Snow Crash

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Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Image: www.bioethics.ac.uk)

General Information

Snow Crash is a science-fiction novel written by American author Neal Stephenson. It was published in 1992 and established Stephenson as a major science-fiction writer of the 1990s. The book was selected by Time magazine as one of the 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923. The list was created by critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo [1]. Snow Crash has been considered a parody of cyberpunk, filled with satire - deliberately looking at the world “through the lens of exaggerated, humorous motifs aimed at providing insight through magnification of salient traits.” [2] In 1993, the novel was nominated for a BSFA (British Science Fiction Association Award) and a Prometheus award. In 1994, it received a nomination for an Arthur C. Clarke award [3] [4].

The science-fiction novel depicts a posthuman world in which many of its inhabitants have a parallel existence in the Metaverse - a digital network that has some features in common with the internet. Users log into the Metaverse with a virtual reality headset that has earphones that are plugged into the ears [5]. The Metaverse is mostly populated by real people that are represented by avatars in the digital space. It is a virtual reality world envisioned as a large cyber-planet containing homes, corporate headquarters, nightclubs, and other types of buildings found in reality, and others that are not. Besides the real people, the Metaverse also contains totally synthetic characters. These have different degrees of capability and complexity, interacting with users as if they were avatars representing real people [6]. Once a user enters the Metaverse, he will be presented with a brilliantly lit boulevard that stretches off into an infinite blackness. The boulevard is a computer-rendered view of an imaginary place from where the user will then navigate the fantasy world through the use of his avatar. The story’s main character is called Hiro Protagonist - a young man who is a computer hacker by profession. He spends the majority of his time in the Metaverse, believing it is his only escape from the harshness of reality [5].

The book has had a great influence in several people that were inspired by the world that Stephenson created, more specifically the concept of the Metaverse. Indeed, Michael Abrash (Chief Scientist at Oculus VR) has described how the novel inspired him to start thinking about a lot of concepts that were explored in the book that could be implemented in real life [7]. The book is also said to have predicted several aspect of modern society and technology, like pervasive access to the internet, a virtual “web” of interconnected information [5] [8]. Its arrival in 1992 coincided with the emergence of the internet, when William Gibson’s ideas about cyberspace were being reshaped by his readers in their own image. Therefore, it was integrated easily in a culture that was at the brink of a new information revolution with the world wide web. Snow Crash’s influence goes well beyond the confines of traditional science-fiction literature. It has influenced game designers, coders, graphic artists and 3D modellers who, like Michael Abrash, took a sense of possibility and tried to realize it in the real world [9].

Some consider that one of the major successes of the novel is that it is fun, even though it defies some of the rules and protocols of science-fiction writing, with massive infodumps on Sumerian religion, information theory and other subjects [9].

About the story

The main character, Hiro Protagonist, is a freelance hacker and the best sword fighter in the Metaverse. The story revolves around Hiro, as he uncovers the secret behind the online narcotic “Snow Crash” and the collapse of the dystopian society. He teams up with Y.T. and Juanita (Hiro’s old girlfriend) to delve into the mystery that mixes Sumerian myth with virtual reality in a cyberpunk setting [10] [11].

Some reviewers consider that the book has one of the most effective opening hooks in science-fiction. A description of a high-tech armored driver and car; a man who works for the Mafia delivering pizzas. During this setup, not only the main protagonist is introduced but also the skateboard courier Y.T., and some of the major players and political structure of the future Los Angeles [12].

Snow Crash can be considered cyberpunk humor. The characters approach an insane, satirical world with a sarcastic attitude. The author does not only provides humorous ideas, but also “digs beneath the surface, filling out the corners and edges with with bits of trivia and extrapolation, resulting in a highly improbable world that feels, while reading, like a living, breathing place just a few exaggerations around the corner from our own.” [12]

The story is also considered divisive. Many view the novel has flawed, going against a lot of accepted tenets of literary writing. Indeed, Stephenson’s education was as a physicist and a geographer and he came to writing from the outside. One of the criticism is that right from the opening two chapters Neal Stephenson picks style over substance, providing a constant flow of information that can overwhelm the reader and take him out of the narrative (the so called “infodumps”). This is a trend that is constant throughout the book. It is the result of the author doing masses of research on a variety of different subjects [9].

About the author

Stephenson, in addition to his work as a science-fiction writer, is also the chief futurist at the AR company Magic Leap. He was born in Fort Meade, and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. He studies physics and geography [13].

He is the author of several other books like Zodiac, the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and the three volumes of the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World). Stephenson also writes under the pseudonym Stephen Bury [9][14].

Influence of Snow Crash

There is no doubt that Snow Crash has a great impact in inspiring a lot of people and their outlook on technology. Indeed, much of the current VR industry is inspired by Stephenson’s novel. The author is also excited about VR and augmented reality (AR). He has shared his general outlook on technology and the future saying that “you can argue that there’s a social impact that’s not so great, in that people can be so fixated on their phone or their laptop that they’re not looking up… I would hope we find our way that we kind of get both, that we continue to get access to all the cool information that’s available on the Internet but maybe do so in a more social way, a more shared way and kind of get back in the habit of looking at each other.” [13]

One of the main concepts responsible for the impact of the novel was the Metaverse - the “dreamy virtual domain that is free of physical constraints and societal status, filled with boundless possibilities limited only by our imagination and creativity.” [15] While the internet has been compared to the Metaverse, it still is not the fully realization of that idea. Nevertheless, technology seems to be moving in that direction [15].

WebVR is a free JavaScript API developed by Mozilla that lets the user have VR experiences through a web browser. Bozorgzadeh, writing for Venture Beat, declared that WebVR is the undisputed missing link that will spark the next iteration of the internet, bringing it closer to the concept of the Metaverse. Due to the increasing focus on the “immersive web” by companies like Google, Oculus, Samsung, and Microsoft, WebVR has had a surge of support. It delivers immersive online experiences without downloads or installs. It also maintains the rights and freedoms of the internet like open and affordable access [15].

