Neal Stephenson is the real deal. I’ve read two of his books- this one and it’s follow up The Diamond Age– and in both I was amazed by the range and depth of his writing talent. Both books have all the ingredients of true sci-fi genius: intense action, comedy, crazily well imagined technology and a fully realised world, all told with wit and emotion. Diamond Age was the one that won Stephenson the Hugo Award, but I preferred Snow Crash for its ultra fast paced story, insanely badass cast of characters and constantly witty and engaging style. Both are great books (and I’ll almost certainly review Diamond Age at some point too) but Snow Crash is easily one of my top 5 books of all time.
Snow Crash is set in a dystopian near future and whilst it has a lot of the hallmarks of the cyberpunk genre- evil mega-corporations, post- national politics (a fancy phrase I just made up meaning that countries don’t really exist anymore) and a widely used virtual reality internet known as the Metaverse- it never really feels like cyberpunk. Perhaps it’s the lack of grizzled, hard-boiled characters. Or the fact that it isn’t always raining. Whatever the reason, Stephenson has created a world that feels familiar but totally unique. In this world technically the United States of America still exists, but it only controls a tiny amount of land and it’s just one of a whole host of factions competing for power. The real power lies with chains of micro-states or ‘franchises’ which have sprung up like McDonalds restaurants all over the place and have their own laws and customs. There’s the quasi-oriental ‘Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong’, ‘Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates’ where Jesus and Elvis are worshipped in equal measure, and even Mafia controlled franchises where the Mafia proudly advertise the fact that they’re the Mafia with giant billboards proclaiming “You’ve got a friend in The Family”. It’s a blunt parody of the selling out of politics, religion and lifestyle, exaggerated like a flashing neon sign, and it’s a lot of fun. Then there’s the Metaverse- a single continuous street thousands of (virtual) miles long where the computer savvy meet for business and pleasure. One of our protagonists is Hiro Protagonist (yes, our main character’s name sounds like Hero protagonist), a half black, half Japanese freelance hacker who helped design the Metaverse and also happens to be the deadliest swordfighter in all of virtual reality, but who currently works as a pizza deliverer for the Mafia. Our other protagonist is Y.T., a fifteen year old skateboarder who works as a Kourier- a deliverer of messages and sensitive objects who skates through high speed freeways by harpooning passing cars and getting pulled along behind them.
In case you haven’t figured yet, in the world of Snow Crash, things making sense is much less important than things being totally awesome.
There’s so much to like about this book. For one thing, it’s really, really funny. The whole opening chapter is about Hiro’s adventures as a Pizza deliverer, which in this world is a job which requires him to drive an armoured car and carry enough weaponry to level a small army. The whole scene is written as the narrator explaining all the reasons why Hiro (or ‘The Deliverator’) and his vehicle are just fundamentally better than you, the reader. He also lands his first shot in a never ending salvo of pithy critique on American society: “This is America. People do whatever the f*** they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can f***ing stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world.” Stephenson’s narration is witty and irreverent throughout, and at times it gets a bit much, but he knows how to keep thing railing along at a blinding pace. The level of badass in this book is ridiculous- practically everyone in it could be “the badass one” in any other work. Top of the heap is unquestionably Raven, a seven foot Native American whale fisher/hijacker of Russian submarines who rides a giant motorbike whose sidecar is actually a massive nuclear bomb rigged to blow up if anyone tries to harm him. Yeah. You don’t mess with Raven.
Amongst all this there’s a frightening amount of subtext and some truly crazy ideas about religion, technology and linguistics. Ancient Sumerian culture is a major theme of the book, which Hiro investigates after his ex girlfriend suggests a link between the ancient god figure Enki and a mysterious virus that has begun spreading through the Metaverse, crashing people’s avatars and turning their real-world counterparts into brain-dead, gibberish spouting vegetables. The theory goes that ancient Sumerian priests were the creators of the first mind-viruses- strings of information spoken in some innate sub-language all humans possess, which have the power to mind control their hosts and spread through entire populations. These mystic viruses are also analogous to computer code, resembling binary code and able to organise people into “systems” of efficient society. Religions were based on these contagious viral ideas, and holy books are a means of propagating the information. This lost subliminal language is now being uncovered by technology magnate, ruthless religious fanatic and all-round jerk L. Bob Rife (scientologist L. Rob Hubbard in all but name) in the hopes of hacking the minds-and computers- of the entire world to spread his crazy ideas to every corner of the globe. In order to supply the required worker-bees for his hive mind virus, Rife has constructed a giant raft consisting of dozens of oil tankers botched together, which hobbles along the coasts of deprived countries, picking up refugees and taking them to America under the promise of a new and better life.
Ok I’m aware I haven’t done a great job of explaining most of that, but you see the kind of stuff we’re dealing with. The plot and the ideas at play in this book are insane. It’s all explained in great detail and despite at times seeming almost logical you can’t shake the feeling that this is all a bunch of crap. Ancient Sumerians were hacker-virus engineer-mystic shaman? Riiiiight. Whether or not you can enjoy the concepts in Snow Crash will depend on whether you can shut off the cynical voice in your head telling you what’s plausible in the real world and what simply isn’t. Just because something is unrealistic doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy entertaining the possibility of it happening, and doesn’t mean it can’t shed some light on our world and our conceptions of the mind and corporate religion.
But lest you think Snow Crash is all cerebral theorising and commentary, let me say that it’s also the most furiously action-packed sci-fi book I’ve read in ages. Big, heart-pounding fights, chases and virtual duels are frequent, and written with vivid clarity. One of Stephenson’s best gifts as a writer is being able to build and build tension and then give us the massive, earth-shattering payoff we want at the end. Snow Crash has 100 pages of full throttle climax- giving us nail biting suspense and brutal action as Hiro and his mafia pals infiltrate the raft, a high speed motorbike chase through the metaverse and plenty more. Too many books spend all their time building and then fizzle out with a rushed or poorly done finale. Snow Crash takes every configuration of its awesome characters, locations and concepts and smashes them at each other in every conceivable way, and reading it is an absolute thrill.
Any issues I have with the book are superficial at most. After the hilarious first chapter it did take a while to get going, and I was a bit annoyed at the amount of exposition; Hiro spends the first third of the book establishing himself as an impossibly awesome kicker of ass, and then spends the second third locked in a room with a virtual librarian talking about ancient tablets and binary code. Luckily, perspective shifts frequently between him and Y.T., who finds herself haplessly caught up in the grand designs of mafia honcho Uncle Enzo himself and on the run from the feds, somehow kicking just as much ass as Hiro with her mad skater skills and high tech board. And like I said before, the payoff is worth the wait. Really, I can’t think of any way fiction could ever be any better than this- it’s fun, funny, thrilling, insightful, imaginative and generally just a joy to read. If you think you’ve seen everything the cyberpunk genre can offer, get yourself a copy of this beast and think again.