Book Review: Snow Crash

Rating: ❄️📉

My experiences took on a different texture while I read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. The hyper-privatized, segmented-but-uniform world in which the plot unfolds gave me greater than usual mistrust for every McDonalds, gated community, and Airport shopping corridor.

As usual, spoilers ahead.

I loved the characters in Snow Crash. A mutant Aleut killer who uses glass knives and has a Hydrogen bomb synced to go off if he’s killed. A Black/Korean swordsman hacker named “Hiro Protagonist”. A badass 15 year old delivery girl who rips around at highway speeds on a skateboard and goes by YT (“Yours Truly”). A Mafia boss Vietnam vet who operates the most efficient pizza delivery franchise on Earth. A bespectacled digital Librarian with instant access to all Earth’s knowledge, drawing eerie parallels to ChatGPT. Lightspeed distributed robot dogs called “Rat Things” that protect Hong Kong franchises. There are no boring characters.

There were boring sections, however. I found the long and detailed exposition of exactly what the “Snow Crash” virus did, where it came from, and the winding logic connecting Sumerian water gods to neurolinguistic viruses pretty tedious. It sort of felt like mixing a Michael Bay movie with the History channel (yes, including Ancient Aliens).

Some of the more egregious quotes from these parts of the book:

if you stare into a person’s pupil, you can see the terminal of the brain

He also has a digital metavirus, in binary code, that can infect computers, or hackers, via the optic nerve…he found it in space…the metavirus is everywhere. Anywhere life exists…originally it was spread around on comets.

It was like, dude, can you just get on with the awesome parts of your story already please?

For a novel published in 1992, it’s fun to see what was predicted to be easy and hard, deprecated and still relevant in the 21st century dystopian future. The AR/VR and Librarian-GPT elements are spooky accurate. It almost makes me question how much of modern companies’ future vision is based off Snow Crash’s world rather than Stephenson making accurate predictions. Google Earth is basically the Earth program in Snow Crash’s metaverse, and apparently did inspire Google engineers directly. Other parts, like the continued ubiquity of paper, the ultra high tech skateboard wheels, and the briefcase sized gatling guns were a bit more off.

I found the fate of the government in the Snow Crash world both funny and upsetting. YT’s mom’s abuse at the hands of her fed employers and the bureaucratic death march of programming in the government setting feels less inevitable to me than the cannibalization of society at the hand of private profit motives. At the same time, well meaning people replacing money and respect with loyalty to their work in government and social-good-adjacent non-profits and companies is a familiar story. We really need to make these positions higher status in the real world. “All” it would take is higher salaries, I think.

I really liked the combination of youth skate culture and the representation of a unified working class. The Kouriers defined coolness, disrespect for authority, and extreme competence - the glue holding society together. The Code Red that rescued YT at the end showed that they also embodied extreme solidarity.

I felt like the novel ended too soon. It felt like the hydrogen bomb should have either gone off or been defused - a crippled but free Raven at the end was unsatisfying. On the other hand, I think we all got the idea, and I did like that not all foreshadowed elements (like Uncle Enzo’s dog tags) had concrete payoffs.

Overall, I loved the book and look forward to reading more Stephenson.