When you've been given the name Hiro Protagonist, you're typecast from the day your birth certificate was filed. Luckily for our hero Hiro, he meets the challenge quite nicely: he's both a world-class swordsman, when wielding the katana his father left him, and a world-class hacker. On that last point, he's one of the original founders of the VR world known as the Metaverse, which means he can get into its most famous Virtual Nightclub, the Black Sun, any time he wants. In real life, Hiro's found that freelance hacking jobs are sparse and swordplay doesn't pay at all, so he's employed as a deliveryman for the Mafia. A pizza deliveryman...
A partnership of convenience forms when Y. T., Lolita-esque blonde skateboarding "Kourier," saves Hiro's bacon by delivering his last-ever pizza (last ever 'cause his car was at that time sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool). They'll partner 50:50 to deal in information, the only real currency in an age where trillion-dollar bills ("Meeses") are most useful when shredded for kitty litter, and most worldwide franchises print "local" money far more stable than the poor ol' greenback.
Hiro may have uncovered an information motherlode when he witnessed one of his oldest friends succumb to a new designer drug called Snow Crash. Poor Da5id's brain undergoes its own form of crash upon exposure; a juicy tidbit of information that the newbie partnership can surely sell somewhere. Problem being that there's a war going on, and Hiro and Y. T. have been swept up in its middle. Players like the Mafia, Reverend Wayne's Church of the Pearly Gates, and Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong are going at it tooth and nail out there; mainly on a gigantic Sargasso-like floating refugee camp that's spent the last decade drifting clockwise on the North Pacific Gyre. At its center? the "yacht" (a converted aircraft carrier) belonging to the richest man in the world (too much, L. Bob Rife believes, just ain't enough). Hiro's suddenly found himself with a damsel in distress, a world on the line, and a nuke-toting Aleut warrior to dodge both in RL and VR. That, and the very real possibility that he'll undergo a Snow Crash of his own.
Mmm-hmmm: things are about to get busy.
Following crookedly in the footsteps of William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy, Neal Stepehnson's third novel has been touted in many a quarter as a novel of cyberpunk on the same level. Mmmmmmmm, maybe... What Snow Crash most certainly is, viewed from more than two decades after publication, is surprisingly visionary -- and surprisingly fresh. With the exception of the occasional outdated reference to '80s cultural icons (how many cyberpunk readers today will know where quadrillion-dollar "Gippers" get their name, much less trillion-dollar "Meeses"?), Snow Crash might have rolled off the presses last week.
Stephenson's vision of early Century-21 LA features little that's completely original: the "Burbclaves" (Suburban Enclaves) are old hat to SciFi fans, as are the concepts of the franchising of America, hyperinflation (ask any modern Zimbabwean), and the use of religion to control the masses (ask Karl Marx). Yet Stephenson clearly manages to cast old pieces in a new light; just as he did by draping the Cosa Nostra's code of omerta over pizza delivery. Likewise, Stephenson's Metaverse is much like the VR world constructed by Gibson before him, as is the sprawling (pun intended) cityscape of LA. Where Stephenson differs from his cyberpunk predecessors (and those who followed) is when he veers into the anthropo-mythological world of ancient Sumer; propounding for his villains the resurrection of a long-dormant virus carried by... well, you'll see. Though at times bordering on the pedantic, Stephenson's insertions of Sumerian lore remain readable, even nearly plausible.
Where Stephenson gets a little on the icky side is in choosing to place Y. T.'s age at fifteen; a decision that in some circles is most certainly looked upon as tantamount to kiddie porn. That a fifteen-year-old is sexually mature (and that some of them are sexually active) goes without question, but the plot would have been just as well served if his nubile young skateboarder were old enough to vote. Stephenson clearly revels in the naughtiness, however, for in Y. T.'s first encounter with Hiro she "poons" him. Never mind that the poon's har- and not -tang, the imagery remains crystal clear.
Justifiably renowned for its vision, its heroic (and Hiroic) characters, its complex villains, and its deft plotting; Snow Crash also led the first wired generation out to the end of the Internet and showed them the future. We who inhabit the real 21st century may not like every last aspect of that future, but Stephenson's is quite as valid a prognostication as any before his - and as many a prediction afterwards. That he was capable of slipping in the occasional sly dig at the culture of the '80s is just gravy.
Highly recommended: if you haven't read it, you should - and if you have, maybe you should read it again.