Neil Stephenson

, /10

Neal Stephenson (USA, 1959)

"Diamond Age" (1994)

synopsis forthcoming

"Snow Crash" (1992) is a cyber-novel set in an imaginary future in which anarchy reigns. Stephenson excels at action scenes. His turbulent crude visual style that mixes high-tech lingo and ghetto slang is almost documentary in the way it transfers action into words. The weakest part of the novel is the connection with religious myths, particularly Christian ones, an abused cliche. The novel is also highly satirical, making fun of contemporary world, of the USA, of the Mafia, of religious cults and of megalomaniac corporate magnates.

The novel opens in Los Angeles with hyper-action, although not of a violent but rather of an amusing kind. Hiro Protagonist is a pizza delivery boy who works for a company run by a Mafia boss. Delivering pizzas on time is essential. A freak accident at the pizza oven causes Hiro to be late with the delivery. Trying to take short cuts, Hiro ends up destroying his Mafia-owned car. Luckily a teenage girl, Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), who is a virtuoso skateboard courier picks up the pizza and delivers it for him. Hiro is actually a freelance computer hacker and spends much of time in Metaverse, a virtual world created by computer programmers like him and populated by avatars of real people. Hiro's avatar visits the Black Sun, a Metaverse club owned by Hiro's friend Da5id. There a complete stranger offers Hiro a new drug called "Snow Crash" in the form of a hypercard. Snow Crash is both a destructive computer virus and a real drug for the brain. YT gets arrested by some sort of militia, MetaCops. At the station the officer simply scans her bar code to find out everything about her. She tells them that she works RadiKS, Radikal Kourier Systems. She is thrown into a jail called "the Clink" by a manager from Tajikstan. Hiro, meanwhile, is roaming the Black Sun thanks to software he wrote for himself. He finds Da5id talking with an attractive woman, Juanita Marquez, who worked as a software engineer at the same company with Hiro, a company named Black Sun, and became his girlfriend. We learn that Hiro was raised in army bases by a black father and a Korean mother, and that he lived in Japan before moving to California. After Hiro and Juanita broke up, she became rich with Black Sun stock whereas Hiro had to sell the stock to take care of his mother (who now lives in a community in Korea). Juanita ended up marrying Da5id, a kid who went to the best schools and became rich with his startup, but divorced him after two years. Juanita warns Hiro against using Snow Crash, and she wants Hiro to meet a scholar named Lagos. Da5id, instead, is willing to experiment with Snow Crash, confident that nothing can hurt his Black Sun. Instead it causes a naked avatar named Brandy to materialize and Da5id's computer to crash, something that never happens.
YT calls her boyfriend Roadkill for help but he's on a super-urgent delivery and can't take care of her. Then she remembers that Hiro owes her one so she calls him and he rushes to the Clink. She uses her skills to free herself and he uses his sword (a real sword) to protect his life. They flee to a different realm, called Mr Lee's Greater Hong Kong, a "private, quasi-national entity not recognized by any other nationality", where firearms are banned. It turns out that Hiro is a citizen there.
Hiro meets a Korean ("Nipponese") in Metaverse who is curious about his avatar's sword. Hiro explains that he has a real one in real life and that he got it from his father who got it from fighting in Japan during World War II. The Korean challenges him in Metaverse. Hiro wins easily and chops the body of the Korean avatar. It turns out that Hiro is ranked #1 sword fighter in Metaverse. Of course, Hiro himself wrote the code for swordfighting in Metaverse. The person whose avatar has been killed and dismembered gets disconnected from the Metaverse.
In the real world Hiro has many lives. He is also helping promote the rock band of his housemate Vitaly Chernobyl. He makes money in the intelligence business by doing research online and selling the information he acquires.
Juanita sends Hiro a gift: a Librarian, a piece of software who writes himself, originally programmed by an obscure Emanuel Lagos. Investigating the computer virus Snow Crash through the hypercard "Babel- Infocalypse" that caused Da5id's computer crash leads Hiro to track down all information about fiber-optics monopolist Bob Rife: it turns out that Lagos had already done that, and even produced a summary for Juanita that the Librarian relates to Hiro (and to us). The whole virus plot seems connected with the legend of Babel, the place/event where/when all languages got confused.
