Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Executive Summary

Every cyber security geek on the planet should embrace this book. It has everything that we like: Metaverse hacking, real-world swordplay, awesome weapons, and—to cap it all off—the loser hacker ends up with the girl. Stephenson is a cyber geek of the first order, and his personality is all over this story. His description of the “Metaverse” and the “avatars” that live in it, both terms he made famous in this book, are so prescient that anybody playing World of Warcraft or Second Life today would feel right at home. It is canon and written by an author who truly understands the hacker culture. And if that is not a good enough recommendation for you, Time Magazine included Snow Crash in a list of 100 novels everyone must read. You should have read this by now.

Introduction

Because I recently reviewed the classic cyber punk novel Neuromancer,[1] I figured I would continue the trend and review another classic in the genre to see if it too still holds up. That novel is called Snow Crash, and it is written by one of my favorite authors: Neal Stephenson.

I first learned about Stephenson after reading his excellent article called “Mother Earth Mother Board” in Wired Magazine in 1996.[2] He told the story about how the world is connected through massive runs of transatlantic cables that traverse the ocean floors and electronically and physically connect three continents to each other. To do the research, he traveled to each location where the cables made landfall and told the story about how it all comes together: Fascinating. 

It was not until I read Cryptonomicon and In the Beginning...Was the Command Line, both published in 1999, that I became a fan.

Cryptonomicon is the best “hacker” novel I have ever read. I use the word “hacker” here from the old-school definition: hackers are not computer trolls who spend their time breaking into systems for fun and profit but technological wizards who have a genuine passion for learning about how things work and making the world a better place with that knowledge. In the Beginning...Was the Command Line is a treatise about operating systems written at the time when Microsoft, Apple, and Linux devotees began the argument regarding desktop operating dominance; a debate that still rages today. Once I read this book, I went scurrying back to the library to see what else this guy had written, and that is when I stumbled upon Snow Crash.

Oh my!

Stephenson wrote this book in 1992, eight years after William Gibson invented the genre with Neuromancer. At this point, authors well understood the main ideas of the style: stories written in a near dystopian future where technology is advanced, governments have withdrawn in potency to be replaced by corporations, and man-machine interfaces and cyborg beings are the norm. But Snow Crash was like nothing I had ever read before. This was my first cyber punk novel (Neuromancer was still in my future[1]), and every page read like the author was dropping new ideas onto the page like Mardi Gras beads hitting the ground on Bourbon Street. Stephenson wanted to have some fun with it, and the opening pizza-delivery scene reads like you are being launched out of the Hypersonic XLC roller coaster at Kings Dominion. In the words of the great Bette Davis in the movie All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

The Story

The main character is named Hiro Protagonist (see what I mean about having some fun?), a self-proclaimed master swordfighter, hacker in the three-dimensional Internet space called the “Metaverse,” and pizza deliveryman. He teams up with YT (Yours Truly), a 15-year-old skater girl courier, and Uncle Enzio, a mafia kingpin and bankroller for the good-guy team. The bad guys are represented by L. Bob Rife, a Pentecostal evangelist and fiber-optic monopolist, and Raven, a motorcycle-riding, nuclear-bomb-wielding Aleut—as in an Aleutian native—who is roughly the size of a house. The catalyst to all of this good-versus-evil business is Snow Crash, a virus that works both in the “Metaverse” and in the real world that L. Bob Rife intends to use to infect the world.

The Tech

The story’s McGuffin[14], Snow Crash, is a neural-linguistic virus. By that I mean that Snow Crash is a meme that was buried deep in the human brain and forgotten until the bad guys in this story figure out how to unlock it. Stephenson leverages the theory of memetics here introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1976 with his book The Selfish Gene.[10][11] According to Dawkins, 

“[M]emes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. [Memes are] actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.”[12]

Dawkins says that memes may be another way that humans evolve other than gene mutation. According to the theory, memes are ideas that humans transmit to one another across generations and may account for long-lasting ideas like religion, morality, and crop rotation.

