Book review: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

posted: October 31, 2015

tl;dr: A fun, visionary science fiction thriller that succeeds in both the virtual world and the real world

I’ve read some other works by Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon was and still is my favorite of his works that I’ve read so far) but I missed reading Snow Crash when it first came out in 1992. However with the hype surrounding the Oculus Rift, and many folks mentioning how virtual reality and the VR headset were predicted and accurately described by Stephenson in Snow Crash, I decided it was time to give it a read.

I’m glad I did, as I thoroughly enjoyed Snow Crash. It is still relevant and visionary today, plus it is a fun read with much substance to go along with the breakneck pace of action. As with other visionary works that hold up well over the passage of time, it is hard to believe that the author had the foresight to create the work when he did. Back in 1992 the Internet was still primarily an academic and scientific network and the Web was in its infancy: 1995, the year Netscape did its IPO, is often cited as the timeframe when the Web and Internet started achieving mass market consumer recognition and acceptance (and the Internet/dotcom bubble started inflating). There are some aspects of the technology in Snow Crash that seem pleasingly quaint (primarily the use of 8/16 bit numbers, when today we live in a 32/64 bit world), but the vast majority of the technology described was incredibly prescient: multi-user virtual reality worlds and VR headsets, augmented reality (today being realized by products like Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens), wireless broadband Internet connectivity, smart clothing, and self-balancing personal transportation devices.

But Snow Crash is much more than a futuristic thriller with neat toys and gadgets. Stephenson also extrapolates various social trends far forward, reaching what in some cases appear to be absurd situations; yet counterbalanced by the nagging feeling that Stephenson just might be right to some degree in these areas also.

In Snow Crash the U.S. government has collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence to the point where it cannot keep law and order, instead retreating to exercise its authority in armed enclaves of federal buildings. Other institutions including corporations, religions, and organized crime have stepped into the power void, using violence to enforce their own rules within small territories that they control. It’s a bit like the gated community concept on steroids. The inequality between the few at the top and the masses at the bottom has been extrapolated also, with the masses living in converted shipping containers and self-storage facilities and taking refuge from the harshness of the real world through some combination of recreational pharmaceuticals, religious fanaticism, and virtual reality, where individuals can lead better, more enriching lives in the Metaverse.

It’s a fascinating vision, and while it’s not literally true today, there are aspects of it that are definitely recognizable, especially as people spend more time glued to their smartphones, laptops, gaming consoles, and the net, interacting with others online. One could also argue that Stephenson’s vision of the U.S. economy is coming true, when he states that there are only four things the U.S. does better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), and high-speed pizza delivery (I will extrapolate that last one to mean retail and ecommerce as a whole).

Neal Stephenson has a passion for, and knowledge of, technology, and the hero of Snow Crash is a hacker named “Hiro”, so the book has serious hacker credibility. There is also a strong female lead character, a skateboard courier named “Y.T.”, who is street smart and independent, and a variety of other lesser characters, some of whom are parodies and stereotypes used by the author for humorous effect. Stephenson also spends a fair number of pages building up the intellectual underpinnings for the storyline by diving into religions, ancient Sumeria, and archeology. While I don’t know enough about those topics to be able to judge if Stephenson has succeeded in creating an accurate scenario for the plot, I did find it at least plausible, with some suspension of disbelief.

I can definitely recommend Snow Crash to science fictions fans, computer technologists, and others who might be intrigued by a detailed vision of our online society and culture in the near future.