Snow Crash (1992) is a cyberpunk sci-fi novel starring katana-wielding, pizza-delivering hacker Hiro Protagonist and his partner, spunky teen skateboarder Y.T. It features a virus called Snow Crash which pervades both the physical world and the virtual world, also known as the Metaverse. But it soon becomes apparent that Snow Crash is more than just a virus – as Hiro delves deeper, he discovers a conspiracy that has its roots in ancient Sumerian legends and poses a dire threat to humanity.
Introduction: A riveting, anthropology-fueled sci-fi adventure.
Table of Contents
In the middle of the twenty-first century, American society has all but collapsed. Its territory is now split into a patchwork of zones ruled by private corporations, ambitious entrepreneurs, crime bosses, and mercenary armies. The once-powerful American federal government has retreated to remote compounds performing irrelevant work, its influence almost nonexistent and its name a laughingstock.
Meanwhile, a technological alternate reality – the Metaverse – has risen in concert with the dissolution of society. It’s populated by the avatars – virtual representations of the real-world people who control them.
When the story of Snow Crash begins, there’s a virus sweeping through both worlds. And it falls to our lead character – Hiro Protagonist – to figure out what it is and how to stop it.
Shiny goggles project a brilliantly-lit boulevard in front of Hiro Protagonist’s eyes. His computer is rendering this image of a virtual reality: the Metaverse.
Real-life Hiro is broke, living in a 20-by-30 U-Stor-It in Inglewood, California. But in the Metaverse, he’s royalty. Having bought an early development license in the Metaverse, he’s got a house on the busiest part of the Street – the Metaverse equivalent of Broadway or the Champs-Elysee.
Here in the Metaverse, people are represented by avatars – audiovisual bodies. Your avatar can look however you want: beautiful, ugly, or like a giant talking vegetable. But Hiro just looks like Hiro: cappuccino-colored skin, almond-shaped eyes, dreadlocks, and matching swords.
Right now he’s headed for The Black Sun, an exclusive club coded to prevent unauthorized entry. Outside the entrance, one avatar catches his attention – an unusually tall man with long hair, a forehead tattoo, and a suspicious grin.
“You want to try some Snow Crash?” the avatar asks Hiro, proffering a hypercard – a business card representing a chunk of data. It sounds like he’s offering Hiro a drug, but that doesn’t make sense – you can’t get high by looking at bits of data. Right?
In any case, Hiro knows enough not to touch a hypercard offered by a strange avatar, and he turns inside the club.
There, he runs into his ex-girlfriend, Juanita Marquez. She also hands him a hypercard, this one labeled with the word BABEL. She says it’s loaded with video on L. Bob Rife, the oil and finance executive. Before leaving, she warns Hiro not to mess with Snow Crash.
Later, Hiro encounters Da5id, the owner of The Black Sun. He shows Hiro a hypercard he got from an avatar outside – Snow Crash. With a little encouragement from Hiro, Da5id tears the hypercard in half, activating it.
For a second, nothing happens. But then a naked female avatar appears on the table holding a pair of tubes. She leans forward and whispers something into Da5id’s ear. His face becomes dazed and expressionless, and then the avatar reveals a scroll. Hiro glances at it briefly, seeing a wall of static – a “snow crash” that indicates a system malfunction.
Da5id shrugs it off, but Hiro knows Da5id’s optic nerve was just exposed to maybe a hundred thousand bytes of information. And what did the avatar whisper in Da5id’s ear? “Just a bunch of babble,” Da5id says.
Then, as they continue to talk, Da5id’s voice starts to sound funny – white noise creeps into his audio. And then his avatar suddenly transforms into a jittering cloud of pixels. It flashes back and forth from color to black and white, throwing out jagged lines that extend to the walls of the club.
Computer programs known as daemons head toward them and eject the glitching Da5id from his own establishment.
Okay, I know what you’re wondering – what kind of name is “Hiro Protagonist?” It’s clearly an ironic, tongue-in-cheek choice for the main character of a novel. But Stephenson makes that choice for more than just comedic purposes. It’s also a hint at the novel’s meta-awareness.
The way that characters use names and name things, shows the power of language. Think about it: having the hero of the novel literally named Hiro Protagonist actually pushes us further toward thinking of him in that way. The power of language, as you’ll soon see, is a major ongoing theme in the novel.
