Thu
Apr 14 2011 3:46pm

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash: ‘92’s Eerie Cyber-Prophet

Snow Crash by Neal StephensonThere are numerous types of dystopia, from socially-flawed super-advanced space faring civilizations to medieval re-imaginations. But, I think, one of the most frightening of dystopias is the one that is in the near future, and seems to be getting closer and closer. Snow Crash kind of fits that bill. Despite being written in 1992, there is still a lot in that book that resonates with today and makes it feel like the society Stephenson imagined could still be just around the corner.

Before I get too far in about the actual book, let me set the mood for when this was written. 1992: Bush Sr. was still the President of the United States. The economy was not doing too well, the Cold War was still pretty fresh in people’s minds, Russia was a crazy mess (crazier than it is today), and technology was advancing at a startling rate. Computers were running Windows 3.1, virtual reality was still mostly science fiction, and cell phones were carried around in suit cases, or for the bleeding edge technology, the size of large military two-way radios. Now, with all that in mind, hold onto your pants.

The United States has more or less collapsed. No, that isn’t quite right. It has eaten itself. The Federal Government is still there (heck, the President even has a cameo, although nobody recognizes him until he introduces himself). Businesses have become autonomous nation-states, and everything is privatized, from defense to police to the suburb you live in. The American economy has trundled out of control to the point of trillion dollar bills being worth about as much as a dime today, and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong distributes the preferred money, Kongbucks, although the Japanese Yen is doing pretty well, too. In this dark and sinister age, America only has four things going for it: Movies, Music, Microcode (hacking), and High Speed Pizza Delivery.

Yeah, the last one is thrown in there to let us know to not take things too seriously, but for as tongue in cheek as this novel can be, it has some strong overtones of things there weren’t really around back then and are pretty big issues now. Let us examine:

The Internet

The internet as we really know it did not get off the ground until late 1992, when the Mosaic web browser was developed at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign (the same place that, in the novel 2001, brought HAL online, and where it so happens that I went to college). In Snow Crash, users link into a global network of computers via VR goggles and interact, trade data, go to what amount to 3-D websites, and play games. In fact, a good majority of the story takes place in the Metaverse, as it Stephenson calls it. Oh, and by the by, this network is run over large fiber-optic lines all over the world, but you can jack into it wirelessly, too. Sound familiar?

Cell Phones

Which brings us to cell phones. I remember 1992. As I said above, cell phones were amazing pieces of technology that were kept in small bags (at least the one my dad had in his car was). And here, everyone has a cell phone that is eerily similar to phones of today. Small and powerful. Granted, they don’t have GPS and Metaverse access...unless you consider the new technology the main character gets.

Mobile Computing

Laptop technology in ’92 was not exactly impressive. Color screens were becoming a “common upgrade” in ’91, and don’t forget that laptops have always lagged a bit behind their desktop brethren, and desktops were still nothing to write home about. Yet, Snow Crash has people called Gargoyles: people who have mobile computers on them that can jack into the network on the fly. Not to mention the main character, Hiro Protagonist (get it?), more or less has a fancy laptop in the beginning of the story and gets an even fancier mobile computer that straps to his chest and is more or less invisible later on. Almost sounds like my smartphone. Now, I’m starting to wonder exactly what Stephenson thought you could access from this Metaverse.

Digital Libraries

How about everything? While DVDs were somewhat out of his crosshairs, the digitization of information in general was spot on. From digital video to digital books. At one point, early in the story, we find out the fate of the Library of Congress, which merged with the leftovers of the CIA to become a giant information broker. In the process of this, it is mused over how people rarely think of libraries as places for books.

Small anecdote time. My first job was working in my high school’s library. This was back in ’97. The library barely had a searchable database for books, and most people still used the card catalog. Remember those? Card catalogs? I actually work with people who don’t. But, if we barely had a searchable database in ’97, I bet only the biggest and best funded libraries were even playing with the idea in ’92. Now we have eBooks and the Google Books project, not to mention Project Gutenberg. Then, there is another eerie prediction.

Google Earth

Yes, Stephenson predicted Google Earth, almost down to the interface and with street view. Hiro gets a copy of a program called “Earth” that at high levels has constantly updated satellite imagery, and at the lowest levels you can get images and data from people on the ground. Oh, and if you are in a decently fixed area, such as Manhattan, you can navigate it in three dimensions.

