J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Snow Crash: So old that the title’s reference doesn’t even make sense anymore.

I’m not dead! I promise. I just work full time and go to school too. Time is a preciously small resource for me lately.

But I haven’t stopped reading. I’ll never stop reading.

I haven’t read as much over the past month, but I did just finish an influential classic that I’d never given the attention it deserves: Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson.

I considered it a bit of an embarrassment that I’d never actually read Stephenson before. His work is majorly influential*, on both science fiction and I would also argue literary fiction as a whole. But I’d always heard about how influential this novel was, in particular. Along with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it’s one of the books that really invented one of my favorite sub-genres: cyberpunk.

*This book coined the term “avatar” to describe online personas. Seriously.

So in the interests of going back to cover another classic, I dove in! And it took me a while to really digest it afterward. This is a beast of a book, folks.

The blurb reads like this:

One of Time magazine’s 100 all-time best English-language novels.

Only once in a great while does a writer come along who defies comparison—a writer so original he redefines the way we look at the world. Neal Stephenson is such a writer and Snow Crash is such a novel, weaving virtual reality, Sumerian myth, and just about everything in between with a cool, hip cybersensibility to bring us the gigathriller of the information age.

In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse. Snow Crash is a mind-altering romp through a future America so bizarre, so outrageous…you’ll recognize it immediately.


What I liked:

The setting. The setting for this book is classic dystopian style. The U.S. as we know it is split into smaller corporate states, with their own corporate sponsored police states. Despite this, laws are a thing of the past. The mafia runs a huge chunk of the government, and the entire pizza delivery business in the country. People live in small storage units, and spend most of their time plugged into the Multi-verse, a place where virtual reality lets them interact with other users and share experiences like real life to escape the real world.

Sound familiar?

If this novel was released today, it’d be billed a pretty cool (if not overly cynical) sci-fi novel that leaned on the concept of the internet and hackers too much. But this book was originally published in 1992. NINETEEN NINETY TWO. I was eight years old at the time, but I can readily tell you that no one even had a notion that someday we would all get the majority of our information and culture off a bunch of computers linked together.Even the titular “snow crash” effect is a reference to old CRT TVs getting no signal, a thing that’s far in the past for most people nowadays. This book is old. Not that that’s a bad thing.

It’s mind blowing to think about how creatively prophetic Stephenson was writing this book. It’s impossible for me to consider this book anything less than great for this reason alone.

The characters. Don’t get me wrong, “Hiro Protagonist” as a name for your… hero protagonist takes the title for the laziest name ever. But it’s so lazy that it actually works. It doesn’t hurt that the character himself is very cool. He’s a badass, but intelligent. He’s smart, but that doesn’t stop him from acting impulsively. He’s got plenty of nuances.

Y.T. is just as revolutionary a character. A 15 year old kourier (yeah, it’s spelled with a k in the book for some reason), she’s clever, witty, and – dare I say it? – pretty hardcore by the end of the book, and gets to be in some of the cooler action scenes in the novel.

Raven? Just wow. The idea of a man carrying around a nuclear warhead set to explode if his heart stops is just wacky, and amazing. He’s a villain with purpose, though, and like all good villains, you can understand his purpose by the time the book ends.

I could keep going, but suffice to say, the characters are almost as fantastic as the setting.

The asides. Every once in a while, Stephenson will start a scene with an aside that almost feels like a non sequitur, but swings back around and perfectly nails the emotion behind the scene he’s writing.

One of my favorites, for instance, perfectly captures the reality a lot of action in fiction glosses over:

He has one other chore to take care of, not something he’s looking forward to.

Hiro has lived in a lot of places where mice and even rats were a problem. He used to get rid of them using traps. But then he had a run of bad luck with the things. He would hear a trap snap shut in the middle of the night, and then instead of silence he would hear pitiable squeaking and thrashing, whacking noises as the stricken rodent tried to drag itself back to safety with a trap snapped over some part of its anatomy, usually its head. When you have gotten up at three in the morning to find a live mouse on your kitchen counter leaving a contrail of brain tissue across the formica, it is hard to get back to sleep, and so he prefers to set out poison now.

Somewhat in the same vein, a severely wounded man—the last man Hiro shot—is thrashing around on the deck of the yacht, up near the bow, babbling.

More than anything he has ever wanted to do, Hiro wants to get into the zodiac and get away from this person. He knows that in order to go up and help him, or put him out of his misery, he’s going to have to shine the flashlight on him, and when he does that he’s going to see something he’ll never be able to forget.

But he has to do it. He swallows a couple of times because he’s already gagging and follows his flashlight beam up to the bow.

It’s much worse than he had expected…

That is some masterful writing, in my opinion. It takes a small concept, and translates it perfectly to something much more serious. It also humanizes our hero. Concepts are one thing, but this book has plenty of technique as well.

What I didn’t like:

It’s a hard read. A really hard read. As the book’s Wikipedia page outlines, this book covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics and philosophy. And it does all of them well. But as you probably noticed, many (if not all) of those are not light reading. And no matter how talented the writer, or how cool the idea is (though, let’s be honest, thinking of human language as an actual programming language for our brains is pretty frickin’ cool), it’s hard to introduce so many high-minded ideas without raising the bar in difficulty a bit. It took me the better part of the month to properly digest this book; it is not light reading.

It’s not really a bad thing, I’d say, but I don’t format my reviews with a “What I sort of liked and didn’t like at the same time” heading. So it goes here instead.

The verdict:

This book is legendary, in a lot of ways. I really enjoyed reading it. On concept and style alone, it deserves 5 stars. But on an overall “I had fun reading it and look forward to doing so again someday” level, it felt more like 4 stars. It is an amazing book, but the difficulty kept me from enjoying it to its fullest. That being said, if you like sci-fi, cyberpunk, or just brain bending novels, this is essential reading.




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