As for the storyline of the first section, we get acquainted with the Metaverse – one of the concepts for which Snow Crash is especially famous. The goggles that Hiro uses to access the Metaverse are a lot like modern-day virtual-reality headsets. And we all know the concept of avatars – Stephenson invented it.
The internet as we know it is already a kind of Metaverse, and certain tech founders want to make it even more like the one in Snow Crash. Just take the most obvious example of Mark Zuckerberg, who renamed his company Meta: a direct reference to the Metaverse.
But just appreciate for a moment that Stephenson’s Metaverse is from 1992, when our own idea of the internet was still in its infancy. It’s not envisioned as a perfect world that enables everyone to be whatever they want. There’s still a very real hierarchy in Stephenson’s Metaverse. Corporations own large pieces of it and the higher-ups at The Black Sun decide who’s allowed in and who doesn’t make the cut. But in a more hopeful sense, it does privilege certain people who have less in the real world – primarily hackers like Hiro.
L. Bob Rife
In the real world, Hiro and his new friend and business partner Y.T. head to a punk concert of Hiro’s roommate, Vitaly. On the way, Hiro jumps back into the Metaverse. In his Metaverse office, he finds the result of the hypercard Juanita handed him in The Black Sun. It’s the Librarian, a daemon designed to search and sort through massive amounts of data. It was originally coded by a researcher called Dr. Emanuel Lagos.
Curious, Hiro inquires about Babel, the word written on Juanita’s hypercard. The Librarian explains the truth about the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In it, God didn’t destroy the Babylonians’ Tower – instead, he confused human language so no one could understand each other.
Then Hiro probes into L. Bob Rife. More than just an oil tycoon, Rife has ties to several evangelical churches and owns a majority share in the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates church franchise. He also hints at his overall motive: to control people’s access to information, even if it already lies within their heads.
Rife also owns an aircraft carrier called The Enterprise. Since its purchase, several hundred other boats have glommed onto it, earning it the name The Raft. It’s primarily full of refugees seeking America.
In one of the videos Hiro watches, Rife equates the spread of information to a virus. The idea of America has spread across the world, causing people to seek it out. The Raft’s function is to feed into that concept further, constantly bringing new people into America.
The first few pieces of the Snow Crash puzzle start to come together in this section.
First, we learn more about the Babel story. There was some kind of event – perhaps a real one – that caused people to suddenly stop being able to understand each other’s language.
We also learn a lot more about L. Bob Rife. He’s clearly emerging as a symbol – or perhaps a parody, given the novel’s ironic streak – of unchecked corporate power. Rife isn’t shy about his desire to reshape the fabric of society through the control and manipulation of information. In a sense, he’s the crux of the novel’s concerns about the rapid explosion of technology and capitalism.
Finally, we get more clues about the concept of information in Snow Crash and its tendency to spread like a virus. Just like viruses infect and replicate within biological systems, information can do the same within individuals’ minds. By controlling information, one can effectively control human consciousness. At least, L. Bob Rife thinks so.
Hiro snaps back to reality after Y.T. yanks his Metaverse glasses off. They’re approaching a concert where huge crowds of thrashers are gathered to watch punk star and Hiro’s roommate, Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns.
Hiro orbits the fringes of the concert, observing a detachment of Crips gang members as well as some strange laser lights. These lasers turn out to be coming from a gargoyle – someone who constantly collects data on their surroundings using body computers. The gargoyle is none other than Dr. Emanuel Lagos.
Lagos recognizes Hiro and mentions “the Raven thing.” Hiro tells Lagos that Juanita wanted them to meet. Lagos says that makes sense since Hiro is a freelance hacker and therefore less prone to “infection” than corporate hackers. Plus, Hiro can defend himself in Reality thanks to his swords. He’ll need those skills if he ever goes up against Raven, whose knives are sharp enough to cut through a bulletproof vest.
Lagos also warns Hiro that Hiro’s coding experience gives him deep neurolinguistic pathways in his brain that make him vulnerable to nam-shub. Hiro has no idea what that means or who Raven is, but Lagos steamrolls past and simply tells him not to look too long at any bitmaps. Oh, and that bitmap that Da5id looked at? It was a cult prostitute of Asherah spreading disease.
