateway that was opened by the nam-shub of Enki that broke us free from the metavirus and gave us the ability to think - moved us from a materialistic world to a dualistic world - a binary world - with both a physical and a spiritual component.
"There was probably chaos and upheaval. Enki, or his son Marduk, tried to reimpose order on society by supplanting the old system of me with a code of laws - The Code of Hammurabi. It was partially successful. Asherah worship continued in many places, though. It was an incredibly tenacious cult, a throwback to Sumer, that spread itself both verbally and through the exchange of bodily fluids - they had cult prostitutes, and they also adopted orphans and spread the virus to them via breast milk."
"Wait a minute," Ng says. "Now you are talking about a biological virus again."
"Exactly. That's the whole point of Asherah. It's both. As an example, look at herpes simplex. Herpes heads straight for the nervous system when it enters the body. Some strains stay in the peripheral nervous system, but other strains head like a bullet for the central nervous system and take up permanent residence in the cells of the brain - coiling around the brainstem like a serpent around a tree. The Asherah virus, which may be related to herpes, or they may be one and the same, passes through the cell's DNA in the same way that steroids do. But Asherah is a lot more complicated than a steroid."
"And when it alters the DNA, what is the result?"
"No one has studied it, except maybe for L. Bob Rife. I think it definitely brings the mother tongue closer to the surface, makes people more apt to speak in tongues and more susceptible to me. I would guess that it also tends to encourage irrational behavior, maybe lowers the victim's defenses to viral ideas, makes them sexually promiscuous, perhaps all of the above."
"Does every idea have a biological virus counterpart?" Uncle Enzo says.
"No. Only Asherah does, as far as I know. That is why, of all the me and all the gods and religious practices that predominated in Sumer, only Asherah is still going strong today. A viral idea can be stamped out - as happened with Nazism, bell bottoms, and Bart Simpson T-shirts - but Asherah, because it has a biological aspect, can remain latent in the human body. After Babel, Asherah was still resident in the human brain, being passed on from mother to child and from lover to lover.
"We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information. But being physically infected with a virulent strain of the Asherah virus makes you a whole lot more susceptible. The only thing that keeps these things from taking over the world is the babel factor - the walls of mutual incomprehension that compartmentalize the human race and stop the spread of viruses.
"Babel led to an explosion in the number of languages. That was part of Enki's plan. Monocultures, like a field of corn, are susceptible to infections, but genetically diverse cultures, like a prairie, are extremely robust. After a few thousand years, one new language developed - Hebrew - that possessed exceptional flexibility and power. The deuteronomists, a group of radical monotheists in the sixth and seventh centuries, B.C., were the first to take advantage of it. They lived in a time of extreme nationalism and xenophobia, which made it easier for them to reject foreign ideas like Asherah worship. They formalized their old stories into the Torah and implanted within it a law that said, in effect, 'make an exact copy of me and read it every day.' And they encouraged a sort of informational hygiene, a belief in copying things strictly and taking great care with this information, which as they understood, is potentially dangerous. They made data a controlled substance.
"They may have gone beyond that. There is evidence of carefully planned biological warfare against the army of Sennacherib when he tried to conquer Jerusalem. So the deuteronomists may have had an en of their very own. Or maybe they just understood viruses well enough that they knew how to take advantage of naturally occurring strains. The skills cultivated by these people were passed down in secret from one generation to the next and manifested themselves two thousand years later, in Europe, among the kabbalistic sorcerers, ba'al shems, masters of the divine name.
"In any case, this was the birth of rational religion. All of the subsequent monotheistic religions - known by Muslims, appropriately, as religions of the Book - incorporated those ideas to some extent. For example, the Koran states over and over again that it is a transcript, an exact copy, of a book in Heaven. Naturally, anyone who believes that will not dare to alter the text in any way! Ideas such as these were so effective in preventing the spread of Asherah that, eventually, every square inch of the territory where the viral cult had once thrived - from India to Spain - was under the sway of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.
"But because of its latency - coiled about the brainstem of those it infects, passed on from one generation to the next - it always finds a way to resurface. In the case of Judaism, it came in the form of the Pharisiees, who imposed a rigid legalistic theocracy on the Hebrews. With its rigid adherence to laws stored in a temple, administered by priestly types vested with civil authority, it resembled the old Sumerian system, and was just as stifling.
