Hiro Protagonist is a thirty year old katana-wielding pizza delivery man. His world is Los Angeles in the near future (the book was published in 1992, for reference), where the United States had dissolved, into corporate franchise empires that have become nation-states. Burbclaves like The Mews at Windsor Heights provide franchised, uniformly designed, limited-access suburb housing developments. The Mafia runs CostaNostra Pizza, with the promise that your pizza is delivered within 30 minutes or Uncle Enzo will apologize in person. Uncle Enzo does not like flying out from his estate in New York to apologize, so pizza Deliverators drive an extremely fast car, made faster with the added motivation of not wanting to be the person responsible for an Uncle Enzo apology. Hiro is given a pizza that is close to expiring. He speeds down what was formerly I-5 (now a commercially owned road), and in his inattention is (har)pooned by a RadiKS Kourier on a fancy skateboard. He fails to lose the Kourier, and takes a shortcut through someone’s backyard ... into an empty pool. Now he owes the Mafia for a car in addition to problems with Uncle Enzo. Fortunately, the teenage Kourier introduces herself as Y.T. and volunteers deliver the pizza for him, arriving to a soon-to-be-disappointed celebratory crowd (and media helicopters arriving overhead) with five seconds to spare.
Shortly afterwards Y.T. is arrested by the MetaCops (a low-level police company hired by some burbclaves), and she calls up Hiro to get her out of The Clink (a grimy commercial prison; the nicer Hoosegow was full). They escape from The Clink by stealing a taxicab, and are pursued to Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, where Hiro has a passport (purchasable for 100 Kongbucks). The taxi drivers do not have a passport, and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong has Rat Things that run at incredible speeds to eliminate intruders, which one does now, but is injured in gunfire. It appears to be half dog and half machine, powered by thermal fission, which is heating its tail red-hot. Y.T. takes pity on it and they drag it back to its kennel.
Hiro lives in a U-Stor-It across from LAX. He abandoned the car, did not return to his job, and is now doing freelance intelligence work for the Central Intelligence Corporation (formerly the CIA) in hopes of earning enough money to pay the Mafia back for the car. He is not optimistic. Some of his information is gained while jacked into the Metaverse, a 3D computer simulation of a planet with a 65,535 km round along the equator. Prior to entering the Black Sun, an elite programmer gathering-place, someone suggests he try the drug Snow Crash. Seems like a bad idea to take a hypercard from a stranger on the Metaverse, it’s likely to put all kinds of viruses on your computer. Inside the Black Sun he talks with a former crush of his, Juanita, a fellow programmer who designed the avatar facial emotions, who warns him to stay away from the Raven, warns him not to try Snow Crash, and gives him a hypercard. He also chats with a former manager of his, who tries out Snow Crash in front of his eyes, and it fries his brain. Hiro also “kills” the avatar of a Japanese guy who tried to rough him up; Hiro, who is half black and half Japanese, is an avid sword fighter.
Y.T. introduced Hiro to his roommate Vitaly, a member of a Russian thrasher band, which Hiro has discovered he likes. So he helps out with sound setup and security at the concerts. At the concert the Raven shows up to do a deal with a rival police security company that is standing around. The deal goes bad, kills one of the concert security police, and Hiro, Y.T. and the police chase down Raven, but he is far to skillful a fighter, killing several police with a super-sharp knife that rips through bullet-proof vests like cloth.
Juanita’s hypercard contains a large amount of information a friend of hers collected from The Library (the company that runs what used to be the Library of Congress), along with a Librarian AI. The person was investigating ancient Sumerian religion. Over the course of the plot, Hiro repeatedly converses with the Librarian to reconstruct what Juanita’s friend had pieced together, a task made a little more difficult by the inability of the Librarian to process metaphor, or to summarize material. From the Sumerian myths, Hiro surmises that Enki, the god of the Sumerians, was an actual person who had the ability program the mind. This was possible because the Sumerian language (now unknown) was a close match to the hardwired language abilities of the brain. His laws (me) were programs for people in society to perform, and went viral. He saw that this was not healthy for society in the long-term, and so he create a nam-shub (spell) that activated people’s primitive language centers in the brain, whereupon that spoken in tongues like Pentecostals and forgot the hardwired language. This forced them to use their higher brain to communicate, which inoculated them to the lower-level me-programming, and was recorded in the Bible as the Tower of Babel.
