As Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash opens, Hiro Protagonist is zooming down the streets of Los Angeles, trying to deliver a pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosaNostra Pizza. Any customer who doesn’t get his or her ‘za in 30 minutes “can have it free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class action suit.” And the driver will also have Uncle Enzo to deal with. Hiro has never taken more than 21 minutes to make a delivery, but when he got this pie, 20 minutes had already elapsed. As he tries to find the best possible route through the Burbclaves, he gets ‘pooned by a skateboarding Kourier, who latches onto his vehicle to gain some speed while making her own delivery. The Kourier, a 15-year-old girl named Y.T., only slows Hiro down, putting him in danger of missing the deadline.
With this breathless opening sequence, Stephenson deftly introduces readers to the two principal characters and the setting of Snow Crash, one of the classic novels of the cyberpunk genre. Published in 1992, Snow Crash looks ahead to a world run by corporations, where nations have franchises instead of traditional borders, and where people live a sort of second life online.
My favorite part of almost any sci-fi or fantasy novel is the process of getting to know the alternate reality being presented, and that was most definitely the case with Snow Crash.The early-21st-century world that Stephenson postulates is of course nothing like our actual world, but I was intrigued by how prescient he was with regards to the power of social networking. I wasn’t even online when this book was written, and Stephenson was writing about an alternate reality (called the metaverse) that bears a striking resemblance to Second Life.
The central plot of the novel involves a new virus in the metaverse that can render catatonic any hacker who views it while jacked into the ‘verse. It turns out that the virus is much older than the metaverse, or even the Internet. The search for the source of the virus leads Hiro to research Sumerian myth, Pentecostal glossolalia (speaking in tongues), the Tower of Babel, and Asherah cults. I couldn’t help but think of Foucault’s Pendulum, although Stephenson’s use of these various ideas is not nearly as complex as Eco’s.
Stephenson’s world is fascinating, and Hiro and Y.T. are engaging and likable characters. As the book went on, however, I felt that they each behaved in ways that served the plot but weren’t entirely consistent with their characters as established earlier in the book. Still, I liked them and wanted to know what was going to happen to them. When the plot wandered away from either of these two, I lost interest.
The last quarter of the book suffered a bit from having too many characters and too many threads to resolve. I think the book would have been better had Stephenson told the story a little more economically, making the relationships between secondary characters a little tighter and a little clearer, and maybe even cutting out a few of the bad guys and bosses.
Despite my frustration with the last quarter of the book, the first half was so fun and so clever that I’m glad I read it. I read a fair bit of science fiction and fantasy and a lot of dystopian fiction, but the closest thing to cyberpunk I’d read was The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks (which I highly recommend, even though the sequel was not good at all). I have Neuromancer on my shelf, and I look forward to reading that as well.
This was my March selection for my ongoing “What Should I Read Next?” giveaway. I’ll be passing this book along to Nell the winner of the giveaway. If you’d like a chance to win one of my books, tell me what book from my shelf you’d like in a comment on my TBR page.