Hiro walks away from Lagos feeling like he’s just interacted with an insane person. But he’s got other problems. A big, black motorcycle with a huge sidecar attached has just shown up at the concert. Sitting atop it is an enormous man with long black hair and a wispy mustache. It’s Raven – the same guy who tried to give Hiro Snow Crash.
Raven meets with the Crips, handing them a metal briefcase. Then, not long after, Hiro finds that Lagos has been horrifically murdered with a clean slice from his legs to his jaw. Raven’s work.
Following a pursuit, Hiro finds a self-destructed briefcase containing a drug, which he’s told is Snow Crash.
The enigmatic Raven makes his debut here as one of the main antagonists in Snow Crash. Like L. Bob Rife, he’s an embodiment of the extremes at play in Stephenson’s dystopian world. In particular, he represents a fusion of the low-tech and the high-tech world. He fights with knives – but ones made of glass. His raw physical might is more helpful in the real world than the virtual one, yet he also takes part in handing out the deadly drug Snow Crash in the Metaverse.
Lagos also appears alive in this section for the first and only time in the novel. Although Lagos is kitted out with technology that enables him to constantly surveil his surroundings, he’s easily murdered by Raven and his weapons. What this shows is that technology isn’t all-powerful. Older technologies are still very relevant and dangerous – despite the vast changes the world goes through, the human mind and body retain their traditional vulnerabilities.
Y.T. works a side gig as a delivery courier and has been offered a high amount of money for a delivery from the Mafia. This ultimately takes her to Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates Church #1106. Inside, she sees the ground strewn with glass vials, and one of the parishioners is speaking in tongues. The reverend takes the delivery – an aluminum suitcase – from her. He brings it into his office and opens it to reveal several vials just like the ones in the suitcase Raven had at the concert. He sticks one of the vials into his computer, inhales whatever’s inside, and zones out, no longer able to communicate.
Meanwhile, Hiro is summoned to the hospital by Juanita. There he finds Da5id, who’s been suffering from seizures, arrhythmia – and babbling.
Investigating Da5id’s house, he finds a snow-crashed computer. He discusses the situation with Juanita and learns that Da5id’s brain was compromised by a “metavirus” – a virus that causes a system to infect itself with new viruses. It was transmitted to him by the Snow Crash scroll, which flashed a large amount of information straight into his optic nerve.
But that’s not the only version of Snow Crash that exists. L. Bob Rife also spreads it as a physical drug in reality. To know more, Juanita says, Hiro should look at the Babel stack and investigate someone called Inanna.
After speaking with Juanita in the Metaverse, Hiro spots a rough-looking male avatar. The avatar is holding a scroll – and he’s trying to show it to Hiro. Just in time, Hiro cuts off the avatar’s arms, then has The Black Sun’s daemons relocate it to his office for safekeeping.
This section clarifies more about the nature of Snow Crash as simultaneously a virus, a drug, and a religion.
Juanita argues that these three things are not very different. She says it’s as if people have religion receptors built into their brain cells and will latch onto anything that feels like a suitable substitute. Religion used to be viral – spreading from one mind to another as a piece of information. But this form of religion was primal and irrational. And that’s the form that the world is heading toward in the world of Snow Crash, as L. Bob Rife uses the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates franchises to spread the virus, the drug, and the religion.
The nam-shub of Enki
At his Meta office, Hiro delves into the Snow Crash mystery with the help of the Librarian.
First, they discuss the phenomenon of speaking in tongues – glossolalia. It’s a neurological feature frequently exploited in religious rituals across a variety of faiths. Stemming from deep structures within the brain, it’s associated with symptoms like hysteria, loss of control, and sometimes twitching and jerking. According to Pentecostal Christians, glossolalia allowed diverse peoples to understand each other without actually having a language in common.
Another important concept Hiro delves into is the nam-shub – the term Lagos mentioned previously. The Librarian explains that it’s a word in Sumerian meaning “speech with magical force.” To help explain this further, the Librarian shows Hiro a picture of a cuneiform tablet from Sumer. It’s actually a clay envelope bearing the inscription: “This envelope contains the nam-shub of Enki.”
Enki, the Librarian explains, was a Sumerian who understood the power of language particularly well. So well that he had the power to create nam-shubs. One of those was a nam-shub that confused and separated human language – a Babel event. Afterward, people could no longer understand Sumerian and languages diverged. A neurolinguistic virus had infected everyone who’d heard the nam-shub.
