This novel is a bit of everything – part thriller, part historical conspiracy and political intrigue, but mostly sci-fi adventure – Snow Crash is fast paced and fun and I hardly noticed that I just finished 470 pages. The story is set in an alternate present/future where the Unites States of America is little more than a bureaucratic enclave of computer programmers and most of North America is divided up into commercialized subsections run by the Mafia, televangelists, and Asian gangsters, while all kinds of dirty business is carried out through the deliveries made by advanced high-speed skateboard riding couriers. However, most of the world population spends its time not in reality, but the Metaverse, a virtual reality universe where hackers and wannabes create or rent avatars to connect with others and entertain themselves.
The novel’s hero, aptly named Hiro Protagonist, is a half black, half Japanese kitana wielding hacker who works as a pizza delivery guy for the mob in Reality, but in the Metaverse he’s a guru of the hacker world. Hiro is one of the original programmers who knows how to create daemons that clean up his sword fighting carnage and he can make himself invisible to other daemons. Hiro discovers a “drug” within the Metaverse called Snow Crash that acts as a stimulation overload that both crashes the user’s computer and neural network in reality, leaving the user a vegetable. There are connections between this drug and a version of Snow Crash in reality being used by a widely popular and powerful televangelist who is brainwashing his followers.
The story takes some wild leaps that stretch the believability of the plot. Most notably is a drawn out metaphor that attempts to draw linkage between Snow Crash, an infective computer virus, with biological viruses that developed around the time that agriculture was developing in the pre-historical Western World. This entertaining but unbelievable plot line tries to explain that the Sumerian language, the first written historical language in the Western world, was a “pure” language, was easily understood by all humans much like binary language is a “pure” language understood by all computers. Sumerian died away for unknown reasons and often attributed to the myth of the tower of Babel falling and diverging into the many languages spoken in modern time. The rise of the computer age is at a risk of experiencing an Infoapocalypse due to the susceptibilities inherit in the a common binary language. The rise of religion and the rise of the information age are likened to viruses that affect the way humans interact and cohabitate and the foundation of human interaction is at risk due to the potential Infoapocalypse that would arise if Snow Crash were to infect all of humanity. This is all quite an imaginable plot line that weighs more on the side of entertaining than enlightening.
Snow Crash is a little dated in its overzealous reference to a virtual reality Metaverse that requires users to be “goggled” in. When Snow Crash was written in 1992 the promise of the virtual reality as the next form of entertainment was quite a buzz in mainstream media, but as we know today it hasn’t really taken off as was hoped. However, Snow Crash wasn’t far off the mark in imagining a future reality where most of humanity invests more time tied into a computer web to connect with others than actually connecting with others in reality. Isn’t that what you and I are doing this very moment?