My limited fiction reading had stagnated, and I was looking for something different. I had read a number of bloggers mention Neal Stephenson, and faced with a number of long airport waits, I picked up one of his earlier novels, Snow Crash, written in 1992.
I was hooked. The characters, writing and look at our not-too-distant future more than make up for the convoluted plot. One of the novel’s main characters, who is not-so-subtly named Hiro Protagonist, describes himself on his business card as “Last of the freelance hackers. Greatest sword fighter in the world. Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation, Specializing in software-related intel (music, movies & microcode.” However, we find him working as a pizza delivery man at the beginning of the novel. Why? Because Stephenson’s world is one where globalization, privatization and franchising have taken over. As Hiro says
once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel–once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity–y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode(software), and high-speed pizza delivery.
Most governmental functions — such as providing roads, law enforcement, or central intelligence– have been taken over by franchises. Most people live in burbclaves, autonomous subdevelopments owned by franchises. The US government is still around, but withered to where it just controls small patches of territory. Pizza delivery is dominated by CosaNostra Pizza, run by the Mafia and headed by a mostly benevolent mob boss known as Uncle Enzo. The reach of the franchises is world-wide; one of the best-run is Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong.
That’s a very simplified description of the environment that the characters operate. In the opening chapter, Hiro meets YT, a skateboard-riding courier for RadiKS, the Radikal Kourier Systems. Beneath the kourier suit she’s actually a teen-age girl with loads of attitude. They end up in a loose alliance with Uncle Enzo, and later Mr. Lee of Greater Hong Kong. They are opposed by Raven, who is an Aleutian hitman who is probably packing his own nuclear weapons; L. Bob Rife, a media mogul; and a televangelist named the Reverend Wayne Bedford.
While these characters might sound both wildly imaginative and confusing, that’s nothing compared to the plot. There’s no way you can begin to describe the plot in less than about 470 pages, which is how long this book is. The plot involves: something called Snow Crash, which is both a computer virus and a drug; ancient Sumerian legends; the Tower of Babel; an enormous floating raft filled with refugees, constructed out of the USS Enterprise and various oil tankers. And it involves something called the Metaverse, which may be the most interesting concept in the whole book.
This book was published in 1992, which meant that Stephenson was writing it when the Internet was in its infancy, and the World Wide Web totaled maybe 300 text pages. The Metaverse was an artificial reality where people could visit, socialize, and practically live. They moved through it as avatars, and the interface was not a screen but a lens, goggles, and earphone apparatus that immersed you in the artificial world. The Metaverse may actually be the most interesting aspect of the book.
This book is not for everyone. If you like simple stories with linear plots, look elsewhere. But you will miss some great descriptive writing, as in this description
the town of Port Sherman, Oregon is suddenly laid out before him: a flash of yellow loglo wrapped into a vast U-shaped valley that was ground out of the rock, a long time ago, by a big tongue of ice in an epochal period of geological cunnilingus. There is just a light dusting of gold around the edges where it fades into the rain forest, a long narrow fjordlike notch cut into the straight coastline of Oregon, a deep cold trench of black water heading straight out to Japan.
When reading Snow Crash, you make obvious comparisons to the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson. If I was getting paid by the word I’d do a long compare-and-contrast between the two. Since I’m not, I’ll just say that I enjoy both writers and would imagine that anyone who likes one would like the other. As a further recommendation, I’ll just say that right after reading Snow Crash, I went out and got Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which I’m about one-third through. If you thought Snow Crash was complicated…Powered by Sidelines