Nearly twenty years after my last read, I return to Neal Stephenson's masterpiece, Snow Crash. Does it hold up after all this time?
Let me begin this post with an apology to His Lordship Neal Stephenson for even hinting that his masterwork is anything short of breathtaking.
For the uninitiated, Stephenson published Snow Crash in 1992. Many consider it to be a foundational work in the cyberpunk genre that predicted modern day technologies like virtual reality and massively multiplayer online games. I remain floored at how aptly it anticipates many of the most dystopian features of late stage capitalism.
The story has a few distinct parts in my mind. First there is the electrifying opening car chase which throws you into Stephenson's conception of near future America. His predictions are both hilarious and heartbreaking. From burbclaves - privatized thematic sovereign city states, to franchise mega corporations, to main character Hiro Protagonist and his sidekick Y.T. (whitey - omg.) everything feels bizarre, off, but also completely familiar.
Next we get into the rising action of the plot. There is a strange new virus spreading in the metaverse that is linked to a real-world drug, and a grisly murder. Stephenson still has me by the adrenal gland at this point. I'm laughing out loud and constantly thanking His Lordship for his beneficence.
In what can only be described as Stephenson being Stephenson, he next takes us on an extensive, some might argue self-indulgent, deep dive into linguistics, religion, and ancient Mesopotamia. We learn about creation mythology, civilization, the origins of writing, and ancient astronomy. It is heady, but also messes with the book's otherwise incredible pacing.
I am sorry, it is true. Stephenson is nothing if not self-contradictory. The author of the first sections of the book that leave us gasping and hungry for more is also the author of this part, which feels like being blindfolded, thrown in the back of a van, driven for hours on end, and then dumped in the back of the most boring lecture hall you could possibly imagine.
Fear not, for His Lordship is nothing if not thrilling. The remainder of the book takes us back to the tempo of the first part as we re-meet characters, heighten the action, and close up lose ends. This is the grimmest, most uber violoent, satirical and funny cyberpunk writing that could possibly exist. This is just a scientific fact. Any move further along any of these axes would make the writing unreadable, but His Lordship threads the literary needle like a Deathstar trench run.
The result is a work of genius that is even better today than when I first read it twenty years ago. Strongly recommend.
Official Very Normal Info Stephenson Power Ranking
- Snow Crash
- Termination Shock
- Being blindfolded, thrown in the back of a van, driven for hours on end, and then dumped in the back of the most boring lecture hall you could possibly imagine.