"The ministry of Jesus Christ was an effort to break Judaism out of this condition - sort of an echo of what Enki did. Christ's gospel is a new nam-shub, an attempt to take religion out of the temple, out of the hands of the priesthood, and bring the Kingdom of God to everyone. That is the message explicitly spelled out by his sermons, and it is the message symbolically embodied in the empty tomb. After the crucifixion, the apostles went to his tomb hoping to find his body and instead found nothing. The message was clear enough: We are not to idolize Jesus, because his ideas stand alone, his church is no longer centralized in one person but dispersed among all the people.
"People who were used to the rigid theocracy of the Pharisees couldn't handle the idea of a popular, unhierarchical church. They wanted popes and bishops and priests. And so the myth of the Resurrection was added onto the gospels. The message was changed to a form of idolatry. In this new version of the gospels, Jesus came back to earth and organized a church, which later became the Church of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire - another rigid, brutal, and irrational theocracy.
"At the same time, the Pentecostal church was being founded. The early Christians spoke in tongues. The Bible says, 'And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"' Well, I think I may be able to answer that question. It was a viral outbreak. Asherah has been present, lurking in the population, ever since the triumph of the deuteronomists. The informational hygiene measures practiced by the Jews kept it surpressed. But in the early days of Christianity, there must have been a lot of chaos, a lot of radicals and free thinkers running around, flouting tradition. Throwbacks to the days of prerational religion. Throwbacks to Sumer. And sure enough, they all started talking to each other in the tongue of Eden.
"The mainline Christian church refused to accept glossolalia. They frowned on it for a few centuries and officially purged it at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The glossolalic cult remained on the fringes of the Christian world. The Church was willing to accept a little bit of xenoglossia if it helped convert heathens, as in the case of St. Louis Bertrand who converted thousands of Indians in the sixteenth century, spreading glossolalia across the continent faster than smallpox. But as soon as they were converted, those Indians were supposed to shut up and speak Latin like everyone else.
"The Reformation opened the door a little wider. But Pentecostalism didn't really take off until the year 1900, when a small group of Bible-college students in Kansas began to speak in tongues. They spread the practice to Texas. There it became known as the revival movement. It spread like wildfire, all across the United States, and then the world, reaching China and India in 1906. The twentieth century's mass media, high literacy rates, and high-speed transportation all served as superb vectors for the infection. In a packed revival hall or a Third world refugee encampment, glossolalia spread from one person to the next as fast a panic. By the eighties, the number of Pentecostals worldwide numbered in the tens of millions.
"And then came television, and the reverend Wayne, backed up by the vast media power of L. Bob Rife. The behavior that the Reverend Wayne promulgates through his television shows, pamphlets, and franchises can be traced in an unbroken line back to the Pentecostal cults of early Christianity, and from there back to pagan glossolalia cults. The cult of Asherah lives. The Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates is the cult of Asherah..."
"Lagos figured all this out...(L. Bob Rife) likes to think big. He took Lagos's idea and told Lagos himself to buzz off...He constructed a string of self-supporting religious franchises all over the world, and used his university, and its Metaverse campus, to crank out tens of thousands of missionaries, who fanned out all over the Third World and began converting people by the hundreds of thousands...
"He also wanted to spread the biological virus as a promoter or enhancer of the cult...one of the major functions of his Third World missionaries was to go out into the hinterlands and vaccinate people - and there was more than just vaccine in those needles."
"Here...everyone has already been vaccinated, and we don't let religious fanatics come up and poke needles into us. But we do take a lot of drugs. So for us, he devised a means for extracting the virus from human blood serum and packaged it as a drug known as Snow Crash."
"In the meantime, he got the Raft going as a way of transporting hundreds of thousands of his cultists from the wretched parts of Asia into the United States....(Rife) can control these people by grafting radio receivers into their skulls, broadcasting instructions...directly into their brainstem.
"And right now, he has about a million of these people poised off the California coast. He also has a digital metavirus, in binary code, that can infect computers, or hackers, via the optic nerve....The binary metavirus will destroy the mind of a hacker.
"As far as I know, there's no way to stop the binary virus. But there's an antidote to Rife's bogus religion. The nam-shub of Enki still exists...If we could transmit the nam-shub of Enki to all of the (infected) on the Raft...It would jam their mother-tongue neurons and prevent Rife from programming them...But we really need to get this done before the Raft breaks up."
Whew! This stuff is a lot to chew on, but I think I've got the hang of it, and I'm ready to move on.