Snow Crash

Snow Crash is a novel about hackers. This is fairly obvious, although like in many dramatizations these hackers are not particularly realistic-one is a champion swordsman, which is hard enough to take, and another is a hot chick, which we all know is utterly ridiculous. It is, in fact, a book where they are the elite, or close to it; most of the rich and famous spend a considerable amount of their time plugged into a virtual reality “Metaverse”, and since hackers built it, they exert more influence there. It is also a book about (as the wikipedia page suggests) history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography and philosophy. But while all of these concepts have been dissected and discussed at length in various intellectual circles after the book was published, none of these are the themes of Snow Crash. This is because the true theme of the book is one of those things that are anathema to serious literary critics everywhere.

The theme of Snow Crash is badassery.

But of course, this is obvious, too. How else could it possibly contain [SPOILER ALERT] the aforementioned hacker/greatest swordsman in the world(where “the world” actually refers to the Metaverse: this feat is a lot more understandable given that he wrote the program that simulates sword-fighting in the Metaverse in the first place), 15 year old “air-skateboarding”(for lack of a better term) couriers, pleasantly “reasonable”( a word that will be understood in the intended sense by anyone who has seen/read The Godfather) and understatedly awesome mafia bosses, allusions to 6,000 year old Sumerian mind-hacker(another term that, really, you should just read the book to figure out) gods, induced glossolalia( i.e. being made to speak in tongues, like the early Pentecostals), Aleutian bikers in the mold of Chuck Norris(or Rajinikanth, if you prefer) and…oh, much, much more. The downside is that the plot requires that you either be completely technically ignorant, or read enough science fiction and fantasy to induce that willing suspension of disbelief.

To summarize: in the post-governmental future, the aforementioned unbelievably cool hacker-aptly named Hiro Protagonist- is slumming it by doing odd jobs because he’s too cool to work in “programmer factories”, and finds that his fellow hackers are being brainwashed by a new virus-yes, a computer virus- called “Snow Crash”. Which is also the name of a real world drug. He finds that this is all part of a conspiracy to take over the world:not one that has been going on for several thousand years, like in Foucalt’s Pendulum and the like, just one that USES “technology” from several thousand years ago, which is of course so much more believable. He then proceeds to be awesome and with the help of his equally awesome fellow rebels, takes on the Big Baddy(a larger-than-life Texan media baron with evangelical leanings) and emerges triumphant, rich and paired up with the hot hacker chick.

Obviously, there is a lot more to the book besides the central plot-line. There are interesting illustrations of life in a world where technology renders governments redundant (hardly a libertarian paradise, but not exactly dystopic,either), the idea of viruses/memes/genes in several domains (among others, the concept of franchises as extended from our familiar abbreviations (McDs and KFCs and CCDs) to replace even what we today consider core functions of the state, and of course the kind of biological and informational/computer viruses that are at the core of the book), meta-viruses, panspermia, and many others. There are a whole collection of grotesquely but hilariously stereotyped characters-in fact, there are nothing BUT stereotyped characters, which ought to offend (especially since many of them are ethnic), but don’t.

This is not really a balanced review of the book, and it is very incomplete in some respects. That is because this is the kind of book that it’s very hard to write a “balanced” review about. Many of you will love it. Just as many are likely to hate it. But for those who have a “thing” for science fiction/fantasy/”badassery”, it is definitely worth a read.

A note on the author: Neal Stephenson is a rather famous speculative fiction author who looks like the Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon. What else do you need to know, really? But just in case:

  1. He comes from a family of engineers and hard scientists, who he calls “propellerheads”.
  2. Apart from speculative fiction, he writes articles on technology for Wired.
  3. His books “tend to have elaborate, inventive plots drawing on numerous technological and sociological ideas at the same time”, according to wikipedia.
  4. He writes baroque SF. No, seriously.  He wrote a whole trilogy of them, called, what else, “The Baroque Cycle”.
  5. One of his novels, Cryptonomicon, includes “a lengthy erotic story about antique furniture and stockings.”