Okay, so this guy predicted technology pretty well, and perhaps a few of the ramifications of it. So what, you say. Even Jules Verne got several things right, including some of the stuff Stephenson is predicting here. What of it? Well, Stephenson’s dystopia had a few other things of interest.

DRM

Digital Rights Management, for those not in the know. Think the huge Napster kerfluffle, or the annoyance of trying to get your iTunes songs to play on a new computer, or how super new DVDs won’t play in older DVD players because the encryption has been changed. The skinny of it is that with data being so easy to reproduce, how does one actually protect and profit off of data they have made? I am sure plenty of people will chime in to be more elaborate.

In Snow Crash, the villain, a telecommunications tycoon, is concerned over this very thing. He has thousands of programmers working for him, and the product they are making for him, the microcode, goes home with them every night. As he sees it, if he was running a car factory, he would not let the workers drive the cars home, or borrow tools. So why do the programmers get to retain the knowledge? It is a bit of a jump forward in DRM extremism, but that, I think, is definitely an intellectual property argument if I ever heard one. You know, in a frightening, broken society where corporations can do whatever the heck they want. Of course, not everyone agrees with our villain.

Rogue Hackers

In the here and now, there is a group called Anonymous that have been in the news lately. Mainstream news doesn’t overly understand what they are. In a romantic sense, you could consider them a kind of digital Robin Hood. When Wikileaks' funding sources were frozen, they crashed PayPal and the databases of Mastercard and Visa in response. Some members assist the protesting citizens in the Middle East, helping them communicate with each other and keeping the avenues to the internet open in spite of their governments. And they occasionally give a backhanded smack to people who nip at them for attention, such as a certain radical Baptist “church.” (It was pretty funny, though. They did it live during an interview.)

In the world of Snow Crash, there are plenty of random hackers, and Hiro, being one of the best, sure has an Anonymous-style attitude of going after The Man. What started as him just trying to squeeze out a buck turned into him becoming a rogue agent that eventually helped to save the day (with the help of a few other hackers).

The Conglomeration of Business

In Snow Crash, all of the world’s telecommunication lines are owned by one man, who ends up being the villain. Franchises and Corporations are the only way to get decent programs of any size out, and if you aren’t part of them, you might as well be the dirt on their boots. Inside the corporations, programmers aren’t even really sure of what they are programming, and are instead being given small, encapsulated bits.

Now, to any modern programmer, that is a “Yeah? So?” This kind of programming is extremely common in big businesses nowadays. I mean, just look at the number of people on the credits list for an Adobe Project, or a large video game. It is rather massive. Except, back in ’92, it was still very common for people to do all their programming themselves. Perhaps a small group could get together for larger projects, like making an operating system, but on the whole, a single person could do the most anything he might want to do. For comparison, look at the game credits on an NES cartridge. So, the “fear” of having to join a programming company is actually pretty understandable to the time. It is a loss of independence.

Memes

Okay, taking a topic jump here. (And I was doing so good at segueing...) Anyway, memes, you know, like lolcats, or “It’s a Trap,” or any of those little bits of information that get stuck in your head and just seem to scream out for you to share them. Sometimes call earworms.

Memes were hardly a new concept when Stephenson used them, although he did manage to avoid using the proper name. The concept of information being able to exhibit virus-like behavior (that is, to infect a host and then disseminate itself to new hosts) was posited back in the early 1900s. The word itself was coined by Richard Dawkins back in ’76, although, let’s be honest, memes didn’t really hit even semi-mainstream until “internet memes” became big.

In truth, the whole conflict of Snow Crash hinges on the concept of the meme, and that there is a basic language in all humans, a sort of assembly or machine language, that if they hear it, will override their consciousness and force them to do things. And all of this is caused by a virus that travels both biologically and informationally. Creepy stuff.

The Dystopia

So, aside from the wild technologies and trends Stephenson saw, there is another reason this book resonates very strongly, at least for me. It sounds awfully familiar, and I don’t mean I’ve read this somewhere before. In the book, the United States has pulled itself apart, re-segregated and decided to more or less ignore the government. Organized crime syndicates actually just start dealing the same as a regular business and can actually offer better security than the cops. The economy is a mess, and the public is only interested in distractions: movies, music, and microcode. (Yes, and pizza.) I’ll admit, I am not quite old enough to exactly remember the global political climate of the early 90s, but as I listed what I do remember above, it sounds a bit like now. Add on mass immigration concerns, religious intolerance concerns, and a distrust of government, and you get a recipe ripe to see the world of Snow Crash as not being all that beyond the realm of the possible. Stephenson’s timing might have been off—he has characters that fought in Vietnam, and the parents of the 30 year old hero and dragon tropes both were in World War II—but perhaps this possible future isn’t that far off after all.