At the concert Hiro meets Lagos who is a "gargoyle", someone who wears his computer on his body and records everything that happens. Lagos warns Hiro to stay away from "nam-shub" who may try to infect him with a raw bitmap, which is precisely what Brandy did to Da5id. Lagos is not there for Hiro, however: he's there because Raven shows up. Raven is the man whom Juanita is looking for, the one who was dealing Snow Crash at the club, the one who gave the hypercard to Da5id that caused Brandy to materialize.
While Hiro is chatting with funny Japanese rapper Sushi K, YT calls that Lagos has been killed.
Jason runs a Mafia franchise. When he learns that the supreme boss, Uncle Enzo, needs some documents, he rushes personally to deliver them, eager to meet the legendary boss. It turns out that Enzo wanted to meet the kourier, YT.
Squeaky the enforcer tells Hiro that YT saw Raven leave the scene of the murder on his motorcycle and she is following him. Raven handed something to a member of the Crip gang, T-Bone Murphy. Something went wrong with that deal because now they are trying to kill each other. Squeaky and Hiro drive to the place where T-Bone's men are trying to kill Raven, a bit worried that YT might be in the crossfire. Hiro finally sees the face of Raven: he is Asian. T-Bone gets killed despite wearing a bulletproof vest because Raven uses a supersharp knife and supersharp spears. Then Raven kills another Crip and coolly rides his motorcycle into Chinatown, which is a different territory. Squeaky does not try to chase Raven and in fact he is mad that the Crip tried to kill him. Hiro is puzzled but Squeaky explains that Raven stole a nuclear weapon from the Russians and carries it all the time in his motorcycle remotely controlled by electrodes in his brain: if Raven dies, the nuclear device goes off and kills everybody. Therefore Squeaky actually protects Raven's life. The suitcase that Raven gave T-Bone contains a computer, but has exploded: it was programmed to self-destroy when T-Bone left it to go get a drink. Squeaky finds Snow Crash attached to the suitcase. YT is alive and well.
YT gets dispatched to Mafia territory and soon realizes that it's a trap: Uncle Enzo in person wants to meet with her. It sounds like a friendly meeting between an old man and a 15-year old girl, but then they ask her to make a dangerous pickup and delivery in a territory controlled by the federal government. Uncle Enzo gifts her some dog tags that he says will get her out of trouble if she ever needs to. YT rides (she always harpoons cars with a strong magnet to travel around Los Angeles) to the place where she has to pick up the suitcase. That area is controlled by a gang called Falabalas who are at war with Enzo's Mafia. When she leaves with the suitcase, she is hijacked by Jason who takes her to a parking lot where Mafia people test the suitcase with electronic tools
At the same time Hiro is picked up by a helicopter run by Major Clem sent by Juanita. The helicopter takes him to the hospital where Da5id lies in a sort of coma due to irreversible brain damage. Later they drop off Hiro at Da5id's mansion, where Hiro watches Da5id's computer in disbelief: it appears that just staring at the Snow Crash bitmap causes brain death.
At this point in the novel for the first time we get an introduction to the political situation of the world. Nobody lives in the cities anymore, they all live in a suburbia that is split into a number of warring city-states.
YT arrives at the Reverend Wayne's compound and picks up an aluminum case reverend Dale Thorpe Juanita tells Hiro that the Brandy avatar infected Da5id's brain with a metavirus handled by Raven, and that Raven also deals a drug in real world (both called Snow Crash). She informs him that Snow Crash is the product of a cult run by Bob Rife. Snow Crash is a virus, a drug and a religion. She tells him something about the Sumerian goddes Inanna. Then a Clint appears in metaverse who tries to infect him with a scroll and Hiro attacks him and cuts his arms but can't stop him. However, YT is also in metaverse and Hiro asks her to chase the armless avatar. The Clint reaches the Reverend Wayne's compound and YT tells Hiro that she just delivered an aluminum case there. Hiro asks the Librarian in metaverse about people who speak that strange language and the Librarian tells him about a dead Sumerian language: nam-shub is a word from that language. YT's chase leads her to a giant black cube that is owned by Bob Rife.
