"When Hiro first saw this place ((the Metaverse)), ten years ago, the monorail hadn't been written yet; he and his buddies had to write car and motorcycle software in order to get around. They would take their software out and race it in the black desert of the electronic night."

It's not Cryptonomicon, but it's good. Very good. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is, loosely, cyberpunk. The emphasis being on the word 'loosely'. Readers of other novels by Stephenson will be aware that he goes to great lengths, a bit like Chuck Palahniuk, to research his topic (eg: he uses the word 'hacker' in its correct context!), so at times the work comes across as non-fiction, and that attempting to categorise the books into genres will likely end up in a headache. The style is relaxed, the characters well-realised (although the backstories of Hiro and Raven seem a bit mis-placed in the story, and how they recognised each other is a mystery), and there are several very funny moments. The technical side of the book isn't entirely unbelievable. Perhaps the internet is not the 3-D wonderland portrayed here, but technology is getting there. Also, the basis of the story, the concept of Babel, is explained lucidly. Enough detail for comprehension, but concisely written so readers don't fall asleep.

"Does it fuck up you brain?" Hiro says. "Or your computer?"
"Both. Neither. What's the difference?"
Hiro finally realises that he has just wasted sixty seconds of his life having a meaningless conversation with a paranoid schizophrenic. He turns around and goes into The Black Sun.

Snow Crash is set in a future that, as fondue has commented, coincides with the present day, or even the past. The tale's aptly-named protagonist, Hiroaki "Hiro" Protagonist is thirty years old, and born in the 1970s, so there is a discrepancy between the cyberpunk world created by Stephenson and the year 2000 as we have known it. In the world of Snow Crash, the world is split into countries within countries, franchulates. These are owned by huge corporations, and have varying levels of exclusiveness, and look for various ideals amongst their citizens. Examples include Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong and New South Africa - both of which lie within the United States of America. The actual US Government has lost any influence that it once had, and now mainly consists of the world's largest software developing company. In a moment of humour, the US President is introduced to a communications magnate, L. Bob Rife, and others... and none of them know who he is!

The rest of the world, too, is compartmentalised in a similar way. Huge franchise chains control daily life, from drive-thru places where you can sleep on your vehicle to the RadiKS Kourier system. People can sleep in U-Stor-Its, buy drugs on every street corner, and nobody walks around unarmed. Murder and mayhem no longer even raise eyebrows. And behind everything lies the Metaverse. This is a 3-D internet, similar to creations by other science fiction and cyberpunk writers. To access it, you jack in through the nearest terminal (via goggles and a computer), and emerge in a Public Port or in your private Metaverse space in the form of an avatar. The most common of these figures are shop-bought pre-made assembly line pieces of software, female Brandys, and male Clints. From this point onwards, you can access pretty much anything, although dying in the Metaverse will result in a disconnection. And it is into this world that a new virus/drug arrives. One that effects people, making them speak in tongues and be receptive to commands. One that renders hackers unconcious.

"Hiro puts his head in his hands. He's not exactly thinking about this; he's letting it ricochet around in his skull, waiting for it to come to rest. "Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing--is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?"
Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"


Characters of Note:
Hiro Protagonist - "Last of the freelance hackers. Greatest swordfighter in the world. Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation. Specialising in software-related intel (music, movies and microcode)." Hiro is the story's main character. He wears black clothing and a pair of Japanese swords (a katana and a wakizashi) that he inherited from his father, who in turn won them in single combat from a Japanese Officer in World War II. Hiro lives in a U-Stor-It with a musician (Vitaly Chernobyl, who specialises in Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge) and his computer. Aside from his freelance hacking, Hiro scratches a living from delivering CosaNostra Pizza, a Mafia-run franchise and from uploading information into what was once the Library of Congress but is now the Central Intelligence Corporation. In his early twenties, Hiro was one of the coders who created the Metaverse, but he sold off his shares at the same time. This means he isn't rich, but he has good street cred, The Street being the long centre of the Metaverse.

Dimitri "Raven" Ravinoff - Raven is a mystery. He rides in from nowhere, sells Snow Crash, and keeps appearing at precisely the wrong moment for Hiro. We hear about him before we see him, and when we do, the first thing we are told is his size, and an interesting tattoo upon his forehead: "POOR IMPULSE CONTROL". His weapon of choice is glass. Undetectable, and pierces almost anything. An Aleut, he has formidable skills in a kayak, and at harpooning various objects, including people. He rides a Harley Davidson with a sidecar, where his hydrogen bomb sits - one linked to heart sensors in Raven. If Raven's heart stops, the bomb will detonate, hence how welcoming the local law enforcement is in each franchulate. Raven's motives are also a mystery. It's only a blase conversation between Y.T. and Raven that reveals his long-term plan... blowing up America.

