After one very crazy year, I’ve decided to seek solace in a few familiar titles from the science fiction genre. For me, I’d usually jump straight back into reading Neuromancer for the 30th time or so, but this month I wanted to go back to a novel that I’ve only ever finished once before. A novel that belongs to the same cyberpunk category as Gibson’s literary debut, but from a different angle.
Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a classic in my mind. It takes all the cheese that then-contemporary gritty sci-fi could conjure up and serves it on a hot pizza delivered at 100 miles per hour by a badass katana-wielding deliveryman. With concepts like the Metaverse, it showed us a glimpse of Internet culture before the World Wide Web was anywhere near as integrated into our lives as it is today.
Since I’ve already reviewed the novel, what I’d like to focus on this time around is what Snow Crash is prophetic about in the year 1992. Let’s see how good of a guide to our modern day this book really is.
1) Avatars and social activities through the Web
Neal Stephenson definitely got how social (and perverted) the Internet could become. In his model, the Metaverse is a virtual reality simulation where everyone can interact using cheap or custom-designed avatars for every kind of interaction, from dating to live-streaming rock concerts to basic business negotiations. Reading about Hiro’s swordfights in the Verse or his dialogue with other users wouldn’t be out of place to anyone who’s ever played an MMORPG or logged several hours on Facebook. When we can stay in touch on our daily commute via smartphone, reading about Hiro using the Metaverse while sitting in traffic doesn’t seem too farfetched for us.
2) The rise of online databases and searches
Even though virtual reality isn’t as big a deal in our world as it is in Stephenson’s, he did nail how our ability to access and organize information through the Web would evolve. In the book, Hiro is a freelance contributor to an online encyclopedia called the CIC, he’s able to use a geographic mapping program called Earth, and he spends half his time feeding queries for information into a semantic search engine called the Librarian. Anyone today would recognize these early precursors to Wikipedia, Google Earth, and Google in a heartbeat, but it’s uncanny how well our perception of such software fits into what Stephenson wrote.
3) Privatization gone wild
Even in 1992, privitizing or deregulating sectors of the economy was nothing new thanks to the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. What is surprising is how well the themes of privitization in Snow Crash fit the modern realities that we face.
Snow Crash features a booming housing market and the explosion of surburban enclaves (literally known as “Burbclaves”), as well as a cultural shift toward private security forces and increased competition in the global economy. With all manufacturing jobs overseas, it’s no surprise that the United States in Snow Crash has learned to adapt and focus on being the best at “music, movies, microcode (software)” and, of course, “high-speed pizza delivery.” It’s practically a forecast of the impact that trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP could bring.
4) Strong multiculturalism
Tying into globalization, the world of Snow Crash has a very diverse cast of characters and even side characters, highlighting how immigration patterns change on a mundane level. Hiro is a mixed-race protagonist (half-black, half-Japanese), while his opponent Raven hails from the indigenous Aleut people. And the sheer number of migrants from the Middle East working as taxi drivers and pizza delivery managers that Hiro encounters would be no surprise to anyone living today in North America or Europe (even if they are treated as one big stereotype in the book).
5) Rising evangelicals
And speaking of the Middle East, religious fervor and evangelicalism plays a huge role in the plot of Snow Crash, as Hiro and Y.T. team up to take down a pseudo-Christian televangelist who wants to take over the world using the Metaverse and a drug known as Snow Crash. Obviously, there’s no real-world counterpart to Rife, but the threat of Islamic terrorism (especially ISIS at the time of this writing) does match the same blanket of dread that Rife’s Infopocalypse movement evokes. We see today how terror networks can prey upon impressionable minds and attract thousands to a single hotbed of violence, much like how Rife’s followers flock to “The Raft” in the novel.
Of course, Snow Crash is as much an anachronism in our time as it is a useful predictor of what’s commonplace in the 2010’s. Technology is far less clunky than it was in Neal Stephenson’s day and the Web allows some of us to avoid the corporate dominance that most cyberpunk authors believed was just around the corner. Its plot and style might not be for everyone’s liking, but if you have the patience for it, this book can be a fun and informative read, no matter what generation you belong to.