Keeping Tradition with Traditional Weapons

Peter Peng '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Spring 2005)

In contrast to the obviously technologically-advanced setting and props in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, certain primitive tools such as Hiro Protagonist's katana and long-sword or Raven's makeshift spears and glass knives seem vastly out of place. What purpose do these apparently obsolete objects serve for the characters and for the story as a whole? Are these seemingly primitive technologies actually as ineffective as one might think? Clearly not because when one considers the many scenes in which advanced weaponry such as the Fisheye's (or Ng's) supposedly all-mighty Gatling gun Reason is pitted against Raven's simple weapon of choice, the pole, he will notice that almost invariably the simple weapon proves more devastating and effective.

Raven's glass knives penetrate super-strength bulletproof fabric that can stop almost anything. By becoming so overconfident in technology, many of the characters in Snow Crash lose their lives. Perhaps one of Stephenson's messages here is not to overlook the technology of the past.

As an Aleut, Raven is an expert whale-harpooner. His harpooning skills (both throwing and creating the harpoon or spear) are virtually flawless. He brings down multitudes of men armed with protective vests and guns. More impressively, he does so silently. He even manages to hold up an entire submarine and steal a nuke with just a glass shard. All the metal detector precautions suddenly seem pointless. Why does Raven prefer his harpoons over some higher form of weaponry? Is it keeping in tradition with his Aleut and whale-hunting identity?

Hiro also uses primitive weapons — his swords. As a half black, half Japanese man, perhaps his swords represent the Japanese half of his identity. His swords prove to be extremely deadly as he chops up men left and right, amputating limbs or outright beheading people. At one moment in the story, Hiro even brings up the point that swords do not run out of ammo as if implying his swords are in fact more effective killing agents than any of the high-tech weapons he is up against. Do these simple weapons hold a different form of elegance and beauty? Besides primitive weaponry, what other types of supposedly weaker weaponry are there? How do feminine weapons function as a statement about gender in technology?

In today's world, many people voluntarily shun modern conveniences (and even pay exorbitant amounts of money for the opportunity) to get back in touch with nature. People go camping and forgot about the wood or concrete roofs of their houses. People prefer cooking over campfires over modern stovetops. People forget the comfort of their beds. Ironically though, by giving up these modern technologies, people often opt for other technologies such as the portable propane stove, the four-season tent, or the 0 degrees mummy sleeping bag. Donna Haraway's theory on the blurring between human and machine to create the cyborg can be considered an analogy for this phenomenon of substituting technologies, blurring between the natural and the man-made, blurring between the self and other, and blurring between identity.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self

Last modified 25 April 2005