Book fifteen: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I like Neal Stephenson's books a lot. I loved Cryptonomicon and I really enjoyed Quicksilver and The Confusion, the first two novels in his three-volume Baroque Cycle. I haven't got around to the 900+ page finale, The System of the World, but I will do eventually. Snow Crash is Stephenson's third novel and the book which made his name. It isn't as good as his more recent work but it's still enjoyable and, like all his books, packed with ideas.

It's the ideas which make Snow Crash so significant today. A substantial part of the book takes place in the Metaverse, a virtual reality successor to the internet in which 3D avatars interact in a computer-generated world. Stephenson is widely credited with coining the term 'avatar' to refer to an online representation of a person and his vision of the Metaverse is now being realised in Second Life.

Indeed, Snow Crash is about to be distributed within Second Life. However, Stephenson is happy to share the credit. In his acknowledgments Stephenson says a Commodore 64 game called Habitat, which predates Snow Crash, included avatars and many of the features of the Metaverse. He says he didn't become aware of the game until after his book was published.

Snow Crash centres on a hacker who goes by the name of Hiro Protagonist and lives in an ultra-corporate future America. The government is largely ineffective, there are no laws and the country has been carved-up by franchises that run every aspect of life. Hiro is a pizza delivery man for the mafia when the novel opens but we soon learn that he is also a computer expert and one of the architects of the Metaverse.

When an old friend is struck down in the Metaverse by a strange new drug/computer virus called Snow Crash, Hiro sets out to discover what happened. The answer involves theories about the roots of language and the spread of religion in ancient society as well as a heavy dose of computer science.

Stephenson's plots are usually sprawling and tend to ramble but in Snow Crash he hasn't yet learned how to make that work in his favour. In Cryptonomicon in particular there are great moments of revelation as you realise what Stephenson has been building up to; those moments are sadly lacking here.

And while there is plenty of action in Snow Crash, the set pieces are nowhere near as entertaining as, say, the raid on Pearl Harbour in Cryptonomicon or the pirate ship battle in The Confusion.

Still, this is a fun read and, while the writing is not great, it's worth reading for the dazzling ideas.