The Librarian informs Hiro that Lagos was studying the Bible, Sumerian civilization, neurolinguistics and Bob Rife. In particular, Enki's nam-shub (a Sumerian incantation) has magical power: in ancient times all languages were similar and then Enki's brain "virus" caused people to start talking mutually incomprehensible languages (the biblical story of Babel). This is proven by someone writing a complaint to Enki (Note: somehow the writer lost his ability to write in Sumerian but writes in Sumerian his complaint to Enki). The Librarian explains how ancient people worshipped a goddess named Asherah who represented some kind of dangerous virus (the same virus embodied by the story of Eve tempting Adam), a virus that was eliminated when the Jews banned Asherah from the Bible. Humanity then entered the rational age in which a virus like Asherah could not cause any harm. Hiro understands that now humanity has entered a post-rational era in which viruses spread again, although using digital hardware. Lagos came to realize that the Asherah virus was so powerful because it physically changed the brain. Since the Asherah worship employed cult prostitutes, the Asherah virus was probably spreading as a sexual disease. The Brandy that appeared to Da5id was a modern, digital manifestation of the Asherah virus. The Librarian and Hiro keep discussing ancient Biblical and Sumerian legends. (Note: this is the most tedious and stereotypical part of the narrative, yet another conspiracy theory based on the Christian scriptures, with little or no awareness that most of the world is not even Christian). The Librarian informs Hiro that Bob Rife has escavated ancient Sumerian ruins, looking for something related to the legends of Mesopotamian high-priest Enki.
YT enters the Metaverse and travels to a villa that belongs to a mysterious Ng, a virtuoso Vietnamese hacker who creates a very realistic environment. Ng tells her that he works as a security provider for Lee's kingdom, but now he must be on a mission for the Mafia because it's the Mafia that put them in touch. He was left a cripple by the Vietnam war and now he built a voice-controlled all-terrain van to ride around with all sorts of mini-robots to help him and protect him. Ng takes her to a "sacrifice zone", which is vast abandoned area where kids do drugs. They are looking for Snow Crash dealers. YT learns that Snow Crash is a steroid, capable (like all steroids) of penetrating the walls of brain cells and infect the nucleus thereby altering the way the cell functions. Ng gives YT more than a quadrillion dollars to buy Snow Crash (there's obviously massive inflation and somehow nobody thought of simply devaluating the currency). A miniature helicopter emerges from the van and follows her. The dealers give YT an aluminum briefcase with a keyboard inside. She's supposed to inhale the drug as soon as the dealer programs the computer, but Ng instructed her to throw the briefcase in the air. When she does so, the helicopter grabs it and takes it away, while a shootout between snipers and Ng's robots erupts. YT barely saves herself but Ng proudly announces that they are now the first people ever to steal a sample of Snow Crash before it self-explodes (if not used). While they drive away in the van, some of Ng's robots stay behind to continue the fight. YT, who rescues one named Fido, calls them "Rat Things" but they are actually cyborgs manufactured out of dogs. YT logs into Metaverse and tells Hiro that the Mafia now has a sample of Snow Crash.
YT sneaks again into the Falabalas camp and interviews a woman. This woman used to be a hacker until her computer crashed and she got sick. She was taken to an aircraft carrier owned by Bob Rife, the Raft, where her blood was scientifically taken. Once people run out of blood, they are taken to this camp. YT can now report back to Hiro that these Snow Crash dealers inject people with the blood of sick hackers. YT is now worried about her own mother, who is a hacker for the federal government. YT runs home and destroys her mother's computer, telling her about a dangerous virus that spreads only to programmers. The following day at work her mother is taken and placed under a polygraph machine that interrogates her about YT's actions.
Hiro knows that Juanita is tracking the Raft. Hiro buys a special motorcycle. While he's riding the motorcycle at incredible speed he keeps interacting with the Librarian who briefs him on Sumarian magic.
Hiro travels to Alaska to interview a man named Chuck who used to be the president of an independent republic, TROKK, The republic was taken over by Russian immigrants ("Orthos"), somehow connected with Reverend Wayne's cult, when an Aleut whale killers, Raven, hijacked a Russian nuclear submarine and stole its hydrogen bomb killing a lot of people with his extremely sharp glass knives that elude metal detectors.
