(Orbit e-book, originally published 1992)
This was the very first novel by Neal Stephenson that I read, long before Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Trilogy. There’s a lot of similarity between it and Zodiac (which I read for the first time recently), with its eccentric protagonist and initially meandering plot. Although unlike Zodiac, Snow Crash is set in a relatively distant future, where the United States has become a series of corporate enclaves – Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, for example – and the Mafia control all pizza deliveries…
Our hero, the aptly named Hiro Protagonist, former hacker and now pizza delivery operative for Cosa Nostra, loses his way while on a delivery run, distracted by a young Kourier, and crashes his car into an empty swimming pool: to enable the pizza to be delivered within the guaranteed thirty-minute time limit, YT (the skateboarding Kourier) sets off with the pizza, delivers it narrowly in time, and thus earns the gratitude of the Mafia, and its boss, Uncle Enzo, in particular.
Hiro later helps YT escape jail, and they form a partnership to find information. Soon they start hearing things about a drug called Snow Crash, a cult which seems to have its own glossolalic language, and a violent man called Raven who has a nuclear bomb and a grudge, and is very skilled at killing people with knives he makes from glass.
The book is inventive and intriguing, with information about Sumerian culture, for example, computer programming (which Stephenson always refers to as hacking) and sword fighting. There are lots of characters, both human and not, and one of Stephenson’s gifts is to make the reader care what happens to them. He pokes fun at the seemingly unproductive and micro-managed Feds, for whom YT’s mother works as a programmer, with their endless lie-detector tests and conformities. Hiro eventually works out what is going on, and there are moments of info-dumping, but it’s done in an entertaining way and sustains interest: besides, it’s how Hiro is obtaining the information himself.
Snow Crash is one of those books, like Neuromancer, credited with foreseeing or predicting future trends in the computing world: Stephenson’s version of cyberspace is the Metaverse, which is like a huge virtual reality world in which real people can interact through the use of avatars. Since Hiro was heavily involved in the creation of the Metaverse, along with his ex-girlfriend, Juanita, and other hackers, he’s a lot more powerful and knowledgable in this virtual reality than he is in the real world – though he’s a good sword-fighter in both.
I thoroughly enjoyed this, and have re-read it a couple of times: the only minor quibble I have is that the end feels a bit rushed. Otherwise it’s a very entertaining (and often darkly funny) work of speculative fiction. I’d recommend it both as that and as an introduction to Stephenson’s novels, since it’s relatively short in comparison to, say, Cryptonomicon (though that is a fantastic book).