Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
I have a confession. This is my first Neal Stephenson book.
I’ve checked out Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver from the library multiple times, but unfailingly, I suddenly become very busy, and before I know it my check-out period is half over and the massive length of the book intimidates me out of starting.* But when I saw this book on that 3-for-2 table at the Harvard Co-Op, and remembered how Econo Man had raved about it, I knew I had to give it a try.
And it’s great. Insane, and chaotic, and overstuffed, yes, but also great.
Snow Crash is set in a not-too-distant future America, where (as the characters are fond of reminding us) there are no laws, only corporations and franchises. We first meet our protagonist — whose name is Hiro Protagonist (hee hee!) — as he races to deliver a pizza within the all-important 30-minute window for the Mafia-owned CosaNostra Pizza Company. But Hiro is not just a pizza delivery driver. He’s also a freelance hacker who, along with his friends Da5id and Juanita, is one of the original creators of the Metaverse, the virtual reality universe.**
At the beginning of the book, Hiro learns that a program called “Snow Crash” is being passed around the Metaverse. At first it seems to be a computer virus, but he soon learns that Snow Crash is also a drug sold out in reality — and that encounters with Snow Crash, either in the Metaverse or the real world, have dire consequences for hackers. He teams up with a fifteen-year-old Kourier called Y.T. (short for “Yours Truly”) to gather information.
Hiro himself is a bit of a blank slate — especially in the later stages of the book, he largely serves as an exposition device, asking the right questions to the right people for the readers’ benefit. But Y.T., whose job as a Kourier involves a lot of high-tech skateboarding and harpooning passing motorists to get where she’s going, is one of the more believable teenage girls I’ve encountered in science fiction. She’s smart, she has an attitude problem, she hides things from her mother, and she’s completely fearless in that way you can only be when you’re fifteen, but she’s also more vulnerable than she realizes, and not nearly as worldly as she thinks she is.
Stephenson’s tale takes us to franchised jails, to a Federal “burbclave” where visitors must spend 30 minutes reading a 10-page contract before entering, to the Metaverse’s all-knowing library, and to “The Raft,” a mysterious structure floating off the coast of California that’s strung together out of boats and teeming with refugees. It’s an absolutely fascinating read (although I wish Stephenson had cut down significantly on his expositions of Sumerian mythology … no, I’m not kidding, that’s really part of the book), and has inspired me to tackle Cryptonomicon again. Wish me luck!
* Renewing never seems to be a possibility. There’s always someone else with a hold on the book, eagerly waiting for their turn.
** To those of us in 2010 familiar with The Sims and Second Life and all the weirdness of internet social life, the Metaverse may seem like old hat, but Stephenson wrote this book in the late 1980s, and it was published in 1992. I believe the term I’m looking for is “eerily prescient.”
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