If you haven’t read it, give it a whirl. It might just blow your socks off. Just a word of warning, it does get expositional in places, but the freaky part is, all the places he is talking about ancient Sumer and is dropping names of researchers, yeah, those are actual people he looked up and more or less was regurgitating. So you’ll get some history lessons, too. Not a bad deal.


Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and carrier of more memes than he’d like to think about. He is currently writing a free-to-read illustrated, serialized steampunk novel, The Tijervyn Chronicles, and you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

19 comments
Tony Bussert
1. KingBoo
Great book. One of the best post cyberpunk writers.
mister_ethan
2. mister_ethan
Regarding the prediction of Google Earth, it's also possible that the programmers of Google Earth read Snow Crash in their formative years. Sometimes life imitates art.
Matthew B
3. MatthewB
This is a great book, but you really really really need to pay attention to what Richard said in his second paragraph. Snow Crash must be read as a sort of alternate history, starting at 1992. Otherwise it's just too hard to make the leap of how we got from here to there.
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
Pretty funny. I finished reading this yesterday. Way to go RFife.

Stephenson's intro to the paperback version points out that his book coined the term "Metaverse" and also was the first to use the term "avatar" in the use of representational substitute while on line sense. (Apparently, the term was used in that sense in some non-public studies). Way to be ahead of the curve, Neal. Way ahead.

Other key points that were way ahead of time - hackers, computer viruses, privatization of government assets, government taking liberties with individual rights, efforts to gain access to nonprotected information that could be re-distributed for profit, proliferation of nuclear weapons to nonnational groups, advances in skateboard technology and expansion of X-games style tricks into popular culture, proliferation of cults, increased sexualization of teenagers (the other main protagonist is a 15 year old skateboarding girl - and, no Hiro does not make moves on her - but others do), widespread use of credit/debit transactions...and many, many more.

After I finished the book, I was shocked to learn that it was published in 1992. Unlike Mr. Fife, I remember 1992. We had computers at work but no connectivity with others. No web, no cell phones, barely legible fax machines (we used to use cabs to send original documents from downtown office to folks in suburbs). Baby steps, unlike the huge leaps in Stephenson's book. Remarkable stuff.

Thanks for the excellent review, Richard.

Rob
mister_ethan
5. Deihb'al Chien
Great write up. He was definitely a bit of a prophet and Stephenson always does his research. Not only my favorite Cyberpunk book (move over Neuromancer) but also in the running for my favorite book ever (at least in the top 5). I also think the light tone (Hero Protagonist or high-speed pizza delivery) added to the overall depth and enjoyment without taking away from the seriousness of the story elements. It also made the info-dumps more interesting to people that wouldn't normally read a story of this type (I don't count myself amoung this latter group as I would've likely still been interested as Summerian history coupled with long diatribes surrounding a myriad of technilogical and socialogical topics are right up my alley especially when wrapped in a sci-fi motif).
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
This is a fantastic book. Brain hacking via Sumerian uber memes is quite the concept.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
RobMRobM@4:

Other key points that were way ahead of time - hackers, computer viruses, privatization of government assets, government taking liberties with individual rights.

Hackers were definitely around in 92, viruses were around, just not well known and government takeover from either way has been around a very long time. But, Stephenson gets big kudos for combining them all.The full combining of the metaverse concept with interactive avatars and emotional response is pretty original, although the idea of cyberspace had been around for awhile by this point. He did coin the term 'metaverse.'
And, its all a great deal of fun.
Rikka Cordin
8. Rikka
This book is one where you can read it about six times and still pull new connections out of it. And The Diamond Age just takes up where it left off. So much fun :D