In this story, pre-Christian religious leaders controlled the masses with the Snow Crash meme. The virus’s secrets were lost to history until L. Bob Rife (the story’s bad guy) rediscovered them and found out that hackers plugged into the “Metaverse” were susceptible to the digital virus that used them. Hiro asks his girlfriend, “This Snow Crash thing – is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?” She replies, “What’s the difference?”

According to Stephenson, he invented the term “Metaverse” for this book. Readers will most likely associate the “Metaverse” with online role-playing games (RPGs) like World of Warcraft and online heightened-reality experiences like Second Life.[3][4] His description of the “Metaverse” in the first 30 pages of Snow Crash is almost a blueprint to building these kinds of worlds. When you consider that the designers of Google Earth used Stephenson’s blueprint as a model [6][15] and that he published the book two years before World of Warcraft launched and 11 years before Second Life launched, you realize how prescient he was. In a perfect example of the definition of “meta,”[13] players in the Second Life Metaverse annually reenact the Snow Crash novel.[6]

The term “avatar” originates from Hindu mythology and refers to the form of a god living on earth.[7] Game designers adopted the term to represent characters in RPGs as far back as 1979.[8] But Stephenson’s use of the word to describe his characters’ online personas—not just any character but the representation of his or her own personality in the “Metaverse”—catapulted the word into the popular culture,[6] so much so that the word was common enough for James Cameron to use as the title of his blockbuster movie in 2009.[9]

Conclusion

By culturally defining “avatars” and the “Metaverse” for the geek crowd and being one of the first Internet commentators to realize how important memes are, especially in our Internet society of today, Snow Crash is must-read for any Internet history enthusiast and security professional. It is canon. And if that is not a good enough recommendation for you, Time Magazine included Snow Crash in a list of 100 novels everyone must read.[5] Do yourself a favor, and read this book.

Note

I worked for iDefense (a Verisign Inc. business unit) the first time that I wrote a book review of Snow Crash. Jason Greenwood, the current general manager and an old friend of mine, has graciously allowed me to reuse some of the original content from that review for this updated blog post. iDefense is still one of the best commercial cyber security intelligence outfits out there. If you have cyber intelligence needs, you should consider calling those guys.

Sources

[1] "Book Review: ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson," by Rick Howard, Terebrate, 14 October 2013, Last Visited 15 October 2013,

[2] "Mother Earth Mother Board," by Neal Stephenson, Wired, 1996, Last Visited 15 October 2013,

[3] "What is World of Warcraft: Beginner's Guide," Battle Net, Blizzard Entertainment, Last Visited 19 October 2013,

[4] "What is Second Life," Linden Lab, Linden Research, Last Visited 19 October 2013,

[5] "All-TIME 100 Novels," by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, Time magazine, 8 January 2010, Last Visited 19 October 2013,

[6] “Literature: Snow Crash," TV Tropes, Last Visited 26 October 2013,

[7] "avatar," Merriam-Webster, An Encyclopedia Britannica Company, Last Visited 26 October 2013,

[8] “Avatar," TV Tropes, Last Visited 26 October 2013,

[9] "Avatar (2009)," IMDB, Last Visited 26 October 2013,

[10] "Snow Crash: A Review," by Paul Graham Raven, SF Site, 2008, Last Visited 26 October 2013,

[11] "Memetics and evolutionary social science." by Marion Blute, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto at Mississauga, 2005, Last Visited 26 October 2013,

[12] "The Selfish Gene," by Richard Dawkins, Published 16 December 1976 by Oxford University Press, Last Visited 27 October 2013, 

[13] "meta," Google Definition, Last Visited 27 October 2013,

[14] “McGuffin,” Google Definition, Last Visited 27 October 2013,

[15] "Google Earth," Last Visited 27 October 2013,

[16] "Snow Crash, 20 Years Later," by Jeremy Cook, EE Times, 9 September 2013, Last Visited 27 October 2013, 


References

"Media Virus!" by Douglas Rushkoff, Published 20 September 1994 by Ballantine Books, Last Visited 27 October 2013, 

"Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash," by Mark Rosenfelder, Last Visited 27 October 2013, 

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