Hiro also learns about Asherah, a goddess of eroticism and fertility with a healthy destructive streak. She’s associated with Eve and the fall from Paradise. Allegedly, Asherah infected humanity with a metavirus – a virus that made them susceptible to other viruses, physical and otherwise. Was the Asherah virus what gave people the ability to speak in tongues?
And Inanna, the one that Juanita is obsessed with? She’s a goddess the Sumerians hailed as a savior because, according to the literature, “she brought the perfect execution of the me.” Me were like algorithms for carrying out certain activities essential to society. There were me dealing with how to carry out religious ceremonies, some relating to the arts of war and diplomacy, others dealing with kingship, arts, and crafts. Essentially, they were an operating system for societies. In the myths, Inanna got Enki to give her all the me, and this is how they were released into civilization.
Without quite knowing how all of this is connected, Hiro knows for sure that he needs to get to The Raft and L. Bob Rife, ASAP.
Finally, the major pieces of the mystery in the novel have started to come together. One of the key lessons deals with the power of language and its connection to human society and culture. Through Hiro’s investigation into glossolalia and nam-shubs, we see how language possesses transformative potential and can be thought of as having magical abilities. Language shapes the real world just as binary code, perhaps more obviously, shapes the virtual world.
The characters of Asherah and Inanna are linked with chaos and order, destruction and creation, respectively. The metavirus, represented by Asherah, is a force of infection – a kind of fall from Paradise. Meanwhile, the me, represented by Inanna, embodies the structures keeping society in order. This dichotomy reveals one of the novel’s major concerns: the dual ability of information to act as both an empowering and a disempowering force.
Hiro drives toward The Raft while continuing to discuss neurolinguistics with the Librarian via voice chat. The Librarian tells him that Lagos believed that Sumerian was particularly apt for spreading neurolinguistic viruses, just like digital viruses can be easily spread through binary. Perhaps Enki knew this and saved the world through his Babel event.
Soon Hiro manages to get himself onto The Raft. On it, he starts coding some protection for the Metaverse – mainly a program called SnowScan that will protect against the Snow Crash virus. But the ship he’s on is soon attacked by Raven and some goons. After escaping with a surviving cabin boy, he discovers a victim of L. Bob Rife’s sinister technology – a severely wounded man with huge chunks of his brain missing. Despite this, he’s still babbling. Hiro realizes that L. Bob Rife has been making radio broadcasts of me directly into people’s brains, thereby controlling their minds.
Following this discovery, Hiro heads into the Metaverse, where he convenes with influential figures who he’s curried favor with in the past. With them, he reveals his discoveries about the Snow Crash plot. Hiro can only see one solution: to broadcast the nam-shub of Enki and destroy the refugees’ capacity to receive me.
Snow Crash continues to weave together both the ancient and the ultra-futuristic. Though the novel takes place in a dystopian, sci-fi world, ancient Sumerian myths and Biblical tales are a major through line.
The conversations between Hiro and the Librarian about neurolinguistics underline the novel’s exploration of the power of language. Enki’s Babel event is presented as something positive, which unified and empowered people. But simultaneously, it drove people apart, making them incapable of understanding one another.
Finally, this sequence shows the dual nature of technology. L. Bob Rife’s use of the antennas as a way to mind-control people is a clear example of technology’s potential dangers. But Hiro’s program to protect the Metaverse from Snow Crash shows technology’s capacity as a liberating force. The battle between Rife and Hiro over the spread of information encapsulates a central question within the novel: Who gets to control the narrative, and at what cost?
While plugged into the Metaverse, Y.T.’s real body is snatched away by mind-controlled wireheads. They shove her into a cage and then lower her into L. Bob Rife’s helicopter. She’s now Rife’s hostage. Inside the helicopter with them, though, is an ancient clay tablet wrapped in plastic: the nam-shub of Enki.
As the helicopter takes off, Hiro emerges to confront them, sword and gun drawn. He demands Rife give him the tablet, but Rife reveals Y.T.’s presence. Hiro appears to be defeated – but then Y.T. kicks the tablet out of the vehicle and it smashes against the deck, pieces flying everywhere.
After collecting the pieces of the tablet, Hiro and the Librarian reassemble it. They read out Enki’s nam-shub into the speakers on The Raft, breaking Rife’s control over the wireheads, who can no longer understand each other.
