Snow Crash is a well-crafted, tongue-in-cheek romp through a near-future America so familar, one expects to see its characters chasing each other down the street.
Set mostly in geographic California with arterial highways delivering consumers to the fast food, faster shopping, and even small country franchises, a very modern, ancient Sumerian virus is turning hackers and non-hackers alike into tongue-speaking refugees.
Throw in the Metaverse, Stephenson's version of the global information structure. A three-dimensional audio and visual hallucination built around the mystical powers-of-two, cartoon physics rule the day. Rent a cheap avatar for a stroll down the main street. Ride your motorcycle at 300 km/h and bounce harmlessly off of a 20-mile square building. Just don't read the scroll held by the Bland Angel of Judgment.
Further complicating matters is a slew of divergent and entertaining characters. Your guide through this journey is the unlikely Hiro Protagonist (no, really!), a once and future hacker wonderboy who took off before the IPO and now delivers pizza for the Mafia (thirty minutes or less or you're fired). Joining him is the ever resourceful Y.T., a teenaged Kourier skateboarding her way through traffic by harpooning cars.
Want more? How about the surprisingly boyish Uncle Enzo, head of aformentioned Mafia, or L. Bob Rife, fantastically wealthy crank, founding funder of Rife Bible College and current owner of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. Perhaps you'd like to meet Mr. Lee, proprietor of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong Franchise, or stop to pet Rat Thing, a supersonic isotope-powered cybernetic pit bull. Pushing forward the plot is a Metaverse librarian and Raven, a one-man killing machine and nuclear power.
Sounds serious? Perhaps. Complicated? Enjoyably so.
What's good?The writing is crystal clear and very descriptive. Stephenson never gets lost in the details, and is as comfortable relating various myths about Babel as technical descriptions of the Graveyard Daemons cleaning up unfortunate Metaverse corpses. They fit together into an interesting, if complicated puzzle. He's also highly creative and well-researched, much like Neil Gaiman. It would take a serious student of a particular field to spot an error in his work (except for the strange 'Built-In Operating System' acronym).
What's not so good?There's one piece of the backstory (concerning the parentage of a couple of characters) which is a little too convenient... it makes the story more effective, but it was an obvious dramatic advice. The ending might leave some readers a cold. Frankly, it's quick. Very quick. All of the pieces had been in place for a hundred pages (no MacGuffin here), but it's still a surprise. Stephenson is better at creating a believable yet outrageous world and populating it with appropriate characters than he is at telling an airtight story. Don't be fooled -- he's no slouch in the story department, but the draw of "Snow Crash" is Stephenson's fertile imagination. All things considered, these are very small nitpicks.
What's to think about when you finish?This is a story about dualities. There's a reason for the 'powers of two' lecture early on. The obvious schism is the organized technocracy of the Metaverse contrasted with the hyperinflationary franchised real world.
Pit Hiro against Raven. One reluctantly saves the world he helped create, the other seeks to destroy the world that created him. How about Uncle Enzo versus Rife? Ng and Rat Thing? YT and ... well, everybody else.
The Conclusion.Given the quality and density of Snow Crash, it's easy to recommend this work as a defining piece of SF. If you consider yourself a serious cyberpunk fan, hacker, or geek, you ought to feel guilty until you read it.
Note: as with most cyberpunk pieces, Snow Crash contains quite a bit of harsh language, some violence, and one sexual encounter. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Thanks to Chilli for additional insights during this review.
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