Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Set in 21st century Los Angeles, Snow Crash introduces a lawless, violent and anarchic world where the mafia, mega corporations and endless franchises have filled the power vacuum left by a washed-out federal government. The army, church and security services have long since been privatised, traditional manufacturing is dead, and Corporate America only really excels at pizza delivery, entertainment and software. Snow Crash is a vertiginous tale of corporate greed pushing many of the traditional Cyberpunk tropes to their extreme.

Hiro Protagonist is a deliverator, an armed delivery driver, who delivers Pizzas for CosaNostra Pizza, a mafia controlled mega-corporation whose business interests span everything from pizzas to a data mining. Hiro is also a hacker. He freelances for what is now a privatised CIA, and as a founding member of The Black Sun, an exclusive club in the multiplayer virtual world of the Metaverse, he is a respected character in the anarchic tech community. His katana sword wielding skills come in use both in the Metaverse and in the real world of lawless Los Angeles. When one of Hiro’s friends, Da5vid, is given a datafile named Snow Crash in the Metaverse – thinking it is a recreational drug – and then dies as a result of brain damage in the real world from viewing it, the quest to unearth the origin of the drug begins. Hiro partners up with Y.T., an equally fierce female deliverator, and with help from the Mafia, they start to hone in on the tech entrepreneur L. Bob Rife and his franchised church business which seem to play a crucial role in the spreading of the drug/virus, a mind-controlling weapon targeting programmers in particular.

As a key Post Cyberpunk text, Snow Crash incorporates trademark Cyberpunk themes such as nefarious mega-corporations, the mafia, dystopian claustrophobia, console cowboys, drugs and music. Stephenson however pushes the format to an extreme, almost absurd and consequently often humorous level. Whether it is the extremity to which deliverators will go to ensure a fast delivery, the relentless proliferation of franchise businesses, or the size of L. Bob Rife’s superyacht, formerly the the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, the wheels seem to come off the narrative at every turn of the page. Snow Crash is representative of a fast-paced, exuberant style of over-abundance which can also be found in the accelerationist dynamic that drives Charles Stross’ Accellerando (2005), as well as the abject consumerism of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). Snow Crash is in many ways a parody and critique of the neo-liberal politics of Reaganomics and Thatcherism.

Stephenson’s Metaverse has not only lend its name to today’s online metaverse –a network of 3D virtual worlds – but it also accounts for his cult status in Silicon Valley: the book was required reading for the team behind the development of Xbox Live, and it has directly inspired the online virtual worlds of Active Worlds (1995) and Second Life (2003). In Snow Crash users plug in via their computer and a set of googles, entering the virtual world from a first-person perspective, interacting with avatars in an urban environment that also hosts independently run programs known as daemons (popularised in The Matrix). Hiro primarily uses his time in the Metaverse to communicate with his tech friends, keeping up with the latest gossip. Some users choose to wear portable terminals and goggles around the clock, spending all their time immersed in the Metaverse, yet another example of Stephenson’s signature style of excess.