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Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

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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…

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About Bruce Kratofil

  • I really like almost all of Stephenson’s books, but he is getting some serious inflation going on. His second novel, “Zodiac” clocks in at just over 300 pages, while his current trilogy is over 800 pages each. And his article for Wired on undersea cables is probably the longest they’ve ever published (but a great read nonetheless)

    The only thing which really bugs me about Stephenson’s novels is that he seems compelled to end all of them with a deus ex machina.


    Yep, if Stephenson had been born 50 years earlier and gone on heroin, he’d have written “Naked Lunch”. I mean that in the best possible way.

    I like Stephenson, and Gibson, and Burroughs all for their dystopian worlds and gripping chaotic plots.

  • Jim —

    Since I’ve only gotten to one ending, I’ll have to say he’s one-for-one in the deus-ex department.

    Was going to mention something about the ending, but didn’t want to verge into spoiler territory.

    In terms of length, I was wondering if he’s aiming to outstretch Tolkien?

  • There are many precedences to Stephenson minus 50 years, but W.S. Burroughs isn’t one of them. Try Cordwainer Smith, Fred Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, Frederick Brown, Lester del Ray, James Blish, and even that old coot Robert A. Heinlien.

  • Ah ha! A chance to push one of my favorite overlooked speculative fiction novels, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It is in many ways, a better book than his later novels. (Cryptonomicon is unwieldy and much too long.) The primary theme, the effect a high tech guide to life has on girls in different circumstances, is brilliant. I also like the use of a future society that is a throwback to past societies in some ways. And, I don’t think there is a deus ex machina, Jim.

    Snow Crash is my second favorite book by Stephenson. I believe it has his most fully realized hero. In addition, he has taken the conceit of a libertarian future, which several good sci-fi writers have used, and had a lot of fun with it.

  • The only problem with Snow Crash is that the rest of the book, wonderful though it is, still can’t top that incredible opening chapter.

  • Okay, this is where I get hampered by just putting books onto shelves and piles without any library system. But as far as I can recall, “Diamond Age” had a definite deus ex machina in a hoarde of little networked Chinese girls (or is that networked little Chinese girls) solving the plot twists in the last chapter, third or fourth last page if I recall correctly, (which was ripped off from Cordwainer Smith).

  • Joe

    I think Jim hit the nail on the head, I haven’t read any of the Baroque Cycle series, but up to that point, Stephenson hasn’t proved to be a particularly adept closer. His endings are abrupt and usually leave more questions than answers.

  • Joe, c’mon, admit it, you’re really Enoch Root, right?

  • I’ve been wanting to write a review of The Baroque Cycle, but can’t really until I get the third book since the the first and second don’t have a closer (and the second begins with a cheat — a character who is doomed is miraculously restored).

    They are wonderful books, but, I really get the feeling that I will be cheated at the end with Enoch Root charging in and fixing everything, since I already know from Cryptonomicon that he lives at least into the 20th century..

  • Joe

    No, but I do have Enoch Root privileges.

  • Shark

    re: Baroque Cycle –

    I got a bit tired of the history of money thing — after about the umpteenth time he veered off on it.


  • So discuss: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo”.

  • But, how about The Diamond Age‘s little Nell, Jim? She comes through on her own merits. (BTW, do you think most readers ‘get’ the name ‘Nell’?)

  • One thing please — can we frame the discussion so there are no spoilers; I’m only on the second book here.

    (Of course, every chapter in Cryptonmicon seems to bring up something so completely different that the surprises never stop.)

  • Shark

    Spoiler alert – in the Baroque Cycle, after 50 or so pages describing the interior of one room at Versailles, (wait! we’re working our way to the next room!) — you’ll conclude that this French pad is really overblown and ostentatious.

    Kinda like the writing.

  • OK, finished Cryptonomicon — not sure if I should do a separate review/entry for that.

    He definitely needs to work on his endings.

    Now, on to the Baroque Cycle.