At the bar where he was talking with Chuck (who suddenly disappears) Hiro is attacked by fascist racist members of New South Africa and has to kill one with his sword in order to escape. This happens in Reality while Vitaly's music is playing loud all around him. Hiro rides away on his motorcycle, chased by New Southafricans on pickup trucks and by an Enforcer on a special mobile. Meanwhile, when he can, Hiro continues to query the Librarian about ancient Sumerian legends. Hiro learns that a goddess named Inanna took Enki's "me" from the watery fortress where Enki kept it. Somehow he interprets it as Juanita going to the Raft to steal whatever it is that Rife protects there.
YT too gets in trouble. She is sent by a Rife Advanced Research Enterprise (RARE) to deliver a letter to the Fedsland (the territory still controlled by the USA), where her mother works. We learn that the mail is no longer delivered outside the territory controlled by the Feds and that's why kouriers like her have jobs. Entering their territory is painful because they have lengthy bureaucratic customs procedures. Once inside she gets to the central building and delivers her letter to the head Fed but out of the blue he tries to arrest her. She escapes using built-in defense capabilities activated by the sentence "you guys are dead" but she's eventually captured. She is taken to the compound of the Reverend Wayne's cult and forced to board a van full of women infected with contagious babbling. The van travels for two days until it reaches a ship run by Russians. They give her a job in the cafeteria and she observes people with antennas coming out of their heads.
Hiro arrives at the town where the Raft has stopped. Hiro notices that a place belonging to Lee's kingdom has a boat ready for departure and asks to charter it, but doesn't have to: some other passengers have chartered it to go to the same place, Rife's Raft. It turns out it's the Mafia. Hiro is welcome by the same Fisheye who has been dealing with YT on behalf of Uncle Enzo. It turns out they have been using YT to spy on Hiro and they helped him get where he is now. They know about Rife and the Snow Crash virus. They actually know more than Hiro: Lagos discovered the ancient virus and turned it into a digital virus that affects programmers; then Rife stole Lagos' idea. Lagos became suspicious when he saw the spectacular growth of Reverend Wayne's community. Lagos approached Juanita, the Mafia and Mr Lee. As they discuss, Raven attacks their boat and blows it up. Hiro, Fisheye and Chinese skipper Eliot survive in a life boat. Fisheye explains that their mission is to rescue YT from the Raft, and that, in general, Uncle Enzo is angry at Bob Rife.
YT on the Raft realizes that everybody behaves like a zombie with no feelings. The exception is a giant Aleut who turns out to be the Raven she's heard about from Hiro. His real name is Dmitri Ravinoff. She realizes that everybody else on the ship is scared of Raven. Raven takes YT with him and YT is partly seduced by the sexy Aleut.
Hiro takes precautions in the Metaverse. The Metaverse is now a place where one can get seriously hurt (his/her brain can be destroyed). Hiro builds tools to operate on the scroll that he took from the Clint, presumably the very Snow Crash software. Hiro builds an antivirus program capable of detecting and neutralizing Snow Crash. Then Hiro writes an invisible avatar. And finally he dusts off his motorcycle software to build a virtual motorcycle in Metaverse.
Hiro, the Mafia boys and the skipper are adrift in the life boat for a few days. Finally, a pirate ship approaches. Fisheye decides to attract them by having Hiro and the skipper strip naked. The pirates come and Fisheye blows them up with a sophisticated weapon called Reason with bullets made of depleted uranium. Now they can leave the life boat for the motorized yacht of the pirates and head for the Raft. Fisheye's mission is to rescue YT. Hiro also wants to rescue Juanita.
Raven takes YT to the Raft's equivalent of a night club where he proceeds to tell her the story of how his people, the Aluets, were harmed by the USA and how he fled and was eventually rescued by members of the Russian Orthodox church. The 15-years old YT admits to herself that she's being turned on by this crude savage. Just then Raven is called for an emergency. The emergency is actually that Hiro's boat has been spotted. The boat is surrounded by both pirates and Raft guards. Eliot tells Hiro that the most dangerous ones are the Raft people with antennas coming out of their heads: they can communicate with each other. Raven personally blows up Fisheye, then leaves to go back to his date. The skipper is also killed. Only Hiro escapes alive, guided through the Raft by a Filipino boy, Transubstanciacion. Before leaving Hiro analyzes the antennas protruding from an open skull that is still talking and realizes that the antennas pick up something that is being broadcast from the Raft and transmit it directly to the brain. Hiro also takes Fisheye's weapon Reason with him. The Raft is basically a web of ships tied together in every possible manner. They row until they reach the kid's Filipino ghetto, where they are given a hero's welcome.
