There are two novels pretty much guaranteed to be on every hacker's
bookshelf. The first is William Gibson's Neuromancer. The second
is Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Both are classics of the cyberpunk
First, let's get the comparison out of the way. Gibson comes off
as a poet who happens to write about these new fangled computer
thingies. Stephenson, by sharp contrast, seems more like a hacker
who happens to write novels about his craft. Despite the similar
glimpses into a high-tech future that these novels offer, their
authors' writing styles couldn't be more different.
If I could fault either book, it would be for the exact opposite
reasons: Gibson waxes poetic so much that it's often hard to work
out what he's actually trying to say, to the point where you sometimes
wonder if he even is saying anything at all. Neal Stephenson, on
the other hand, knows exactly what he wants to say, and will fill
his books with lengthy exposition going into detail about how
everything works, halting the action for the occasional essay,
tutoring or backstory.
Stephenson doesn't follow all the rules of good fiction writing.
Not only will the action pause while the hero talks to a librarian
at great length, or updates the firmware on his weaponry, but chapters
often end after such long exposition that you might forget what was
happening by the time you start reading the next chapter. Pretty
much everyone mentions that Stephenson hasn't got the hang of climactic
endings either. In short, although he writes very well, he doesn't
know when to stop.
For all I've said against the way he writes, Stephenson's style is
fun. He's great at similes, from the serious ("After [YT's father]
left, she just folded up into herself like an origami bird thrown
into a fire") to the comically macho ("...excess perspiration wafts
through [Hiro's uniform] like a breeze through a freshly napalmed
forest.") While I doubt anyone reads a novel just for its style, I
really did find Snow Crash to be a fun journey regardless of its
Despite any flaws in its structure, Snow Crash is worth reading for
the ideas it contains. As a hacker, I always love to read about
futuristic technology, and Snow Crash's Metaverse is much more
interesting than Neuromancer's Matrix. Stephenson knows what he's
talking about enough to have constructed a plausible fantasy, which
not only helps the reader suspend disbelief but also inspired a lot
of other hackers to make things that imitate the technology described
in the book. Two prominent examples of real life projects inspired
by this book are Second Life and Google Earth.
Quite aside from the technology, this novel also explores what the
near future would be like if the free market really was allowed to
run free. Everything from the police force to the military has been
privatised in Snow Crash's world. Thankfully, Stephenson doesn't
preach one way or the other, and just presents a fascinating, dangerous
world that's thrilling to vicariously live in.
Not content to explore themes as diverse as hacking, franchising and
ancient mysticism in isolation, Stephenson manages to combine all
these things into a single plot that, for the most part, makes a lot
of sense from a memetic point of view. He provides so many fascinating
insights into all of these areas that you have to forgive him for
getting sidetracked into explaining things in detail between the
swordfights and chase scenes.
In short, this is a densely packed novel with more interesting ideas
in it than even most non-fiction. I'd recommend it to any hacker,
and probably any economist too for that matter.
The narrator of the audiobook should get a special mention. The way
he acts out all the dialogue and even narration is absolutely
brilliant. I can't picture this book any other way now. I have no
idea how close all his inflections are to how Stephenson pictured
the words spoken in his mind, but the combination of the author's
style and the narrator's acting really bring the world to life.
Don't bother waiting for Hollywood to condense these seventeen hours
into a film that's less than two. A leaner version of Snow Crash
with tight structure would arguably miss the point. Maybe all its
longwinded digressions are a good thing after all.