Book Review: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

I tend to stick to new and upcoming books when I write reviews, but I found myself with a rare gap in my blogging schedule and decided to fit a classic in. I’ve had Snow Crash sat on my shelf for a while now, so it seemed like the perfect time to finally get to it. Could it live up to the hype?

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

Set in a future where the United States is divided between warring franchises, Snow Crash opens with an introduction to one of the two main characters – freelance hacker Hiro Protagonist, in his role as “The Deliverator,” one of the Mafia’s pizza delivery guys. Because yes, one of these franchises is Nova Sicilia, a pizza chain, and it’s run by the Mafia. Oh, and there’s the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates, Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, MetaCops Unlimited… Stephenson mines a rich vein of satire with his depiction of a country overrun by big business, with everything that can be privatised – including plenty of things that definitely shouldn’t be – sold to the highest bidder. The sheer amount of varying franchises with their distinct names and identities contribute to making this a richly detailed world.

If she screws up this delivery, that means she’s double-crossing God, who may or may not exist, and in any case who is capable of forgiveness. The Mafia definitely exists and hews to a higher standard of obedience.

And that’s before you even set foot inside the Metaverse. Stephenson’s take on virtual reality (a term he wisely decided just wouldn’t cut it for him) is like a very flashy communal lobby area in an MMO, with data storage and communication. It’s a VR internet, I guess is the best way to describe it. As someone who had a hand in helping to programme parts of it, Hiro is a formidable opponent within the Metaverse, with those who cross him left in little doubt as to why his business card proclaims him to be the greatest sword fighter in the world. But he’s no slouch in real life either, easily capable of holding his own against his many assailants.

Y.T is our other guide through this dizzying world, a skateboard kourier with attitude to spare. She makes her living delivering packages for RadiKS, electromagnetic harpoon in hand ready to hitch a lift on passing cars as they speed by. Armed with an array of colourfully named personal defence equipment, Y.T. is just as adept at Hiro at getting herself out of the scrapes she frequently finds herself in. Together, they make for a potent partnership. Which is handy, because if they’re going to have any chance of tackling the latest drug craze – Snow Crash – they’re going to need to be on the top of their game.

My personal copy. Index notes indicate something I found really cool. As you can see, I used so many I had to switch colours.

Snow Crash, you see, is not like other drugs. It’s a cyberdrug, capable of infecting a person within the Metaverse, then being spread in the real world. If everything in this review up until now has made this book sound like throwaway, disposable entertainment, well, strap in, because now it’s going to get WEIRD.

Snow Crash is so much deeper than a cursory reading of the blurb (or a gushing review written by a new fan) can accurately convey. The titular drug of the title requires a fair bit of explanation, which I am not even going to attempt to summarise here, touching as it does on ancient religions, philosophy, linguistics, programming and more. Some might find some of the more academic theological asides a little slower and drier than proceedings had been up until this point. Personally, I loved them, finding them really interesting diversions. Rest assured though, Stephenson has your back – should you struggle to keep everything straight in your head when there’s this much information at large, there’s a conversation Hiro has later on that essentially summarises everything in a really considerate way.

Snow Crash is a perfect distillation of all those classic cyberpunk themes – all powerful corporations, the devaluing of human life and the individual, all pervasive technology, constant surveillance, and so on, wrapped up in a package that’s gleeful, anarchic fun and packs a philosophical, political and satirical wallop. I can’t praise it highly enough. When I became too tired to keep reading it, I cursed my eyes for their treachery, then dreamt in neon. By the time I reached the end, I was a convert to Neal Stephenson, and ready to declare that Snow Crash has taken its place in my own personal top tier of favourite science fiction novels.

Snow Crash is available now, and in fact has been for years. If you are at all excited by this review, it’s available through this affiliate link.

Currently listening: True North, Borknagar

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

  1. […] A freewheeling, breakneck journey through a stylish vision of the future, Snow Crash established its author Neal Stephenson as a major talent. It featured all the things readers had come to love about cyberpunk already laid down by its early visionaries – rebellion, all-powerful corporations, cyberspace, AI and so on – and injected it with a big shot of anarchic, self-aware fun. I mean, you can’t call one of your main characters Hiro Protagonist without people wondering just how serious you’re being, you know? Don’t let the jokes fool you though – Stephenson addresses a lot of big ideas here. Religion and linguistics come into play heavily, particularly later on, and there are several extremely poignant moments of philosophical musing. In between the hacking, slashing and general mayhem that seems to accompany Hiro and skateboarding teen Y.T. wherever they go, there’s a lot of food for thought. I’m a big fan, as you can see in this review. […]

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