Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is, according to some, the final straw for the cyberpunk branch of science fiction. A logical progression from William Gibson’s Neuromancer on through to The Matrix – with satirical style to burn. Many critics have made comparisons to Thomas Pynchon along with Gibson, and no doubt Stephenson referred to both while writing this novel.
The book has been around for awhile now (16 years) and having read it back in the 90s I wanted to come back and have another look. Some recent rereads have left me disappointed, questioning my younger self’s taste, but not so with Snow Crash. The opening chapters with the Deliverator weaving through the burbclaves in a race against the clock to deposit his mafia pizza remain one of the most vivid and hilarious intros I can recall. Stephenson’s riffs on the near-future devolution of America still ring true. And while the pace inevitably falls to a more routine level – we do have a plot to get rolling after all – the style remains fairly constant.
The story of Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. is pretty straightforward action/thriller fare. Hiro, a freelance hacker, part-time intelligence gatherer and deliverator, stumbles onto something big when one of his pals runs afoul of a new designer digital drug called Snow Crash. He enlists skateboarding courier, Y.T. (a teenage girl from one of the burbclaves) to investigate. With help from an old girlfriend and a veteran CIA-spook, Hiro starts to see the convergence of the Snow Crash phenomenon in the metaverse (virtual reality internet) with the rise of a certain evangelical religious movement. It all ties back to the rise of civilization in ancient Sumeria and how information and data interface with humanity’s most basic language abilities to make us functional. Along the way, we meet Raven, the Aleutian bad-ass, the soulless denizens of Fed-land, and a variety of new corporate franchises sponsored by the Mafia, the Crips, Hong Kong expats, and others. It’s great stuff.
Stephenson does enough with the principle characters to give the reader a sense for them, but he doesn’t engage in any lengthy back-stories or origins. Hiro and Y.T. both have distinctive voices, and they both progress as the story unfolds. Other supporting characters, like Uncle Enzo, Raven, and L. Bob Rife lend their support and color to the mix. But the true strength of the book is the irreverent vivisection of pop-culture and Americana that occurs in every single scene and sequence. Whether it’s distilling corporate success into 3-ring binders, drive-through spirituality, or contracted intelligence services and law enforcement, Stephenson applies the satire with wit and vigor. There are also a couple of original and compelling sci-fi concepts I enjoyed: notably the whole idea of the Raft, a floating city of malleable Third World evangelical convert cast-offs, and the birth of Sumerian Civilization as a system of successful data programs.
Another interesting observation is how much of the world building in Snow Crash still seems highly relevant and poignant. Sure, we don’t take video tapes back to the store anymore, and post-atomic former Soviet speed metal seems a bit passe, but the rest of Stephenson’s near future remains eerily plausible. This obviously remains a benchmark of staying power for any work of science fiction. Finally, this is just a fun novel – more proof of the variety of the sci-fi genre. If you missed out on Snow Crash, or it’s somewhere on your list of stuff to read, we recommend giving it a look soon. The Deliverator is not a patient dude.