Why this Book: Selected by my Sci-Fi reading group because it is THE source of the term “Metaverse” and the vision of the Metaverse in this book continues to guide big tech in moving in that direction to this day. It is a classic in techie circles.
Summary in 3 Sentences: The story is built around the idea of people experiencing two versions of reality – one in our standard “Reality,” and one in the Metaverse – an online world with its own rules in which each person has a single Avatar which has attributes and experiences in the world of the Metaverse. In Snow Crash there are a few “good guys” and a few “bad guys” and they interact in reality and in the metaverse. The good guys are young people who are comfortable going back and forth between Reality and the Metaverse and stumble upon a group who have found a way to turn people into automaton zombies with a religion-like pitch and to disable the computer “nerds” who won’t fall for the new religion by changing their brain chemistry through a computer program.
My Impressions: After the meeting with my Sci Fi reading group to discuss Snow Crash, I described it as “… something of a hodge-podge of fascinating ideas, great imagination and foresight, interesting but rather shallow characters, great satire and biting social commentary, a dystopian look at America’s future, a somewhat disjointed plot, an intriguing look at coming prospects of living in multiple realities, and a crazy, surreal, and unresolved ending.”
The plot seems to be an afterthought and an excuse to imagine and create a world in which people interact on two levels – Reality and in the Metaverse. The idea of the Metaverse itself is the true star of this book.
It begins with a crazy scene taking place in the Metaverse, which has different rules than reality – the rules of physics are suspended a bit – and frankly I couldn’t figure out what was going on – I was in a sort of culture shock. After the first couple of chapters, the author introduces us to the characters in Reality who I’d been confusedly trying to follow in their Metaverse adventure in the first two chapters.
The hero of the story is not-very-subtly named “Hiro Protagonist” a late 20s something computer hacker who lives in a storage shelter with a buddy near LAX and gets paid to upload information into the successor to the CIA, called the CIC -Central Intelligence Corporation which, after the economic collapse of America, merged with the Library of Congress to become the repository of all knowledge and information. The book’s female heroine is named “YT” for Yours Truly – a 15 year old white, blond, precocious skateboarder who gets paid as a Kourier – delivering information or other things. Kouriers serve as successors to FedEx or the Postal system which no longer function in disaggregated and disorganized America. Important things get delivered by Kourier. In addition to his work for the CIC, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza on the side for the Mafia.
Throughout the first two thirds of the book we get to know these two characters and a few others, as the plot slowly evolves to let us know that there are indeed bad guys with a lot of power in the semi-anarchic world that has succeeded the US of A as we know it.
Intitially, it’s all pretty confusing – random characters doing bad things, Hiro being a CIC agant as well as a Pizza delivery boy, and YT being a Kourier, bold, brash, getting into trouble. and I’m not following it all too well. Then we start getting more clues about the evil that is occurring below the surface and Hiro, with his CIC agent hat on, gets some clues from his former girl friend, and he starts digging deeper into certain anomalies and his intuitions. He goes into his Metaverse reality and calls on his librarian, who is a ChatGPT-like AI robot who has access to all knowledge that has been uploaded into the CIC/Library of Congress data base. Hiro asks the librarian questions and we start learning about some of the origins of religion, culture and language, going back 5,000 years to what he refers to as the “pre-rational religion.” We learn of very smart Southern Preacher Business man with plans to establish a pre-eminent power base in the world by tapping into a primal impulse that most people have – especially those not particularly well educated – to become religious zealots – Hari Krishna-types. The book calls this later version of the primal religious impulse “post-rational religion.” And he has a separate tool to lure the more educated into his web through a computer program tied to what he calls “Snow Crash”
The book culminates in a battle between our megalomaniac Religious leader and the Mafia leader who ran the organization for whom Hiro delivered pizzas. The Religious leader and his army of religious automatons and killer thugs is doing all it can to take out his competition – the Mafia with whom Hiro and YT are aligned. Hi tech stuff going aback and forth between Reality and the Metaverse and pretty crazy. It appears at the end that the not-so-bad guys defeat the Religious Manipulator and then it’s over.
WHAT WAS POSITIVE AND INTERESTING IN THIS CRAZY STORY?
- The idea of putting on VR glasses and entering another universe where one can interact with the avatars of other people in a variety of settings. People “own” property in the Metaverse, create stores and businesses, have relationships, fights, disputes most of hte same things we have in reality, but the rules are somewhat different.
- The Metaverse is 3 dimensional but there is one “Street” that is thousands of miles long and communities are built up on that street – kind of like how the trans-continental railroad spawned towns all along the railroad. Avatars buy property and build communities along the Street, and move from community to community along a metro rail that can go as fast as you want. The communities spread out into “burbclaves” away from The Street.
- People can interact in Reality and in the Metaverse simultaneously – on VR glasses in the Metaverse, on the phone in Reality.
- There is a lot of satire of US culture in the book, some of it very clever, and often not at all politically correct.
- YT’s mother works for the FED – what is left of the US government bureaucracy – and describes her workplace as a Dilbert-like hell. The bureaucracy lumbers along becoming ever more absurd and inefficient, and is the target of much satire and ridicule (deservedly so). The best example is the 2 page required reading memo on the proper use of toilet paper.
Some interesting quotes from the book:
The Metaverse has now become a place where you can get killed.
“Meta-virus” – an informational entity that causes information systems to infect themselves with customized viruses. Culture itself is seen as having virus like qualities.
It takes as much computing power realistically to model the smoke coming out of Ng’s mouth as it does to model the weather system of the entire planet.
Everything that you see in the Metaverse, no matter how lifelike and beautiful and three dimensional, reduces to a simple text file: a series of letters on an electronic p417
The US has become paranoid. YT has to sign a document certifying that she is not a terrorist, communist, homosexual, national-symbol desecrator, pornography merchant, welfare parasite, racially insensitive, a carrier of any infections disease, or advocate of any ideology intending to impugn traditional family values.
Hiro’s favorite band: “Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns” Their hit: My heart is a smoking hole p361
A guard’s Question to Hiro: “Are you a lazy shiftless watermelon-eating black-ass nigger, or a sneaky little VD infected gook? Hiro Protagonist’s response. “Is that some kind of trick question?”
America is wonderful because you can get anything on a drive-thru basis. Oil change, liquor, banking, car wash, funerals – anything you want. p269
The social structure of any nationstate is ultimately determined by ists security arrangements. p266
All Feds go to work early and stay late. It’s a loyalty thing with them. The Feds have a fetish for loyalty – since they don’t make a lot of money nor get a lot of respect, you have to prove you’re personally committed and that you don’t care about those trappings. p209