Saturday, 18 September 2010

Must Reads #1: Snow Crash

Snow Crash is, quite literally, a novel that changed the world: almost entirely responsible for the use of the term "avatar" in internet culture (an earlier simulation called, I believe, Habitat, used the term first - but Snow Crash popularised it), and apparently one of the inspirations for the online world "Second Life", it's also a fun read on its own.

Snow Crash is set in a world collapsed: into the "Burbclaves", territories divided by culture and franchises of other nations (take one example: "Mr Lee's Greater Hong Kong"!), rather than into larger territories. The Mafia run the pizza service - and it's rumoured that when the timer reaches "30:00", Uncle Enzo becomes displeased in a way that promises a sudden (and fatal) accident. It's almost a caricature, but it's certainly fun! Meanwhile, the real gem of the piece is the Metaverse, an online virtual reality - or, more accurately, a set of shared protocols that makes it possible. Otherwise known as the Street, this virtual band's circumference is far greater than the planet's, and our protagonist - quite literally, Hiro Protagonist, is one of its founders.

As the book opens, Hiro is rather down on his luck: in the Street he's one of the few with open access to the Black Sun, an exclusive club for hackers and celebrities, but in mundane reality he delivers pizzas for the Cosa Nostra. Through a particularly strenuous delivery, he meets YT, our second protagonist: an odd mix a skateboards, high technology, and professionalism. Not to mention incomprehensible slang. It's only then that Hiro discovers a black and white avatar selling "Snow Crash" - a drug, or something else? - in the multiverse. There's only one real problem: that it's impossible.

The plot beyond this point is impossible to describe. It's convoluted, controversial, and very, very clever, mixing neurolinguistics and Sumerian civilisation to create what is possibly the ultimate post-cyberpunk tale. Yes, the world's a caricature. But it's full of gems such as "Reason" - the gun that you really don't want to talk to, for reasons that soon become apparent. It's brilliant fun, generally fast-paced, aside from a few chunks of hefty exposition - fortunately rare - and suffers from only one major flaw: it stops. Not ends, but stops. It's just a little disconcerting, but does resolve the main plot, and the rest of the book is fantastic enough to recommend it anyway.