Next, Hiro heads to the Metaverse, where he finds that there’s a benefit concert being put on for Da5id at a large amphitheater. He realizes that Rife intends to release Snow Crash into all of the hackers gathered there – and Raven is already on his way.
Outside the amphitheater, Hiro and Raven finally duel one-on-one – Hiro with his swords and Raven with his knives. Hiro soon gains the upper hand thanks to his knowledge of the Metaverse – but Raven still manages to set off his Snow Crash bomb. It begins with a prelude, a fantastic visual display designed to attract everyone in the Metaverse. As more and more people show up, the image begins to coalesce into four female figures bearing scrolls.
The avatars unfurl the scrolls. But when they do, there’s no black-and-white bitmap inside. Instead, there is simply text warning people that if this were a virus, they’d all be dead – followed by an advertisement for Hiro Protagonist Security Associates.
Hiro has successfully activated the SnowScan protocol, rendering the virus inert and harmless.
Finally, in the real world, Y.T. has managed to escape L. Bob Rife’s clutches, and with the help of an ultra-high-tech guard dog called a Rat Thing, destroys Rife’s helicopter with Rife inside.
As the scene is swarmed by soldiers and doctors, Y.T. skates off and joins her mother, who’s waiting to pick her up. Together, they finally head home.
In the finale of Snow Crash, Stephenson unites all of the themes of the novel, culminating in an action-packed interplay between the Metaverse and reality.
The concept of nam-shub remains central. Immersion in different forms of knowledge, it seems, offers protection against the influence of information and control.
Snow Crash follows the story of Hiro Protagonist, a hacker and pizza-delivery guy, as he stumbles into a vast plot involving neurolinguistic viruses, a megalomaniacal oil tycoon, and a babbling Christian sect. It investigates the lines separating reality from virtuality and explores the influence of language and information on society, all set against a backdrop of unchecked corporate domination. It’s a story that demands readers answer uncomfortable questions such as: Are we just as vulnerable to viruses of all kinds as the people in Snow Crash?
About the Author
Technology and the Future, Society, Culture
“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson is a cyberpunk novel that takes readers on a thrilling journey through a dystopian future where the virtual and real worlds collide. The story is set in a near-future America and follows the adventures of Hiro Protagonist, a hacker and pizza delivery driver, and Y.T. (Yours Truly), a skateboard courier. Together, they become embroiled in a complex and dangerous conspiracy.
- Virtual Reality and the Metaverse: The novel introduces the concept of the Metaverse, a virtual reality space that serves as a digital counterpart to the real world. Within the Metaverse, users have avatars and interact with each other, blurring the lines between reality and the virtual realm.
- Snow Crash: The story revolves around a mysterious drug called Snow Crash, which has the ability to infect both the virtual and physical realms, affecting users’ brains. Hiro and Y.T. embark on a quest to uncover the origins of Snow Crash and its potential threat to society.
- Corporate Power and Anarchy: The novel explores the dominance of powerful corporations, including the mafia-like organization called the Mafia, in the future society. It also portrays a world where governments have weakened, leaving room for anarchy and competing interests.
- Cyberpunk Aesthetics: “Snow Crash” is known for its vivid and immersive cyberpunk world, featuring advanced technology, hackers, hackers-for-hire, and a gritty, dystopian atmosphere.
“Snow Crash” is a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre, known for its inventive and immersive world-building. Neal Stephenson’s vision of a future where the virtual and physical realms intertwine is both captivating and prescient, as it explores themes of technology, corporate power, and the potential consequences of a hyper-connected world.
The novel’s pacing is fast, and it keeps readers engaged with a mix of action, intrigue, and philosophical musings about the nature of reality and identity in the digital age. Hiro and Y.T. are compelling protagonists, each with their unique skills and perspectives, and their interactions add depth to the story.
One potential drawback is that the complex world-building and technical jargon may be challenging for some readers to follow, especially those not familiar with cyberpunk or computer science concepts. However, for those who appreciate intricate, thought-provoking narratives, these aspects are part of what makes “Snow Crash” a standout work in the genre.
In conclusion, “Snow Crash” is a must-read for fans of cyberpunk and speculative fiction. It offers a gripping story, a richly detailed world, and thought-provoking themes that continue to resonate in our increasingly digital and interconnected age. It’s a classic that has earned its place among the best in the genre.