by The Wanderer
Author: Neal Stephenson
Author: Neal Stephenson
“This Snow Crash thing–is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?”… “What’s the difference?”
Last year I tried to get into cyberpunk, so I picked up the book that started it all: Neuromancer. While I appreciated the innovations and the fact that it predicted things about the internet before it became a global phenomenon, I really didn’t enjoy the story and more importantly I didn’t feel any emotional attachment to any of the characters. It’s one of the few instances where a genre defining book has left me disappointed, and I haven’t tried to pick up a cyberpunk book until now.
Snow Crash takes place in 21st century Los Angeles, which is no longer part of the United States. The country has been partitioned and sold off to various organizations like the Mafia and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong. Competition between rivals is fierce. Crime, violence, and drugs are everywhere. In this future the internet has been succeeded by the metaverse, a virtual reality where people create avatars and run around the world (not unlike an MMO).
Hiro Protagonist – that’s our good guy’s name – is a deliverator for one of the Mafia’s pizza organizations who moonlights as a hacker. In the most intense pizza delivery scene I’ve ever encountered in a story, Hiro must deliver a pizza that’s been cooked late to a family in under ten minutes, or the head of the mafia, Uncle Enzo, will have to fly out and personally apologize to the family for not having the food delivered on time… which will subsequently lead to Hiro dieing in a horrible fashion. It’s during this delivery that he becomes acquainted with a fifteen year old girl named Yours Truly, who goes by Y.T., and together they unwittingly get sucked into trying to stop a madman from bringing upon the infopocalypse with a new product called Snow Crash.
This is an opening that should hook just about anyone, but Snow Crash is far from being just another sci-fi action thriller … and this is where it may start to lose people. About midway through the book Stephenson begins some very lengthy exposition scenes between Hiro and the Librarian (basically the equivalent of Google) about linguistic and biological viruses. In short what Stephenson is trying to get across is how the human mind can be programmed like a computer. He uses a lot of evidence from Ancient Sumerian culture to support this along with the fact that Sumeria despite being one of the first major civilizations – one where a lot of ideas are derived from – their language is a language isolate, meaning no traces of it can be found in any modern languages.
Neal Stephenson has a very dry sense of humor as evidenced by the name of his two main characters, and his further supported by there very witty, sarcastic, and smart ass personalities. Hiro Protagonist’s real life may not be going so well, he’s a player in the metaverse, where he’s dubbed his business card with the tag:
“Last of the freelance hackers and greatest swordfighter in the world.”Hiro was once a very successful programmer and hacker for one of the companies that helped pioneer the metaverse. When a romantic relationship with one of his co-workers falls apart he decides to go freelance. Hiro is constantly trying to figure out who he is, and this is what drives a lot of his internal conflict.
Y.T. on the other hand knows exactly who she is. She’s a 15 year old rebel Kourier. Her mode of travel is a skateboard with some sophisticated wheels and a magnetic harpoon to latch onto and ride the backs of cars. She’s a head case with poor impulse control, but she’s also very intelligent. She is frequently the person that is uncovering parts of the Snow Crash mystery, who’s behind it and how it works?
The rest of the characters are also well rounded. Raven, who first introduces Hiro to Snow Crash, is a large Inuit with a huge vendetta against the United States. Uncle Enzo the leader of the American Mafia portrays the family oriented stereotypes of the Mob rather than the dark violent one’s. A cybernetic dog named Fido also narrates portions of the book with a type of dog-speak that was closely mimicked by Pixar in their film Up.
Snow Crash is a head trip; one that’s really involved with computer technology, linguistics, archeology, mythology, and history. I happen to have an interest of varying degrees in all of those topics, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed this as much if I didn’t. Cyberpunk has been redeemed in my eyes after reading this as Stephenson brings some compelling narrators, interesting theories language and viruses, and a compelling (but not idealistic) look at the future.