Also, mythology + technology = right up my alley. I consumed this book hella quick and then went back for more. It was actually my first exposure to Stephenson. I now own most of his works >.>
mister_ethan
9. Dank
I enjoyed Snow Crash, but let's not go overboard. Most of these ideas were present in Neuromancer nearly a decade earlier, including the internet, avatars (if not by that name), hackers, etc. What I enjoyed most was the presentation of a liberatarian dystopia, which was an interesting contrast to the totalitarian dystopia in 1994 and others like it.
Erick G
10. Erick G
Amazing. That is all I can think to say. That someone can look at the world and see trends that others sometimes can not, and make predictions like the ones here. I'm not saying this man had a crystal ball or anything, but I'm pretty sure he say how it was all going to go and just pushed the fictional aspect of it a little more. It could have easily been written as a prediction of the future, but instead we get a good story, with some eerie coincidences. I love how dystopian stories seem the best apt at predicting what may come in the future, and how scray accurate they can be.
Chuk Goodin
11. Chuk
I loved Snow Crash. I think the setting and just the plain coolness of some of the scenes were the things that sucked me in. And sure, most of the individual ideas in it had been touched on in other works before, but the combination was new.

Alt-hist with a 1992 branch point seems a good description of it now. I think I read in the afterword that it was originally supposed to be a graphic novel.
Amy G. Dala
12. amygdala11
I do enjoy Neal Stephenson, but I would also love a decent ending for one of his books.

Snow Crash is still a favorite.
Michael Burke
13. Ludon
Just a note on the High speed Pizza Delivery. Back around the early 90s the pizza companies were trying to use fast delivery as a selling point. "In 30 minutes! Or it's free!" This led to safety issues and even several accidents as delivery drivers started running stop signs and red lights to try to beat that 30 minute deadline because late deliveries could and did lead to deductions from their pay. Maybe this is the basis of the High Speed Pizza Delivery gag in the book.
Mani A
14. sn0wcrash
Why yes, I do love this book to bits. That I've had to replace my copy of it twice due to wear & tear probably is a decent indicator of it.
I wouldn't say that it's a great predictor of Things to Come, other than in a very general sense. It is however, a well written novel that is able to do what most dystopian & technothriller/ cyberpunk novels of the time were woefully unable to do - maintain a lighter tone.
I'm still torn between wanting a Rat Thing & Reason.
Aeria Lynn
15. aeria_lynn
If I had read Snow Crash back when it was published, 1992, I probably would have loved it to bits. I was 21, in college, just having computers around me was a thrill, and I hadn't studied a lot of writing at that point. I was totally into cyberpunk, too, and I was looking for things that made me think.

Alas, I read it in 2008, when I was in my very late 30's, and all I could do was laugh at the pretentiousness of the story. It wasn't the tech or the world. I was like, Stephenson, you really named your MC that? Seriously? *facepalm* How very artsy literary pretentious of you.

But my reaction is a me thing, tbh, and not necessarily what other people will get out of the book. I'm simply not at that stage in life where that kind of story resonates with me.
mister_ethan
16. Ian P. Johnson
My own quarter-byte…

Snow Crash is the only book that combines Sumerian gods, virtual reality avatars, and Japanese rappers named Sushi K. For which it deserves to be celebrated, dammit.

(I read Snow Crash in my freshman year of high school, back in the old-timey, sepia-toned year of 2007. I don't remember a lot about it, but Sushi K somehow stuck out in my mind. One thing you can say about Snow Crash– it's a book with the tongue so firmly lodged in the cheek that it stabs through and pokes through the face.)
mister_ethan
17. a1ay
Things that haven't aged so well: the role of Japan. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Japan was going to Take Over The World. Witness Sushi K, the Japanese quadrant in the Black Sun, etc. Now? Not really. China, on the other hand, barely features in Snow Crash.

Snow Crash also started life as a graphic novel - and you can see graphic elements.

Also, the best line in the book: there's an fight scene halfway through, described in detail, which ends up with Our Hiro beheading a redneck, cutting his way through a wall, and leaping on to his super-advanced smart motorbike, hotly pursued by the redneck's heavily-armed friends and the heavily-armed local privatised law enforcement.
"After that it's just a chase scene." End of chapter.
James Felling
18. Maltheos
Oe minor quible -- software development by groups was quite common in 1992 -- there were the occasional lone wolves, but it was shifting, and the trend was ther for anyone to see.
mister_ethan
19. Celestial Elf
Loved the Book, thought you might like my SnowCrash machinima filmhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMcCc1Td7e0best wisheself ~

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