In the fall of 2006, I was a junior in college. My communications professor mentioned something about a virtual world called Second Life. He described it as this odd, rapidly-evolving, user-driven experiential environment where people could create and do anything. Bands like Depeche Mode were using it to conduct virtual concerts. Companies, from Boeing to Reuters to IBM, were building virtual presences and hiring staff to work exclusively in the online world. It was the beginning of a new age of creativity, education, conversation, and connectivity.
Ultimately, despite its potential, it faded in popularity. While the world still exists, it does so as a shadow of the futuristic beast it once was.The thing is, it wouldn’t have happened at allwithout Snow Crash. Second Life’s founder has said so himself. Snow Crash coined terms like metaverse, and popularized words like avatar. It was aptly prophetic about the rise in popularity of virtual reality tech, internet culture, and MMO communities. It envisioned a cyberspace environment way beyond the capabilities of available technology when it was published in 1992. And it told a complex, woven, semi-satirical story that explored religion, philosophy, linguistics, technology, myth, and memetics, showcasing a world where rail guns exist, people pay a trillion dollars for a pizza, and the United States has ceded governmental power to operate as a collective of independently-owned corporate city-states. It features characters like the ridiculously-named Hiro Protagonist, an out-of-work high-speed Mafia pizza delivery driver who moonlights as a hacker and is the self-proclaimed “greatest swordfighter in the world.” What’s not to like?
As with most techy science fiction, there are parts of Snow Crash that now seem silly. Certain terms which have since become part of standard lexicon are defined as if we wouldn’t know their meaning. Some technological prophecies didn’t evolve the way the author surmised. But as a complete effort, the minor, to-be-expected elements which date Snow Crash don’t detract from what remains a brilliantly-conceived postcyberpunk effort. The book begins obnoxiously: fast, outlandish, action-packed, goofy, sardonic, and plain fun. It draws you in from the first page. As the world expands, the excitement breaks down. The richness of the story unfolds on these pages but the narrative washes back and forth between fictional excitement and preachy scientific/linguistic education. There are moments of exposition that feel as if they go on forever, but they are fortunately punctuated by enough movement to keeps the engagement steady. Fans of modern sci-fi would still appreciate much of Snow Crash.
All the observations Snow Crash makes in its various fields of study remain thought-provoking in 2020. The idea of an America that has been sold off, piece by piece, to private corporations with the biggest bankrolls is a form of dystopia the modern reader can still appreciate.
Stephenson, it should be noted, is not a writer everyone will like. His novels are an acquired taste; they are essentially large-scale ideas and concepts that are fleshed out for digestion by way of fictional characters, loosely used to tell some semblance of a story. His books also don’t have endings. So, you know, that’s kind of weird. They just sort of stop. Some love his style, and others hate it. I’ve never actually read any of his other works, but I knew these things about the author going into Snow Crash, so none of it came as a surprise.
In with the old? If you’re down with Stephenson-type writing, for sure. This is still one to read in 2020.