Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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I finished reading Snow Crash in around three weeks, slightly faster than the other comparable work I’ve read this year, which was Neuromancer. Comparable of course only in the sense that they both have some kind of worldwide internet-like network as a central plot point. Otherwise, they are not really that similiar, though the review is made easier by having a base for comparison. Snow Crash is much less cyberpunk than Neuromancer, and maybe takes itself a little less seriously too? I mean, the main character’s name is “Hiro Protagonist”, so that ought to tell you something immediately.

Snow Crash was published in 1992, while Neuromancer came out in 1984, so definitely the latter book does take a bit of inspiration from the older one, in terms of cyberspace. The version here in Snow Crash is called “Metaverse”, and it is actually more akin to a shared virtual reality, much like you were plugged in to a MMORPG such as World of Warcraft. Users of the Metaverse even use goggles to participate, something that only became possible in reality during the last 5 years or so. Hiro in this case is one of the premiere hackers of the metaverse, having contributed a lot to the functionality of the virtual world.

This is only the second Stephenson book I’ve read, after Cryptonomicon waaaay back in 2004. I was worried that I would encounter the same issues I had with Cryptonomicon here - the general wordiness and the slow pace. Thankfully, Snow Crash turned out to be faster paced and easier to follow than the other book. The plot moves along at a reasonable clip, and revolves almost exclusively around the actions of Hiro and his partner, the Kourier who calls herself Y.T. (for “Yours Truly”) as they navigate this strange world where the United States has suffered from a severe economic collapse and had to cede parts of California to what are now a bunch of autonomous and sovereign microterritories, many of them belonging to private franchises with colorful names such as “Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong” or “The Mafia”.

The core of the plot revolves around linguistics, history, archaeology, computer science, and such (unsurprising given the subject matter of Cryptonomicon). It uses this idea that an ancient civilization was able to use language can be used to propagate a “virus” throughout society by hacking the human brain, in the same way that code can propagate a virus through a computer network. The bad guy in this story is trying to use this concept of a virus derived from an ancient language to control people and create an all-powerful religion with him at the helm.

The book’s title “Snow Crash” is the name of a digital “drug” that the bad guy distributes throughout the Metaverse to target hackers. The drug is actually a digital image of random black and white bits (a bit like what a TV/monitor looks like when it loses a signal in those days, literally a crash that looks like snow) that affects hackers’ brains in a certain way. I guess I shouldn’t spoil any more.

My one complaint would be the ending felt abrupt, although everything was wrapped up neatly, it all happened mostly outside the purview of our protagonists. I do like it more than Cryptonomicon, which was a later book of his (published in 1999). This one felt easier to grok.

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