Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: Snow Crash (1992)

I didn't want Snow Crash to stop. I wanted to read more about Hiro Protagonist, Y.T., Uncle Enzo, and the other characters who made up this spectacular universe. I hoped Neal Stephenson would go on about his brilliant premise that combined history, archaeology, computer science, cryptography, and religion into a mind-bending knapsack of hidden delights that I continue to unpack in my mind, even now. Alas, every story must end. But getting there is just the beginning.

The novel opens with a vivid description of a post-government America. Private corporations and franchises operate as autonomous entities within the former states, and it's a dangerous world out there. The two main characters, hacker Hiro and courier Y.T., meet under adverse circumstances. The two reunite when they realize the other would be a terrific partner for all sorts of moneymaking schemes: Hiro can program anything, and Y.T. is a tiny escape artist and speed demon. Meanwhile, a new drug called Snow Crash begins to circulate among the hacker community, and unlikely alliances form to combat a threat to both reality and the virtual world of the Metaverse.

Snow Crash immerses readers in a world of high technology and brash characters. In the book, computer users can plug into the virtual world of the Metaverse, where hackers like Hiro steal information to sell to the highest bidder. While the Metaverse is cool, and Stephenson nailed it--in 1992!--with his descriptions of avatars in virtual reality, the best technology in Snow Crash has to be the Rat Things. They're robot guard dogs that have a long tail like a rat, and whenever they come into a scene, the narrative voice switches over to their point of view. For example, here's Fido: "Once there was a nice girl who loved him. That was before, when he lived in a scary place and he was always hungry and many people were bad to him. But the nice girl loved him and was good to him. Fido loves the nice girl very much."

Spoiler alert: Since Rat Things are surgically augmented pit bull terriers that can run 700+ miles per hour, you better hope you're the nice girl, and not the villain threatening her.

Snow Crash also treats readers to a unique interpretation of the legend of the Tower of Babel and the development of human languages. I recommend picking up the book to read about Asherah, Enki, and their ongoing battle through the ages--biolinguistic virus versus neurolinguistic hacking, this time in the form of Snow Crash and its eventual counterprogram, Snow Cone. Just kidding. The antivirus is called something else.

The novel culminates in two separate chase and fight scenes, as Hiro and Y.T. become separated. Both scenarios are exciting, well written, and have satisfying resolutions. I'm a huge fan.

My first Stephenson novel was Cryptonomicon, because Husband-elect practically launched it at my face via cannon when he realized that (a) I read sci-fi, and (b) I'm from the Philippines. Cryptonomicon differs from Snow Crash in that Stephenson wrote in absolutely everything that could be written about the central theme of cryptography and hidden war gold. By contrast, Snow Crash is a compact, if dense, narrative about language as code.

Finally, unlike when after I finished Cryptonomicon, I do not demand a reward for completing Snow Crash. This time, I demand a reward for not rushing to Stephenson's home in Seattle and begging him to write more.

For now, I'll just have to make do with Diamond Age, the rest of the Baroque Cycle series, and Reamde.