Snow Crash: Required reading for cyberpunk and speculative fiction fans

Neal Stephenson Snow CrashNeal Stephenson Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson

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.

Snow Crash — (1992) Publisher: Only once in a great while does a writer come along who defies comparison — a writer so original he redefines the way we look at the world. Neal Stephenson is such a writer and Snow Crash is such a novel, weaving virtual reality, Sumerian myth, and just about everything in between with a cool, hip cybersensibility to bring us the gigathriller of the information age. In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosaNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about Infocalypse. Snow Crash is a mind-altering romp through a future America so bizarre, so outrageous… you’ll recognize it immediately.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this, because it reminds me that I want to re-read it. I remember being completely blown away by that opening, and referring to Stephenson as a “total style king” as I recommended the book (to everyone). I loved Y.T. and Raven and their… relationship? And I loved Hiro.

  2. This book has been on and off my TBR list for years. The listed characters sound like I would like it.

  3. Great review, my son has been suggesting this one to me for quite a while, based on that and the description, I’ll add it to me TBR list.

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