Madness In The Metaverse: “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

Copyright © 1992 by Neal Stephenson. Cover art by Bruce Jensen.

Neal Stephenson is one of the great sci-fi authors of the modern era, giving us fantastic technologies and visions of the future with a dose of literary quality (which is a rarity in some sci-fi literature, believe me).  His first successful novel was Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller in 1988, followed by Snow Crash in 1992, which I’ll be reviewing today.

Published in 1992, Snow Crash is noteworthy for coming up ideas about the future that actually came to pass in the real world.  Among other things, Stephenson envisioned a global-positioning computer program (like Google Earth) and an online library with entirely user-generated content (like Wikipedia).  Snow Crash also gave us the computer term “avatar,” an originally Hindu word now used to describe the appearance of a user in virtual reality.

But enough juicy tidbits.  Let’s dig into the story proper!

The Story: Sumerian Mythology Meets Cyberpunk Attitude

Our hero and protagonist is literally named Hiro Protagonist, so that should give you a clue as to how bold this story is.  He strikes up an odd partnership with a Kourier girl named Y.T. as they try to sell new data for the Central Intelligence Corporation.  However, their search leads them into the path of a bizarre new religious movement, which seems to have ties to a terrible new drug/computer virus known as “Snow Crash.”  It’s up to Hiro and Y.T. to try and get to the bottom of this plot before the whole world–and the virtual reality world known as the Metaverse–are imperiled.

This plot seems straightforward enough, but things get more, uh, interesting when Stephenson starts linking every major event to an ancient Sumerian myth from which we get the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  Historically speaking, the Babel tower found in the Old Testament is an inspiration from the famed ziggurats of Sumer, as well as a religious hypothesis for why human language is so fragmented instead of there being one common tongue.

The Cast: You’ll Never Find A More Awesome Collection of Nerds

Hideki “Hiro” Protagonist is, at first glance, less of a character and more of a badass archetype: a racially-mixed info-gatherer and swordsman armed with a katana whose initial job is delivering pizzas for a Mafia-owned franchise.  Y.T. is a typical Kourier, moving a mile a minute and none too concerned with running away when it suits her needs, yet ultimately a decent person and quick to help out her partner Hiro when needed (although it ultimately turns out to be the other way around, but not in a bad way, I’ll admit).

But despite being the female protagonist, Y.T. doesn’t turn out to be Hiro’s love interest.  That role gets assigned to his ex-girlfriend, Juanita, who shares Hiro’s affinity for programming and the Metaverse, but has a more religious and optimistic perspective about the world–and given the world they live in, that’s really saying something.

The Setting: Here In These Disjointed States Of America Wherever

In most fictional dystopias, you tend to see a landscape dominated by either an authoritarian state, a corporate oligarchy, or warring factions with no one in charge.  Stephenson takes an interesting route that gives us all of the above in a concept known as a “distributed republic“–that is, a government or group that isn’t tied to geography and has territories everywhere (sort of like how foreign embassies work).  You have Burbclaves (suburban enclaves) next to CosaNostra regions next to Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong and so on.  This is a world where everything’s privatized–including the US military and the CIA–but there’s still something like a federal bureaucracy at work.

I found it interesting how Stephenson’s Metaverse provides an escape from the fragmented factions of the real world just as Gibson’s cyberspace is an escape from his own fictional setting, “The Sprawl.”  The Metaverse is another realm for people to interact and create their own virtual personas and even property (developed long before we in the real world came up with virtual communities like Second Life and MMOGs).  I can imagine how innovative this must have seemed in the early Nineties, and having read this story in the late 2000’s, I can totally identify with how the Metaverse works.

Final Verdict: A Heavy Read, But Fun In Spite Of It

There’s a lot to digest in this story, especially with all the exposition about Sumerian mythology, character histories, and the emergence of the Metaverse and certain franchises.  It’s like reading anything written by Thomas Pynchon, but if you can get through all that, then the characters are fun, the story is well-crafted, and it’s an interesting experience all around.

Bibliography: Stephenson, Neal.  Snow Crash.  New York: Bantam Dell, 1992.

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