The first book I read this year was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. This is a science fiction cyberpunk classic, originally published in 1993. Two immediate thoughts come to mind when I think about this book:

  • First, the main protagonist is a bit of a hero. Fittingly, his name is ‘Hiro Protagonist’. I can’t decide if this is beyond clever or eye roll material.
  • Second, the fact that Neal Stephenson wrote and published this book in the early 90s, well before the introduction and popularization of the modern ‘Web 2.0’ internet is truly amazing. Stephenson made some amazing predictions about the future of technology and how that may shape peoples lives.

I’m very glad that I read Neuromancer by William Gibson before reading this and I would recommend anyone looking to pick this up to read Neuromancer first. At times Stephenson’s cyberpunk future setting feels a little bit like a lampoon, or an exageration of Gibson’s, often in a hilarious way. Snow Crash is set in a future America that is truly anarcho-capitalist. There is an official US government that nominally still exists and there is still a sitting US president, but the true governing of the country is performed by private companies and their many franchises throughout the country. It is normal to be a ‘citizen’ of a given franchise, to have a passport stating such, and travelling into franchise controlled territory is almost a form of immigration. US currency also still exists but hyperinflation has caused it to become worthless, leaving most citizens dealing in ‘Kongbucks’, a currency controlled by one of the national franchise companies.

An example of Stephenson’s humor, when all of this is being explained to the reader it is following Hiro, the main protagonist, performing his day job in the high stakes, high reward, fast paced life of pizza delivery. The idea is that since the country is being run by companies, the ‘30 minutes or it’s free’ pizza motto is a critically important promise given by Uncle Enzo, the leader of the company that has the monopoly on pizza delivery, and failing to meet that promise is practically unthinkable. To that end pizza delivery has become a much more serious profession then we think of it now (clearly a bit of lampooning by Stephenson).

Snow Crash takes place in two worlds, the real world, called ‘Reality’ in the book, and in an internet connected virtual reality world called the ‘Metaverse’. Stephenson actually first coined the term metaverse, which obviously other companies have used since then (similar to Gibson first coining the term ‘cyberspace’ in Neuromancer). The ‘Snow Crash’ itself is a virus that exists in both the metaverse, with the ability to crash computers, and in Reality in that it can crash the minds of individuals. How such a virus can exist is a major focus of the novel, and there is quite a bit of justification with ties back to ancient Sumerian history and culture, and the legend of the Tower of Babel.

Overall I loved the books humor, fast pace, and setting. Also the arching ‘issue’ of the virus was done very well, and the antagonist was well thought out. I did have a couple of issues however. I won’t spoil the ending of the book, but I felt that the stories resolution wasn’t done well. Namely I don’t think it really tied up all of the problems that the book proposes, it just kind of ends. I think this is at least partly because when this book was published computer literacy wasn’t common at all, and there was only a small subset of people that really interfaced with computers as much as the characters in the book do. That’s obviously quite different now, so I think there are a number of plot holes that may not have been obvious in the early 90s that are a lot more obvious nowadays.

Secondly, I didn’t really feel that any of the characters (especially Hiro, the protagonist) had any form of character arc or character development. For Hiro, I felt the arc was mostly: this guy is awesome at the beginning of the book, he gets progressively more awesome as the story goes on, and by the end he’s considerably more awesome then he was even at the beginning. It works for the story and it’s not an uncommon trope for sci-fi (a lot of sci-fi doesn’t really rely on strong character stories, but instead discusses the idea of different technologies or settings), but it was just something I noticed.

With all that said, I would happily read this book again, and I’m very glad I picked it up. Well worth the read!