Snow Crash

The last week, I’ve been to Malmö and Umeå. That’s a lot of time sitting still in trains and cars, which means lots of time for one of my favorite vacation activities: reading. Snow Crash is a science fiction/cyberpunk classic, famous for its “Metaverse”, a 3D virtual world strikingly similar to Second Life (which was launched in 2003, eleven years after Snow Crash was published). The virtual reality technology in the book is close enough to what’s available now (or seems likely to be available in the future) that I was often bothered by stuff that seemed unrealistic: That avatars aren’t allowed to teleport and have to travel to get from point A to point B makes sense in a game world, not in a non-game world like the Metaverse. That people calling in from public terminals would look grainy and black-and-white is probably based on the assumption that cameras and bandwidth wouldn’t improve as much as they’ve turned out to do. And that there should be just one contiguous space in the Metaverse seems odd; in real life this is mandated by physics, but a virtual world doesn’t need this kind of limitation.

This is the kind of detailed complaints one would expect to have with a piece of fiction written today, when Second Life already exists. But when the fiction in question is from the early nineties, they only serve to emphasize the degree to which so many things turned out to be accurate predictions.

I wasn’t too thrilled about the way the book assumes the human brain handles language—I don’t find it very plausible at all. And this is an integral part of the plot, with the human brain being able to become infected by what can only be described as a computer virus, and the existence of an ancient language with features (like misunderstanding being impossible) that are about as realistic as ships that roar when they fly through space.

The main characters are colorful and likeable, though somewhat lacking in the realism department (a world-class hacker who’s also a very skilled sword fighter, inhumanly brave, and delivers pizzas for a living? a teenage girl who’s a god on her skateboard, also inhumanly brave, and—you guessed it—extremely good-looking). But that’s OK, this is fiction. But it becomes more problematic when this larger-than-life quality is present in many of the minor characters as well, and in large parts of the society as described in the book. Everyone’s extremely cool and confident when they shouldn’t be: they behave like first-world people of today, who can move about without much risk of walking into a gunfight, when the world they live in is more like some of today’s third-world countries, where you had better be driving an armored car in some neighborhoods.

In all, it was a very enjoyable read, even if the characters and the neurophysiology were a bit too close to the level of a typical Hollywood action movie.