Readers considering whether they should read Neal Stephenson’s breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, would do well to read the novel’s opening chapters about the Deliverator. Rarely has a sales pitch been so blatantly — and so masterfully — launched at the start of a novel. Even James Bond must envy such a rich opening gambit.
For some readers, the remainder of Snow Crash will not live up to the pacing of the opening sequence. In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that Stephenson’s hero, Hiro Protagonist — who carries a katana and who is supposed to be “type A on steroids” — does not live up to his introduction. Yet, the style and sheer attitude of the opening is a joy to read, and this mood, which skates the line between irony and geek enthusiasm, is maintained throughout.
The plot is a little complicated, but one of the more important details is that “Snow Crash,” a computer virus, can infect the minds of hackers. It turns out that it also has ties to Sumerian religion, and Hiro will have to infiltrate a floating city in the ocean to find the cure. In other words, the infodumps are both varied and interesting.
The characters are memorable, though they may strike some readers as flat. In all fairness, most of them are more like two or three flat characters, mashed up. Hiro Protagonist, for example, is one part hacker, one part samurai. His sidekick, Y.T., is one part skater, one part (surprisingly dedicated) courier. Hiro’s nemesis, Raven, is one part biker, one part nuclear power. Uncle Enzo is one part mafia, one part… uncle. At times, the ingredients are easy to spot, but it did not prevent me from enjoying the story.
Snow Crash was written when Stephenson still had hair, so many readers devote considerable amounts of energy to weighing how successfully Snow Crash, published in 1992, anticipates the 21st century. To some extent, any cyberpunk novel will face these considerations, and, of course, comparisons between Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer are probably also inevitable. Who is the more prophetic? Well, it is hard to miss that the Metaverse seems a lot like “Second Life,” which was launched in 2003. Stephenson also anticipates the way that social networks’ early adopters have more influence than later adopters do. Last but not least, Stephenson’s descriptions are informed by his ability to write code. Still, it’s been a long time since I last saw a guarantee to deliver my pizza within thirty minutes or “your money back.”
Actually, I’m not convinced that accurate predictions distinguish speculative fiction. And for what it’s worth, I found that Snow Crash recalled Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs more than it recalled William Gibson’s early novels. Although readers often wonder how intuitive Coupland, Gibson, and Stephenson are about what’s to come, I was struck by how representative of the 90s Stephenson’s work remains. In fact, Snow Crash feels like the 90s in the same way that Microserfs does. The concern over new viruses, the skater culture, and even Vitaly and the Chernobyls’ music all recall the 90s. Though Stephenson’s detractors are quick to point out that he has a coarse touch with characters and endings, they should acknowledge that he has an uncanny sensitivity to the age he is writing in.
These discussions of prophecy and genre influence are ultimately beside the point. Yes, it is impressive how much of the blueprint behind Stephenson’s later novels like The Confusion, Anathem, and Reamde can be found in Snow Crash. The infodumps, the sitcom-like romantic guidelines for geeks everywhere, and the dry humor that distinguish Stephenson’s mainstream successes are all on display in Snow Crash. More importantly, Snow Crash is an engrossing read, one that I finished and thought I’d like to return to in five years, which is why Snow Crash remains required reading for cyberpunk and speculative fiction fans.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of Snow Crash, which was skillfully read by Jonathan Davis. At times, Stephenson is willing to rely on stereotypical characters, such as mafia boss Uncle Enzo. Davis boldly adopts accents that remain faithful to the original text. Although I felt that he struggled to represent the high octane of the opening sequence, I otherwise enjoyed the remainder of his performance, particularly his reading of the Librarian and, surprisingly, of Y.T. My only complaint with this production is the sound effects that Brilliance Audio used to divide chapters, which here felt too close to the campy “sci fi” sound effects on my smart phone’s alarm clock.
This is probably my favorite cyberpunk novel of all time, but “cyberpunk” really doesn’t capture the book’s range. It runs the gamut of the Metaverse and avatars, skate punks, an anarcho-capitalist Balkanized United States, super-cool technology, neurolinguistic viruses, hacker communities, burbclaves, ancient Sumerian mythology, Aleutian harpoonist super assassins, the Church of Happyology, and last but not least, Uncle Enzo’s Cosa Nostra Pizza, where your pizza is delivered in less than 30 minutes or Uncle Enzo, the Mafia boss owner, will fly by helicopter to apologize to you in person. And the driver’s life is forfeit.
The opening chapters feature Hiro Protagonist, Last of the Freelance Hackers and Greatest Swordfighter in the World, as he strives to deliver a Pizza with 20 min already on the clock, in his black, kick-ass Deliverator vehicle, which sounds like the Batmobile customized for delivering hot pizza pies. That’s because America can only do four things well in the 21st century: music, movies, software, and high-speed pizza delivery.
I challenge anyone to name a better, more hilarious, or adrenaline-pumping opening to a SF novel than Snow Crash. Every quip and detail is perfect, and the narrator’s cool, ironic delivery is so smooth I want to stand up and give a fist-pump. It was mind-blowing in 1992, and it still holds up well in 2015.
I also chose Snow Crash for my first audiobook, and it’s great to hear it read by Jonathan Davis, though I think he struggled to do “ethnic” accents, which always end up sounding stereotyped. It took a while to get used to listening rather than reading, and I sometimes lost track of the story because it is packed with info-dumps, side-stories, and random esoteric discussions. So if you are new to audiobooks, this book might not be the best place to start. It is however the perfect way to reacquaint yourself with books you read many years back.
The plot is complicated and wide-ranging, featuring descriptions of American cultural decline, info-dumps, lessons in linguistics, religion, ancient Sumerian mythology, hacker culture, a brilliant description of the utter futility of a government job, a ridiculous religious cult that encourages speaking in tongues, and a giant floating group of refugees on rafts intending to invade the US in search of a better life.
Is there a plot, you say? Well of course there is. Just don’t ask me to describe it! It does involve a virus targeting hackers called Snow Crash, which is also being spread by the Church of Happyology, which is owned by fiber-optic mogul L. Bob Rife, and attempts to use the nam-shub of Enki to counteract the ancient Metavirus spawned by the Sumerian goddess Asherash. Does that clear it up any? Didn’t think so.
It doesn’t really matter, because the joy of this book is in the telling and the characters. Hiro Protagonist the hacker and swordfighter, Y.T. the young skate punk and courier, Raven the super-assassin, Uncle Enzo the kindly mob-boss. What more could you ask for? And the snarkiest, geekiest, and most interesting character is Neal Stephenson, the author. All his crazy ideas are wonderfully embedded in every chapter, every sentence. You always know when you are reading a Stephenson novel, because his narrative voice is unique. And unlike William Gibson in Neuromancer, he has a great sense of humor and doesn’t take himself so seriously. If you haven’t already read this essential work of 1990s cyberpunk, then get cracking!