This explained the rise in popularity of the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates religious franchise. The owner, L. Bob Rife, also owned the company that operated the Metaverse. Some years prior, he purchased an aircraft carrier, and made it the center of the Raft, which slowly floated up the Asian coast picking up refugees, and then down the North American coast, where they got off. Hiro eventually surmised that Snow Crash was a drug that restored the primitive functions of the brain, allowing people to be reprogrammed with me again. In the digital world, Snow Crash was a bitmap, like the snow on the monitor of a computer that crashed hard. Since programmers’ had essentially programmed their brains in the course of their career to understand binary thinking, the bitmap would load directly into their brains through their eyes, and fry their brains. (After having an avatar try to forcibly show him a Snow Crash bitmap in the sanctuary of The Black Sun, Hiro wrote a program to remove Snow Crash bitmaps presented to him in the Metaverse.)
Meanwhile, Uncle Enzo had taken an interest in Y.T. First, he arranged to meet her by having one of his burbclave franchisees send him some paperwork by Kourier, specifically her. (The promotion-seeking franchisee decides that this is too important to entrust to Kourier and takes it to Uncle Enzo himself, an action for which he was not rewarded.) They chat a bit. Later, she is asked to rendezvous at a truck stop with a Mr. Ng (who owns a company that makes technological weapons, the Rat Things among them). He lost is harms and legs fighting in Vietnam, and his “wheelchair” is a large truck to which he is wired in through a plethora of wires. Ng drives them to a Sacrifice Zone (former shipbuilding areas that are so full of asbestos that they have been cordoned off as unlivable, and are now inhabited by druggies), where Y.T. is told to purchase some Snow Crash and then throw it in the air. Snow Crash automatically expels its contents after five seconds, to prevent it from being captured and analyzed, but Ng’s drones captured it before it went off (and other drones kill off the snipers the drug lord had set up around the perimeter). He delivers it to the Mafia.
Shortly afterwards, Y.T. is assigned a packaged to be delivered to the Feds (a small area of Los Angeles still under United States control, mostly government buildings). The address is the police building, where they attempt to arrest her. She deploys an array of defenses, which enable her to escape the building, but is ultimately captured in the parking lot. She is placed with a lot of Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates tongues-speaking, weirdly de-programmed converts, and taken to the Raft.
Hiro realizes that Juanita has gone to the Raft, so he goes to find her. He purchases a high-end motorcycle with fancy gear, and then rides up to Oregon near where the Raft is. The port nearest the Raft is in a lot of chaos, so Hiro goes to the Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong in the port (the only place still peaceful) and attempts to charter their boat, but is told that it is impossible, although the passenger is going to the Raft and perhaps he could make a deal. Upon arriving at the boat, he discovers that the Mafia chartered it, and arranged the chaos specifically so that he would be in their boat. The plan almost works, except that their boat is attacked and sunk, so they end up drifting on a life raft.
The Mafia boss has a research version of a new weapon, named Reason (Louis XIV’s canons were inscribed with “the last argument of kings”), made by the same company that made the Rat Things. It is a rail gun that shoots out depleted uranium, and, like the rat things, is powered by nuclear fission. This means that the heat exchanger needs to be kept in the water to avoid overheating, which generates a steady column of steam. Reason proves its usefulness in mowing down the crew of a large pirate ship that accosted them, and they upgrade to one of its small ships in tow whose hull Reason had not punctured. Night fell as they got closer to the Raft, and they had little fuel, so they had to park on the edge of the Raft. Pirates and looters attempted to board the ship during the night, but they fended them all off, although everyone besides Hiro (and a Filipino who was down in the bottom of the ship) were killed. The Filipino leads Hiro through the maze of the Raft to his family’s neighborhood where he stays the night.