Y. "Yours Truly" T. - Y.T. is a fifteen year old Kourier with attitude, and who lies to her mother (a Federal programmer) about her job. She spends her days pooning fast vehicles (ie, attaching an electromagnetic harpoon pad on a cable onto cars) and following these at speed on her board, effectively surfing traffic with high manoeuvrability in her quest to deliver packages. It is on one of these jobs that she meets Hiro who has crashed his car in an attempt to deliver a pizza in time. On a whim, she decides to deliver the pizza, thus earning the respect of Uncle Enzo, the don of the Mafia. Y.T. quickly becomes embroiled in the plotline, and strikes a deal with Hiro to share intelligence for the Central Intelligence Corporation.

Juanita - Juanita is a charismatic female programmer who used to be Hiro's lover when they worked together at Black Sun Systems. Hiro was in charge of avatar bodies, Juanita of faces. As she did not sell off her stock, she is currently extremely wealthy, and was married to Da5id (whom she divorced after two years). A Roman Catholic Christian, Juanita begins tracking the story of Babel with a gargoyle (ie, person wearing a computer and constantly in both Reality and the Metaverse) named Lagos, and sets Hiro on the path of the mystery. Strong in her beliefs and ideals, Juanita is introduced early in the book, but doesn't resurface until the conclusion where she is a major player. She is, however, an enigma the entire way through.

Da5id - Da5id is a man set in his ways, who refuses to admit he is wrong. Fortunately, he is also the approximate god of the Metaverse, the father of it all. The head of Black Sun Systems, he employed Hiro and Juanita (although he and Hiro fell out and Hiro left the company) and now runs the most prestigious address in The Street - The Black Sun. Da5id actually has very little importance to the story of Snow Crash except as a warning to Hiro and Juanita. He is the first casualty of Snow Crash, a virus/drug, and ends up unconscious in hospital. We do not learn if he recovers or not, although going by the diagnosis given by the doctors and the fact that the virus possibly rewired his brain, chances are he does not.

Uncle Enzo - A volunteer veteran of Vietnam (oh, the alliteration!), Uncle Enzo arrived back into the United States of America and rose to prominence in the Mafia "You've got a friend in the Family!". Now, he leads the strong corporation with skill and care. He also looks out for Y.T. who saved him from embarrassment and a court trial by delivering Hiro's pizza within the thirty minute deadline, and this proves to be very useful. He is part of the group who seek to figure out what L. Bob Rife is up to, and stop him (along with Ng, Mr Lee, Lagos and Juanita).

Mr. Lee - Mr Lee is a powerful man, the leader of a successful franchulate chain, Mr Lee's Greater Hong Kong. He is mentioned often through the book, although mainly because the franchulate is used by Hiro, a citizen, and only appears in person at the end.

Ng - Ng begins as a curiosity. Y.T. meets the approximately fifty year old Vietnamese man in the Metaverse, and strikes a deal with him that she will help obtain a sample of Snow Crash in its inhaleable drug form. He heads up a top security firm, and has been hired by Mr Lee to this end. The reason why he needs the help of a gutsy fifteen year old to get the sample? He's pretty much a cyborg, and cannot move from his huge vehicle. However, he has enough mechanical toys in there that he almost wouldn't want to do so! He is also the creator of Reason, an incredible weapon (the bad guys in this book always listen to Reason!).

L. Bob Rife - This fibre optics magnate is also a bit of a mystery, and he too is only met in person at the end of the book. In terms of the plotline, he is the Bad Guy, although he isn't a patch on Raven in terms of "actual badness". Immensely wealthy, he has been financing a large and secretive coding project, and giving impressive donations to Pentecostal Churches. For the duration of Snow Crash, he is present on a huge, floating city of Pentecostal converts named the Raft. And he has plans of world domination, or so it appears...

The Rat Thing, aka Fido - The Rat Thing is a product of Ng Security, and is part cyborg, part dog, and the subject of many urban myths. It appears that the civilians know of the existence of these creatures, but are not sure about the rumours of converted dogs. Fido, this particular Rat Thing, used to be the pet of Y.T., and so looks out for her - convenient as it is a nuclear-powered moving defence system. The pack of Rat Things are not exactly a major part of the book, but they're a really interesting concept.

...and of course, many other miscellaneous characters including Mafia members, Federal programmers, Enforcers, Rock Stars, Hackers, Salespeople and Citizens.

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances, he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. ... Hiro used to feel that way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this is liberating. He no longer has to worry about trying to be the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.. The crowning touch, the one thing that really puts true world-class badmotherfuckerdom totally out of reach, of course, is the hydrogen bomb. If it wasn't for the hydrogen bomb, a man could still aspire. ... Which is okay. Sometimes it's alright to just be a little bad. To know your limitations. Make do with what you've got.

The story of Snow Crash is complicated, and impossible to explain without a lengthy appendix of information on linguistic and theological theories. So I'll end this with a piece of advice: track this book down and read it. Seriously.