Cyberpunk is a genre that really tries its best to make me not like it.
It’s one of the only genres whose themes are intrinsically linked to its setting. Cyberpunk stories are usually gritty, and pessimistic, with anti-traditional, anti-capitalist, and trans-humanist themes. I, on the other hand, am a pretty easy-going, optimistic, traditional capitalist who doesn’t believe that we’re all gonna conglomerate in massive, horrible megacities in the near future, regardless of what Saudi Arabia seems to think (Google their “Line” project. It’s nuts).
That hasn’t dissuaded me from reading and enjoying cyberpunk! Mostly because the aesthetic, for all that it clashes with my traditional values, looks just really cool. Cyborgs, leather jackets, sunglasses, guns, and, as is in the case of “Snow Crash”, swords. “Snow Crash” has another thing going for it too: It lets itself have fun.
The Zuck’s Muse
“Snow Crash” takes place in an alternate timeline where the American government somehow spontaneously collapsed in on itself, and the majority of the United States lives in a pseudo-anarco-capitalistic society. Without the government to maintain order, cities, towns, and suburbs have turned themselves into independent city-states in a libertarian wet-dream.
Unlike a lot of other societies where the Government collapses, it turns out that people don’t just turn into cannibalistic tribesmen, and people come together to ensure essential services are maintained. Like the internet, so you can access your Everygame casino login. Or Pizza delivery!
Our story follows Hiro Protagonist (yes, really his name). Hiro is a half-black, half-Korean American hacker who’s also a master swordsman that carries around Katana’s, like he’s straight out of Sword Art Online.
In practice, this giga-chad male is a freelance programmer, who lives in a storage compartment and works multiple jobs in order to make rent.
After a pizza-delivery job goes on behalf of the mafia (who naturally run the Pizza industry now) goes wrong, Hiro meets Y.T.: A spunky, 15-year-old kourier, who delivers packages by harpooning cars and riding behind them on her suped-up high-tech skateboard.
After their chance encounter, Hiro and Y.T. decide to work together, and are slowly dragged further and further into an escalating series of events that delves into a massive conspiracy to mind control the entire world.
And it all starts when a friend of Hiro tests out “Snow Crash”.
“Snow Crash” is a made-up computer term for what would happen when a computer crashes, resulting in the screen becoming static (which sort of looks like snow). Apparently, this is something that happened not infrequently on the old Macintoshes in real life, and is something I have never experienced in my Zoomer life. However, “Snow Crash” also refers to an in-universe virus, capable of mind-wiping people in the Metaverse.
What is the “Metaverse”, you might ask? Well, it’s Mark Zuckerberg’s wet dream combined with the reality of VR Chat. It’s a virtual world where anyone can plug in and connect to each other in an infinitely long street with digital “houses” where players can custom design whatever they want.
Players who are better at programming show off by having more realistic models, avatars, and physics. The book calls it “hacking”. I call it “open-source”. “Snow Crash” is a digital virus that, upon viewing it, causes your brain to fry. It affects one of Hiro’s friends, and Hiro is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Where did “Snow Crash” come from? Who made it? And why does it only affect programmers?
Finding the Fun in Societal Collapse
Compared to a lot of other Cyberpunk I’ve read, “Snow Crash”’s world strikes me as a lot more plausible than a lot of other stories. A lot of cyberpunk stories seem to think that after we all move into cities, the only jobs that are gonna be remaining are businessmen-elites, hard-boiled detectives, and prostitution. “Snow Crash” actually points out that even in the future, people are still gonna want pizza.
It’s also almost comical how reverently programmers are treated by the book. Instead of being dorkish nerds, they’re hyper-intellectual elites who would totally take over the world if corporations weren’t, like, infringing on their creativity, maaan.
Hiro is not only a master programmer, but a motorcycle-riding swordsman. Honestly, I love it, even if it almost defies my suspension of disbelief at times.
Y.T. is another point in favor of the novel. She’s a kid who works with adults, but she actually acts like a rebellious kid. She talks back to people, breaks rules, and jumps on boys like she’s a dog in heat. That said, when push-comes-to-shove, she’s still a 15-year-old kid.
She gets scared, makes heat-of-the-moment decisions, and doesn’t throw around grown men who are 4 times her weight class (although she keeps a bunch of weapons on her to protect herself, including an anti, er… assault device. Inside her body, if you catch my drift).
One of the main villains, Raven, is awesome in a “this is so stupidly over the top but I love it” kind of way. He’s this absolute giant of a man, who uses microscopically thin glass knives (which can basically cut through anything) to kill people, rides a motorcycle, and carries around a hydrogen bomb that will go off if he’s killed.
If you can get close enough to kill him, you’re dead, and it’s a really cool way to have a scary villain that can’t simply be shot in the head with a sniper rifle.
What I find really cool is how this book from 1992 manages to accurately capture what VR would be like. The metaverse is basically a wild west frontier where anyone can load up whatever avatar they want into whatever setting they want.
Which means that there are, of course, a bunch of walking dicks everywhere, embodying true internet culture everywhere. Seriously, it’s insane how eerily close Neal Stephenson’s descriptions get to what games like VR Chat are actually like today in 2022.
And what’s really strange is that Mark Zuckerberg, who took the name for his metaverse from this book, is building a who-knows-what digital reality that seems far more dystopian than anything that this cyberpunk novel ever tells us about the Metaverse.
The Snowballing Story
If there is one major thing I want to criticize “Snow Crash” on, it’s the origins of “Snow Crash” itself. Do you like esoteric pseudo-philosophy / anthropology? Well too bad, because Neal Stephenson delves headfirst into ancient Sumerian, Biblical, Arkadian, and Mesopotamian mythology in order to explain how “Snow Crash”, a computer virus, can affect programmers and programmers specifically.
And the answer is that programmers are so used to working with binary, that “Snow Crash” is capable of affecting their brain synapses through optical, binary inputs (called a bitmap). Basically, you flash a bunch of random (but not actually random) pixels in front of their eyes, and they’ll keel over. Because… they’re used to binary.
As a programmer myself, I don’t know of any programmer who actually works in binary on a regular basis. At worst, programmers write in machine code- a fact pointed out even by Hiro. I dunno. It’s a long and dumb explanation for a not-so-complicated plot contrivance to explain why programmers are totally, like, the coolest, and how only they are affected by the special magic computer-brain virus.
Much like other cyberpunk stories that remember that you’re allowed to enjoy yourself while imparting their message, “Snow Crash” is awesome. Out of a lot of recent cyberpunk that I have read recently, I can basically unconditionally recommend “Snow Crash” without any caveats. If you enjoy stuff like “The Matrix” or “Equilibrium”, “Snow Crash” feels like it belongs in a similar genre. I highly recommend.