Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Snow Crash (by Neal Stephenson)

I really ought to be quicker than this. I finished Snow Crash (by Neal Stephenson, 1992) a couple of weeks ago and meant to write about it, but being the procrastinator that I am, I saved a draft and spent the next two weeks not finishing it off. Which is not to say that I couldn't be bothered because I didn't like the book, which I did. Quite a bit actually.

Snow Crash was Neal Stephenson's breakout novel - it's a cyberpunk sci-fi story set in the near future. In this future, America has changed drastically - both economically and politically. Corporations are omnipresent and powerful and are substitutes for the government, providing privatized policing and defence. There are several sovereign states throughout the country that are 'franchised' in various physical locations, in much the same way fast food outlets are franchised. The equivalent of the Internet is the 'Metaverse', which is a universe that is experienced via VR technology, and in which people interact using graphical avatars and can lead a whole other virtual life.

The heroes of our story are Hiro Protagonist, a 30-something sword wielding hacker and ex pizza delivery guy, and Y.T., a teenage girl who is a 'Kourier' - a type of professional courier that uses a skateboard as their mode of transport. The book follows these two characters as they become embroiled in separate (but possibly connected) adventures. The plot revolves around a mysterious new Metaverse virus called Snow Crash that can somehow afflict people in the real world. At the same time, a real world virus is being distributed by some shady religious franchises that cause people to 'babble' in a strange language. A shady figure named Raven and a powerful communications magnate may be involved.

Snow Crash is a mystery / thriller filled with technology and littered with pop culture references. It delves into hacking, religion, the workings of both a virtual world and a futuristic 'anarcho-capitalist' (who says you don't learn anything from sci-fi?) society, and quite deeply into Sumerian mythology. I felt that the world building and thematic explorations were the book's strong point - the characterization and plotting, while far from bad, don't quite achieve the same standard. Stephenson's writing style is dry and descriptive, which I figure is appropriate for a cyberpunk novel. It is also laced with very effective black humour througout, and the situations the hapless Hiro gets himself into and improbably gets himself out of are hilarious (this is in stark contrast to Y.T, who always seems to have some control over a given situation).

To conclude, I will say that I had a great time reading this, and even though I'm familiar with most of the concepts presented in the book in some form or another, I still found it to be interesting. It might not be the type of book that non geeks will enjoy, but for those whose neural pathways have been forged in geek foundries (whatever the hell that means), it's like manna from heaven.

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