Raven takes YT to the "Core" of the Raft where he has a luxury suite. The Core is where Rife and his closest associates reside. YT sees logos of Rife Advanced Research Enterprise (RARE) and realizes that Fedsland, Rife and Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates are all in cahoots. YT is increasingly turned on by Raven, who explains to her that Aleuts surf from island to island just like she surfs from place to place, except that they use surf boards to ride waves whereas she uses harpoons and skateboard to ride cars. His philosophy of life is similar: he is not really religious, he is just using the Orthos as a ride to somewhere. He tells her that he is going to war: the Raft is about to attack California. She has the best sex of her life with him but then he suddenly falls asleep. She realizes that she forgot to remove the dentata that she keeps in her vagina to protect her from rapists: it injects narcotics into the offending penis.
Hiro logs into Metaverse and asks the Librarian for a map of the Raft. Then he visits the owner of the company that manufactured the Reason in order to get the latest version of the software. Ng invites Uncle Enzo and Mr Lee himself to join the virtual conversation. Hiro explains that he intends to attack Rife's aircraft. Enzo sends him a huge amount of money to support the operation and warns him to split the money with YT. Then he proceeds to tell them everything he has found out. The ancient legendary Sumerian figure Enki had learned how to program people's minds with a nam-shub formula. In pre-conscious times human societies were controlled by programs called "me" that were stored in the temple. People used the me as a script to perform whatever action they wanted to perform. They were little more than programmed computers. Enki was the man who turned humankind into a conscious species by altering their minds so that they could not understand the Sumerian language anymore and therefore made them incapable of following the me scripts. Then humans started "thinking" instead of simply acting out scripts. The original zombie-like attitude continued to exist in the form of Asherah worship which spread both verbally and sexually, attacking the very linguistic core of the brain.
Here the novel again starts blabbering again about the Bible and Jesus and religious conspiracy theories. Bottom line: Christianity was threatened from the inside by the Pentecostalist sect that was a modern manifestation of the Asherah virus using television and the tele-evangelist Reverend Wayne to spread. And Bob Rife funded this modern version of the Asherah worship. Rife employed more programmers than anyone in the world and realized right away the power of this virus rediscovered by bookworm Lagos. It was Rife that made Wayne a religious superpower. At the same time Rife invested in missionary organizations to spread the virus to third-world countries via vaccinations, using the blood of people already infected with the virus. Snow Crash is nothing but that vaccine. Now Rife's ships are transporting one million of those zombies towards California. Rife grafted antennas into their brains and Rife controls them by broadcasting messages directly into their brainstems. Hackers are more vulnerable to the virus because in its original pre-Sumerian form it was simply a string of binary information, probably coming from out of space, which then instantiated itself as the Sumerian language. Hiro speculates that Rife must have used satellite dishes to harvest the metavirus and that Rife must have found Enki's tablet containing the antidote. Enki left a nam-shub to specifically fight a resurgence of Asherah. Hiro is not after that tablet: if he can find that ancient Sumerian tablet (Note: and read it?), he can infect Rife's army with the antidote.
YT leaves the paralyzed Raven and logs into Metaverse. She finds Hiro in Metaverse and tells him that she slept with Raven and now she's in trouble. Hiro, however, is more converned about Juanita.
YT is taken to Rife's helicopter with the RARE logo. She meets the big man in person, who has taken her hostage so that Uncle Enzo's men would not blow up his helicopter. She sees a tablet in the helicopter. Besides Rife's tech director Frank Frost and Rife's security chief Tony Michaels, another man boards the helicopter, Greg Ritchie, and it shows how little the government of the USA matters: he is the president of the USA but nobody recognizes his name.
