Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash has been called "cyberpunk with a sense of humor," and that may well be the best way to describe it because it touches on both the strengths and weaknesses of this terrific book. I haven't read a book in years that's as fun as this one: it's full of believable scientific concepts that take satirical jabs at everything from the Internet to business franchises. The plot is rather thin, in a Hollywood fashion – even to the point where it ends with a chase scene, a shootout, a hostage standoff between the good guys and bad guys, and a happy ending. But in spite of this weakness, the weird characters (especially Y.T. the RadiKs Kourier) pull the reader through the story at a breakneck pace. The story is also hilariously funny, and that's a real plus when compared to most of those other doom-and-gloom "future anarchy" stories.
The story takes place in an America of the future, where corporatization, franchise, and the economy in general have spun wildly out of control. The United States is no more, having fractured when its ecnomy collapsed; in its place is a series of city-states, each run by its own big business franchise (such as "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong"). The Internet, or "Metaverse" as it's called here, permeates everything; Stephenson's vision of how a virtual-reality based Internet might evolve over the next few decades seems hilariously accurate. But a new drug, called Snow Crash, is sweeping across the country…while at the same time a computer virus with the same name is beginning to take a foothold in the computer-generated world. This is the first virus to actually make the leap from the virtual world to the real one (as we see when uber-hacker Da5id carelessly opens it up), and it has the potential to wreak havoc like no virus has ever done before.
Into this crazy world come the ostensible heroes of the story. The major character in the series is a slacker hacker with the erstwhile name of Hiro Protagonist; but the real hero is a streetwise young RaDiKs Kourier named Y.T. The pair find themselves thrown together in a wild plot involving ancient Sumerian artifacts, huge floating raft colonies overflowing with mindless cult zombies, the Nipponese rapper Sushi K, the Mafia pizza delivery service, Rat Things, and Raven. Raven is the bad guy…and he's not just a bad guy, he's THE bad guy. When the reader encounters Raven for the first time, he gets a good idea of why no one in the story wants to mess around with this guy.
Even though the plot of the novel plows into the reader's brain like an illegal DivX movie download on a T3 line, Stephenson actually spends a good third of the novel or more taking the reader on an extensive, impeccably researched history of ancient Sumeria, while theorizing upon the origins of language and their relationship to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. The deeper meaning of the novel can be summed up with a quote from William S. Burroughs: "Language is a virus from outer space."
Snow Crash inspired me to try Stephenson's The Diamond Age, and I'm glad to say that even though this new book is a far more complex and enthralling work. In addition to its fascinating glimpse at nanotechnology and the not-too-distant future, this book also goes out of its way to try to subvert you, the reader! I found myself repeatedly struck by the urge to send this book to my young niece, in the hope that it would inspire her to rebel against the Conspiracy and become someone more independent.