Sean White, SVP of Emerging Technologies at Mozilla, described the next version of the internet - the Metaverse - as “part of the natural evolution, an extension, of how we connect with computation, with each other, and with the world around us. The last several years have seen a proliferation of interaction paradigms that are moving out of pure research and are unified through the Metaverse, and as this happens, we want positive actors in the space — ones that put people first. This has the potential to truly empower learning, creative expression, critical thinking, and connection across the globe.” [15]. Some believe that gaming engines will be the platforms for building the Metaverse, while others think that the concept of the Metaverse goes beyond the capacity of gaming engines, being a protocol supported by multiple platforms from different vendors. WebVR seems a good candidate to bring the next evolution of the internet. It is an open protocol, and can serve as a binding force that connects different mediums. It enables the Metaverse instead of attempting to preconceive and contrive its form, design, and rules. Like the internet, the Metaverse must be a big decentralized and democratized experiment that is organically crowdsourced [15].

The WebVR developer community is building core metaversal functions like traversal “deep” linking, in which users travel seamlessly between one virtual space to the next without having to remove their headset. Another core construct being built to support a Metaverse are Backpacks. These are portable storage units that allow users to take data from one experience to the next. There are other essentials being developed like security, defining and enabling social interactions, and developing avatars or other forms of identity that are constant or change according to the different virtual worlds [15].

Predictions

Snow Crash is a novel known for its foresight. While Neal Stephenson wrote it in 1992, he described in it a lot of the aspects of our modern day internet and society [8]. Bijan Sabet, a partner at venture-capital firm Spark Capital, said that "we are living in Neal Stephenson's story. The thing about Snow Crash is that every few years something happens that makes the story come alive again and again for me." Others have made analogies between sections of the Metaverse and interactions on Twitter, certain characters and the search capabilities of Google, and compared Hiro’s pizza delivery methods with the current pervasive use of GPS [16].

One of the major predictions was that of the internet. In the novel, users connect to a global network of computers through VR goggles. In the network they interact, trade data, go to what can be considered 3D websites, and play games. The physical components of the network involve large fiber-optic lines all over the world, but the users can also connect to it wirelessly. This Metaverse is where the majority of the story takes place and there are clear parallels with the internet currently available. Another prediction was that of cell phones. In 1992, the cell phone technology was still bulky, but in the novel characters have cell phones that are very similar to the ones that exist today - small and powerful [17]

Other predictions involve mobile computing - in Snow Crash there is a group of people called Gargoyles that have mobile computers that can jack into the network -, digital libraries, Google Earth, and Digital Rights Management (DRM) [17].

References

  1. Grossman, L. (2010). All-time 100 Novels. Retrieved from http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/slide/snow-crash-1992-by-neal-stephenson/
  2. Pimentel, S. (2016). Snow Crash Revisited: Grokking a Satire of Mimesis. Retrieved from https://hackernoon.com/snow-crash-revisited-grokking-a-satire-of-mimesis-23de3ac05f47
  3. Worlds Without End. 1993 Award Winners & Nominees. Retrieved from https://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1993
  4. Worlds Without End. 1994 Award Winners & Nominees. Retrieved from https://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1994
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Sedore, M. (2012). The dangers behind technological progress: Posthuman control in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Master of Arts Thesis, Florida Atlantic University. Retrieved from https://fau.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fau%3A3969/datastream/OBJ/view/dangers_behind_technological_progress.pdf
  6. Allbeck, J. M. and Badler, N. I. (1998). Avatars á la Snow Crash. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/hms/24
  7. Abrash, M. (2012). Valve: How I got here, what it’s like, and what I’m doing. Retrieved from http://blogs.valvesoftware.com/abrash/valve-how-i-got-here-what-its-like-and-what-im-doing-2/
  8. 8.0 8.1 Robert (2013). Snow Crash’s Influence On The Internet & Gaming. Retrieved from https://101books.net/2013/02/05/snow-crashs-influence-on-the-internet-gaming/
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Raven, P. G. (2008). Snow Crash. Retrieved from https://www.sfsite.com/09a/sn279.htm
  10. Bookrags. Snow Crash Summary & Study Guide Description. Retrieved from http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-snow-crash/#gsc.tab=0
  11. Stranger Views (2017). 5 reasons Snow Crash will be the coolest book you ever read. http://www.strangerviews.com/sci-fi-books/classic-sci-fi-books/5-reasons-snow-crash-will-coolest-book-ever-read/
  12. 12.0 12.1 Eyrie.org. Snow Crash. Retrieved from https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/reviews/books/0-553-56261-4.html
  13. 13.0 13.1 Ha, A. (2016). ‘Snow Crash’ author Neal Stephenson is hoping for weird, indie VR. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/13/neal-stephenson-disrupt/
  14. Mustich, J (2008). Neal Stephenson: Anathem. Retrieved from http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/neal-stephenson-anathem/
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 Bozorgzadeh, Amir-esmaeil (2017). A primer on the Metaverse: The next iteration of the Internet. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2017/04/09/a-primer-on-the-metaverse-the-next-iteration-of-the-internet/
  16. Anders, C. J. (2013). Did Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash predict the world of today? Retrieved from http://io9.gizmodo.com/did-neal-stephensons-snow-crash-predict-the-world-of-t-511697336
  17. 17.0 17.1 Fife, R. (2011). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash: ’92’s eerie cyber-prophet. Retrieved from http://www.tor.com/2011/04/14/neal-stephensons-snow-crash-92s-eerie-cyber-prophet/

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