The world of Snow Crash is a cyberpunk dystopia: not one created by any single crisis or political upheaval, but a sort of logical endpoint of the current neoliberal system. What used to be the USA has been carved up into countless small territories and fiefdoms owned by corporations with names like Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong or CosaNostra Pizza (which is run by the mafia, no less). The federal government has become just one of these franchises, retreated into a narrow land which it guards jealously while carrying out bureaucratic tasks of obscure purpose. Abroad, there is a refugee crisis of epic proportions: much of middle-class America is haunted by the thought of the Raft, a massive floating city which periodically swings near the coast, shedding thousands of refugees swimming for shore.
It’s hard, at least at first, to make out the shape of all this, and I think this is key to the novel’s project.
Our hero is, hah, Hiro Protagonist, a half-Korean, half-African American hacker and one of the founders of the novel’s virtual reality world, the Metaverse. Hiro’s day job involves collecting reams of information for the Library of Congress (well, actually, at the beginning of the novel he’s a pizza deliverer, but more on that later). Once upon a time, he comes across a new drug/virus, Snow Crash, which effectively turns the minds of hackers and programmers into mush. In tracking down the source of this virus, he stumbles into a vast conspiracy involving the Raft, a gazillionaire preacher and the nature of language itself…
And if that all sounds quite random, well, you’re not far off the mark. Snow Crash has the feel of a Thomas Pynchon novel, only more so, packing ideas and theories and motifs in until you can’t really tell what’s important and what isn’t. It’s an approach that keeps you constantly unsettled and prone to conspiracy theories: something isn’t adding up, but the sheer weight of stuff keeps you from picking out the signal from the noise.
And yet, the novel also has this extraordinary sense of momentum. Stephenson is fascinated by people who can navigate complex systems at speed and with skill. So the novel opens with Hiro delivering a pizza – a mundane act that takes on almost cosmic significance:
The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory.
He has thirty minutes to deliver the pizza, or face some unspecified but presumably awful punishment. So begins an absurd, breathless race:
The Deliverator knows that yard. He has delivered pizzas there. He has looked at it, scoped it out, memorized the location of the shed and the picnic table, can find them even in the dark — knows that if it ever came to this, a twenty-three-minute pizza, miles to go, and a slowdown at CSV-5 and Oahu — he could enter The Mews at Windsor Heights (his electronic delivery-man’s visa would raise the gate automatically), scream down Heritage Boulevard, rip the turn onto Strawbridge Place (ignoring the DEAD END sign and the speed limit and the CHILDREN PLAYING ideograms that are strung so liberally throughout TMAWH), thrash the speed bumps with his mighty radials, blast up the driveway of Number 15 Strawbridge Circle, cut a hard left around the backyard shed, careen into the backyard of Number 84 Mayapple Place, avoid its picnic table (tricky), get into their driveway and out onto Mayapple, which takes him to Bellewoode Valley Road, which runs straight to the exit of the Burbclave.
Similarly, the novel’s female lead, 15-year-old Y.T., is a Kourier: a deliverer of mail who windsurfs traffic using her superpowered skateboard and a superstrong hawser. And, later on, there’s a scene in which a character navigates the Raft, its countless ladders and boats and jetties and streets of water.
These are people who’ve learned to exploit the system, who take pride in exploiting it, and yet their facility with it only serves to prop it up. Hiro and Y.T. are, after all, just finding ways to make their labour more efficient, to make more money for their corporate overlords. This is one of the big things Snow Crash is doing: even as Hiro follows the threads of conspiracy theory, navigating an endlessly confusing system, he’s not actually changing anything. Maybe he stops one corporate overlord from brainwashing a generation of tech workers, but in doing so he is, by default, shoring up, protecting, this shitty dystopian system. (Hence the joke of his name: Hiro is no hero, he brings about no significant change, his effect on the course of the world he inhabits is small at best.) It’s difficult to see the system in Snow Crash because we only ever see it from the inside: the focus is on the personal, the granular, the worm’s-eye-view, this overwhelming flood of stuff (brand names, objects, people, futuristic slang, out-there theories, endless information). It’s a novel that reproduces the experience of living in capitalism: we cannot see the wood for the trees. We are bombarded with so much information (advertising, fake news, real news, internet hot takes, journalistic opinions, Twitter trolls, wikis, blogs…) that we’ve stopped even trying to gauge its truth-value.
I feel like there’s a lot more to say about Snow Crash, if I had the time and energy to think about it properly. It is not without its flaws. In particular, Y.T. is uncomfortably sexualised given that she is 15 years old. The novel also tends to get a bit infodumpy around its middle section, when Hiro is discovering things about the virus and how it works. I’d hesitate to recommend this (in fact, it’s taken me this long to start reading Stephenson because of a similarly equivocal recommendation), but, I would definitely read more.