Hiro finds and heroically attacks Rife's helicopter. Hiro demands the tablet or he will blow up the helicopter with Reason. Rife, however, shows his hostage and Hiro has to refrain from shooting. YT, ashamed of being a hostage, kicks the tablet out of the helicopter. Rife takes off with YT, and YT sees that Raven is on another helicopter following them. Hiro is attacked by wireheads but one of them rebels and saves him: it is Juanita, to whom the antennas don't do much because her brain's immune system is strong enough to resist the virus. Hiro sends the tablet's message to the Librarian who knows how to read Sumerian and asks him to read it aloud into a microphone connected to the Raft's radio broadcast. One million people start speaking in tongues, basically committing suicide. Juanita is bleeding from her scalp because she has severed one of her antennas with a blade in order not to be affected by the broadcast of Enki's tablet.
Hiro's avatar in Metaverse reaches Rife's black cube while many avatars are holding a benefit event for Da5id. Juanita (sitting next to him in reality) is also goggled in Metaverse seeing what Hiro sees in Metaverse. Inside Rife's black cube they find a blue cube that represents the government of the USA, an organization that employs thousands of programmers (including YT's mom) who don't know what they are working on. Hiro suspects that they are working for Rife, that Rife has commissioned a huge project to the government. Just then Hiro and Juanita see Raven's avatar on a sidecar heading towards the amphitheater where the benefit event is going on. Hiro's avatar jumps on his motorcycle and starts chasing Raven's avatar through Metaverse. Juanita tells Hiro to kill Raven's avatar.
At the same time in reality the helicopter carrying Rife and hostage YT is about to land in California, where Enzo's mafia men and Mr Lee's militia are getting ready to fight them. YT tries to escape but is recaptured by Rife. She manages to issue an alarm call to all the other kouriers of her organization RadiKS. All the kouriers start moving to help her. Also a Rat Thing called Fido, whom YT saved earlier in the story, realizes that YT is being hurt by evil people and rides to YT's rescue at the speed of sound. YT can see that Raven, on the other helicopter, is goggled into the Metaverse too.
In fact, Hiro is talking to Raven in Metaverse. They are sharing the stories of their fathers. It turns out that their fathers knew each other during World War II. They met in a Japanese prison camp: Hiro's father was a soldier and Raven's father was the chief harpooner of the Aleut nation. The two escaped together. But then years later the USA tested nuclear weapons on the Aleuts. Raven wants revenge on the USA. Hiro wants to stop him. Hiro and Raven engage in a sword fight in Metaverse. The people who assembled for the benefit event think that legendary hacker Hiro is doing on their behalf, that it is just a computer sorcery show for Da5id's benefit event. Hiro's avatar wins the duel and kills Raven's avatar but Raven has already unleashed his nuclear weapon on the amphitheater where more and more avatars have been assembling to watch what they believe is a spectacular show. The show ends with a colossal self-advert by Hiro, warning everybody that they could have been exposed to a deadly virus and were saved by Hiro Protagonist Security. Hiro has foiled Raven's attempt to "nuke" (infect with Snow Crash) all the hackers hooked into Metaverse.
YT finally manages to escape from the helicopter, helped by hundreds of kouriers, and calls her mom for a ride home.
Uncle Enzo is waiting for Rife to land at Los Angeles airport, where the Mafia has prepared a trap. However, when the helicopter lands, Raven outsmarts the Mafia. Raven and Enzo end up fighting a deadly duel on the tarmac of the airport. Each gets severely injured by the other. Eventually Enzo kills Raven. Then Fido arrives, still determined to attack Rife. YT witnesses the scene from some distance of Fido causing the airplane to blow up, thereby killing Rife and destroying the Snow Crash virus. YT gets into her mom's car and they head home.
Hiro and his friends saved the world: they liberated the one million people of the Raft from the virus, killed Raven and foiled Rife's plan to take over the world. The winners are the Mafia (if Enzo survives) and Mr Lee. It is not clear what happens to the president of the USA, who was on Rife's helicopeter, and it is not clear what becomes of the USA. It is also not explained why the Mafia would be so keen on saving hostage YT from Rife, and how Rife guesses the value of YT as such a valuable hostage. Finally, it is not clear why the nuclear bomb remotely connected to Raven's brain does not go off when Enzo kills Raven.

"Cryptonomicon" (1999)

synopsis forthcoming

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