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05 October 2010

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Anathem was my introduction to Neal Stephenson. Prior to reading that book, I questioned whether his writing would interest me. I knew of his ginormous Baroque Cycle series filed in fiction, but it was intimidatingly large. I mean, for a fiction series; fantasy epics get ridiculous in size, and I have nothing against them. Then, Anathem came up, and I reaaaly like it. I didn't quite understand it, but I did like it. Then, my friends started telling me how much they like Stephenson, and how I needed to read Snow Crash. So I did.

The book follows
"Hiroaki Protagonist: Last of the freelance hackers; Greatest sword fighter in the world; Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation; Specializing in software-related intel (music, movies & microcode)"
in his search to find the source and the remedy for a new disease, called Snow Crash. Part computer virus, part pathological virus, part drug, and part sociological meme, Snow Crash has affected Protagonist's close friends. With the help of skatecourier Y.T. and with funding from two "franchulates", Uncle Enzo's Nova Sicilia (aka The Mafia) and Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, Protagonist traces the roots of Snow Crash to media mogul and billionaire L. Bob Rife. Badass Dmitri Ravinoff rounds out the cast and gives an appropriate adversary to the sword-wielding Hiro. The action charges through a semi-futuristic America where the government has fallen to corporations and anarchy is held off by rent-a-cop security forces out to make a buck. It's a pretty wild ride, encasing a fabulous story as told by a master writer.

I was turned on by the high-powered and non-stop action in the book, though I found it just outside the realm of believable. The badass is just a little too bad, and the good guys still manage to defeat him. The setting was more attractive than the action. It's a 20th/21st century America where the government went broke, privatized everything (especially the military) and citizens look to corporations for guidance and protection in life. It's written just far enough past the current reality to require imagination, but close enough to real life that it's believable. However, the plot and the technical aspects of the Snow Crash virus are the real point of the book, and Stephenson put the most work into these aspects. The central chunk of the novel revolves around Protagonist discussing history, philosophy, and technology with the Librarian. This gets pretty dry, but it's sprinkled through with descriptions of Y.T.'s adventures on the ground, seeking intel to forward the discussion. As I said, the action really drives the book forward, and the central discussion balances that quite well.
This book is as great read, especially to those with an interest in the cyberpunk genre. It's one of the first of the genre, originally published in 1992. I predict that the setting will be functionally obsolete as technology outpaces whats in the story (the internets are already as functional, but the visualizations are not yet in place). Stephenson retains a strong hold on the plot, and brings everything together with flair and obvious mastery of the language.

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