Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Imagine, if you can, a world where the worst thing that can happen to ordinary folk is your pizza not arriving within thirty minutes of placing the order. That is such a bad thing, that the head of the Mafia, Uncle Enzo, who runs the Cosa Nostra Pizza business will personally come to apologise to you and woe betide the poor employee that fails to deliver. That’s the predicament facing the pizza ‘Deliverator’ when he gets a late dispatch and ends up stuck in a swimming pool after taking a short cut. Luckily a fifteen-year-old Kourier, called Y.T. has been pooning him on her plank, (magnetically attaching a tether to his car so she can skateboard faster), and agrees to get it there on time for him.
“But she’ll get it there. Uncle Enzo doesn’t have to apologize for ugly, ruined, cold pizzas, just late ones.”
This is the opening scene in Snow Crash, a novel of speculative fiction originally published in 1992 – and sadly, in these days, Neal Stephenson’s satiric vision of 21st century USA is appearing more prescient every day.
The world inhabited by ex-Deliverator and freelance hacker Hiro Protagonist (isn’t that a cracking character name?) and Y.T. is fragmented. Each neighbourhood has its own entry requirements and way of doing things, from Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong and the Mormon Deseret Burbclave to the Compton Nova Sicilia franchise where the Young Mafia hang out. All government has been commercialised, Y.T.’s mother works for the former CIA who are still the watchers, but the employees are subject to constant monitoring too.
Remember the world wide web was in its infancy when this was written, so Stephenson’s ‘Metaverse’ is masterly in its presentation of an alternate reality where people can live a second life and meet friends without leaving their living units. Hiro was behind some of the code that created the Black Sun – a Metaverse club where everyone who’s anyone can hang out. Of course Hiro wrote in some secret code to give him extra privileges and safety nets, but rather than keep his shares in the business, he sold early, unlike Juanita who is now rich.
One day someone brings a new drug called Snow Crash to the Black Sun, and Da5id is stupid enough to try it – and ends up with his brain fried in static for the drug contains not just a computer virus, but also reprogrammes your brain to speak in tongues. Hiro, Juanita and Y.T. get involved in trying to find out about Snow Crash before the whole metaverse is brought down by it.
It gets terribly complicated – involving linguistics, the history of the ancient Sumerians and Babel, glossolalia – the aforementioned speaking in tongues, religion – here presented as another form of brainwashing and much more. There are robot dogs known as Rat Things, there’s a chap called Raven who has a nuke, the church is run by a chap called L Bob Rife (another inspired name, spoofing L Ron Hubbard), and so much more. Hiro must do deep research into the ‘Babel Infocalypse’ to understand, and then go to the ‘Raft’ to rescue Juanita who’s been kidnapped. The Raft is a floating island of lashed together boats, run by pirates, and felt just like the film Waterworld (1995) – ahead of the game again!
There was just too much! I got totally lost in the plot, especially all the Sumerian stuff. I did enjoy many of the set pieces, and relished spotting references and loved the general Mad Max-like feel. I also found the thought that language evolved from a single original babel (babble?) equivalent to binary code into all the different tongues that can’t be understood without learning/reprogramming your brain was fascinating. Stephenson is brilliant on all the concepts, and there is a lot of Tarantinoesque violence/chases which are also very visual. I’d say that the mind stuff and the visual stuff don’t quite mesh together as well as they could, but it was one helluva ride to read. God help us if his view of a commodified and commercialised government ever gets any nearer though – now that’s a really scary thought. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992) Penguin paperback, 440 pages.