In the morning, Hiro discovers that the Core (the central ships that are in control of the Raft) is aware of him. They communicate through people that have antennae implanted into their brainstem. So, Hiro leaves Filipino neighborhood in search of the central Core. L. Bob Rife’s aircraft carrier, the Enterprise, is located at the center of the Raft, and its guns attack Hiro if he stays in one place too long. As he gets closer, he shoots out the guns with Reason. When he gets close enough to board, he shoots a hole in the side of the hull and goes in.
Meanwhile, Y.T. was taken out of the dull religious people camp that she had been serving by Raven, who had taken a liking to her. She, somewhat accidentally tranquilizes Raven, and goes in search of the Core. She is taken captive by the antenna men, and ferried to L. Bob Rife’s helicopter. As it takes off, she sees Hiro below her. Rife had excavated a Sumerian site in his search for the ability to create nam-shub, and one of the artifacts was a tablet sealed within another envelope-tablet, with a warning by Enki written on the front. Y.T. kicks this out the door as the helicopter takes off.
Hiro had found Juanita at this point, with and both of them were on the deck as the helicopter left. He took a picture of the inner tablet and had the Librarian in his Metaverse office reconstruct the image and transliterate it. Hiro and Juanita go to the transmission deck (the antenna men received spoken transmissions of me to execute) and send the contents of Enki’s nam-shub, which was the nam-shub he used for the original Babel incident. Soon, everyone on the raft is speaking in new languages in a second Babel.
Rife’s intent was to set up command for when the Raft arrived in California waters, where a bunch of refugees would come ashore and be programmed with me. On his way to LAX, they stop at the port in Oregon, where Y.T. tries unsuccessfully to escape, but she is able to call in a skater Code for LAX. When the helicopter arrives near LAX, a bunch of skateboarders have gathered and magnetically poon the helicopter. Each, individually, does not have much drag, but the combination of all of them prevents the helicopter from getting any lift and it lands. Uncle Enzo has arrived at LAX to meet up with Y.T., and he is attacked by Raven, whom he defeats by using the glass-shattering device on the front of the replacement skateboard he bought for Y.T. Rife is killed by the Rat Thing that Y.T. had saved, rushing at its top speed of 700 mph down to LAX; it had heard through the dog network that this girl was in trouble.
Before Raven was killed, he and Hiro had a Metaverse chase, where he tried to deliver a Snow Crash bitmap to an assembly of programmers as an act of revenge on the world. Hiro does not prevent him from reaching the assembly to deliver the bitmap, but he does defeat him and execute his bitmap-scrubbing program.
I read Snow Crash because it is widely regarded as excellent in the programmer community, however, I was not overly impressed. The book has the same flavor as Neuromancer, although it is considerably funnier if you assume that the corporatization of America is tongue-in-cheek. The hopelessness, drugs, sex, and 3D-computing of the cyberpunk feel does not resonate with me. The plot of the two books is also roughly similar: computer-types uncover, find, and resolve a deep mystery.
I wonder what my reaction reading this book in 1992 would have been, though. The corporatization seems far-fetched, both then and now, but the Metaverse might have had a more compelling sci-fi aspect. I have never bought into the idea that a 3D interface for a computer is a compelling user interface, especially on a flat monitor, because 3D hides things behind other things and you have to walk around and find them, whereas 2D lets you access everything at once. Now that virtual reality looks like it might become a compelling reality, it will be interesting to see if a Metaverse happens. However, history does not bode well for the Metaverse: the closest thing to it, Second Life, has not been very widespread. Ultimately, if I have to deal with all the problems of 3D in my virtual world, it seems like I might as well just use in the real world.
The story is an interesting read, though, and I finished the book quickly. It is not a happy-feeling book, but it is a gripping read. Stephenson still has parallel stories happening at once, but there are really only ever two parallel stories, so it is not too bad, unlike the disorientation of Cryptonomicon. As always, Stephenson is technically excellent, having been a programmer himself, although he did simplify things quite a bit compared to the details in Cryptonomicon. If you like cyberpunk, you’ll probably like this. If you like Dan Brown, you might like it: the book feels like a DaVinci Code for Mesopotamia. If you are less dystopian- or conspiracy- minded, you might not like it as well. Regardless, it is certainly a classic in the field.