In many ways Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash reads as though it’s describing the modern day: franchises spreading like viruses, mafia-controlled mega-corporations, boats of refugees lashed together and fighting to escape their homeland while the West tries to push them back into the ocean.
Whereas William Gibson’s Neuromancer examined the criminal underbelly of a dystopian world by taking us through the eyes of a nobody, Stephenson sets up his protagonist as one of the most influential people in his world: Hiro Protagonist. Someone who has helped establish the online meta-verse. A super hacker, the greatest swordsman alive, and a pizza delivery boy.
The unrelenting presence of capitalism grips each page of the novel. Hiro delivers pizzas for the Mafia with the skill of a getaway driver. If he is a single second late, the boss of the Mafia will have to make a personal apology on behalf of the delivery driver, and then have Hiro killed. In our world, it doesn’t seem so ridiculous: a world where Apple owns more cash than several governments combined and can afford to build a $5 billion (US) building to house 12,000 employees.
Hiro Protagonist is in many ways the protogenator of cyberpunk heroes like the Matrix‘s Neo. Hiro makes mistakes, but remains a stony recepticle for the reader’s own wish fulfillment. In that sense, he is almost secondary to the purposes of the novel.
The pleasure of reading about Hiro’s comes from his preparedness. The skills he’s developed over a lifetime all come together in the second-half of the book. Simply put, although he is not called it, he is the chosen one: already possessing all the skill, luck, and most of the knowledge required to face the evils of his world.
Some readers might be turned away by the melodrama of it all. The plot takes a backseat to the setting. For the same reason, the descriptions trump the characters. Snow Crash‘s dystopian setting and descriptions are like the ocean, relentlessly bombarding the reader with detail after corporate detail, content to uncover every stone in the world before the novel releases you at its end.
I can’t recommend all of the novel’s concepts. Woven throughout is a researched interpretation of ancient Hebrew and Mesopotamian literature and culture. Religion (particularly Judaism) is repeatedly equated to being virus-like. That being said, the setting that Stephenson weaves helped fill in the gaps of the greater cyberpunk tapestry. His narration through the eyes of YT, a fifteen-year-old courier, drips with adolescent angst and sass. His brief snippets of narration via various dogs are delightful and child-like.
The star of the show is Raven, the novel’s antagonist. Whereas Hiro could be accused of being stony, Raven drips with dry charisma and mystery. He is a terrifying opponent, equally deadly in the online world of the meta-verse, and in the real world.
Concluding thoughts on Snow Crash
Stephenson creates one of the most interesting settings of cyberpunk, filling in the details and fleshing out the genre that was popularised by Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’. In a multitude of ways, ‘Snow Crash’ helps further legitimise cyberpunk as a necessary offshoot of science fiction: an artistic balm in our ever-privatised world.
For the best reading experience, ensure your tongue is firmly planted inside your cheek.