Snow Crash is a late-to-the-party cyberpunk sci-fi action thriller bearing reasonable comparison to William Gibson’s earlier mid-80s works in the genre but more akin to reading a text transcript of a graphic novel written in the early 1990s and full of that decades tropes alongside some meandering expositional lectures about metaphysical theories shoe-horned into the story to elevate it from pulp fiction.
The story is set in a near future where Musk’s computer-generated internet metaverse is in full operation. A staple in many later works (e.g. Ready Player One) this seems like a novel concept in a Nineties book and therefore in need of some painful explanation from Stephenson which made me smile and whisper ‘bless him’. Also funny to see some lack of foresight alongside all the great ideas. It’s been a few weeks since I read the book but I’m sure there’s a reliance on real physical money and cumbersome computer tech which just isn’t the case anymore, and indeed why would couriers or pizza delivery people actually be human – won’t we just be using robotic drones for all that in the future?
The future America is split into numerous ‘burbclaves’ franchises overseen and policed by private companies or individuals, the mafia, a New Hong Kong, a New South Africa (yet racist) and very few actually in the hands of the Federal government. It’s like a new Wild West and the hip young characters Hiro Protagonist (talk about a temporary name making the cut – the character equivalent of Avatar’s unobtainium) and Y.T., a pizza delivery guy and skateboarding courier girl respectively, have to navigate the various dangers on the streets at high speed.
Hiro is also a hacker and helped to write the foundational code of the metaverse and so knows a few useful backdoors in the system and also he’s a master samurai swordsman. If you wanted a Manga cliché in a Western novel then Hiro is your hero. Honestly I found it all rather childish, especially with Y.T. being a 15-year-old girl who’s smart and perfectly imperfect – the classic manic pixie dream girl that began to emerge in cinema in the Nineties. She lives with her mum but acts like harpoon-wielding (she uses it to hitch rides behind fast moving cars) Harley Quinn on a skateboard and while still a teen is overly sexualised. Again it reminded me of all the worst aspects of Ghost in the Shell when it wasn’t trying explore quasi-religious metaphysical theories on the power of language as a kind of memory-based DNA virus.
Hiro also earns money selling intel to the future version of the CIA. Seems like his list of wish-fulfilling attributes for the target reader is almost inexhaustible. Hiro uncovers a threat to the metaverse and humankind in the real world in the form of a reality-spanning virus called Snow Crash that not only kills of avatars when they view the equivalent of a malign QR code but also puts their users in a coma.
I could accept this rather more if the virus was in the world of Ghost in the Shell where everyone has a cyber-brain which could be hacked and fried in this way, but for a computer virus to transfer somehow into the brain of a user is a bit of a leap too far for even me. In fact Stephenson does seem to qualify it’s power hypothesizing that it will only effect hackers like Hiro who are used to interpreting code in it’s native form – as if they can see the meaning behind zeros and ones much like Neo seeing the matrix in The Matrix.
There’s a couple of interesting supporting characters – the cult leader L. Bob Rife who lives on an aircraft carrier surrounded by a fleet of his disciples boats, yachts and submarines and perhaps behind the Snow Crash virus; Raven who is as comic book as they come with his glass blade and a nuke attached to his huge motorbike equipped with a Deadman’s switch – should be be killed the nuke will explode; and Fido a kind of cyborg attack dog/rat who has a soft spot for Y.T.
All the supporting academic sounding theorising to support the existence of the Snow Crash virus is provided to Hiro in large dollops from his equivalent of Alexa or Siri, and is rather tiresome to read and is very odd when juxtaposed with the semi-comedic aspects of the story. I think if I had read this book back in the Nineties alongside Gibson’s work I might have been more impressed by it, but a lot of the avenues travelled in this book have been ‘done’ in other books, TV shows and movies to a point where this novel really shows it’s age and despite perhaps being rather ground-breaking at the time is now a bit of a flop for the modern reader even if taken as a comedic pastiche (which I really don’t think was the intention).