An entertaining sci-fi novel that also happens to be the origin of the term "Metaverse."
Snow Crash was written in 1992, but you wouldn't know it based on how realistic it seems today. It describes a virtual world—the Metaverse—where people own property, conduct transactions and socialize.
The novel's source of conflict is a virus, delivered via code or drugs, under the guise of religion.
A fun read for the plot, but a must-read to understand the origins of the Metaverse, as well as some of the other implications of such a world.
So Hiro's not actually here at all. He's in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.
Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Élysées of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it.
The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery's Global Multimedia Protocol Group. The Street seems to be a grand boulevard going all the way around the equator of a black sphere with a radius of a bit more than ten thousand kilometers. That makes it 65,536 kilometers around, which is considerably bigger than Earth.
Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.
The only difference is that since the Street does not really exist—it's just a computer-graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere—none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the world-wide fiber-optics network. When Hiro goes into the Metaverse and looks down the Street and sees buildings and electric signs stretching off into the darkness, disappearing over the curve of the globe, he is actually staring at the graphic representations—the user interfaces—of a myriad different pieces of software that have been engineered by major corporations. In order to place these things on the Street, they have had to get approval from the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, have had to buy frontage on the Street, get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit. The money these corporations pay to build things on the Street all goes into a trust fund owned and operated by the GMPG, which pays for developing and expanding the machinery that enables the Street to exist.
Hiro has a house in a neighborhood just off the busiest part of the Street. It is a very old neighborhood by Street standards. About ten years ago, when the Street protocol was first written, Hiro and some of his buddies pooled their money and bought one of the first development licenses, created a little neighborhood of hackers. At the time, it was just a little patchwork of light amid a vast blackness. Back then, the Street was just a necklace of streetlights around a black ball in space.
Since then, the neighborhood hasn't changed much, but the Street has. By getting in on it early, Hiro's buddies got a head start on the whole business. Some of them even got very rich off of it.
That's why Hiro has a nice big house in the Metaverse but has to share a 20-by-30 in Reality. Real estate acumen does not always extend across universes.
The sky and the ground are black, like a computer screen that hasn't had anything drawn into it yet; it is always nighttime in the Metaverse, and the Street is always garish and brilliant, like Las Vegas freed from constraints of physics and finance. But people in Hiro's neighborhood are very good programmers, so it's tasteful. The houses look like real houses. There are a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright reproductions and some fancy Victorians.
So it's always a shock to step out onto the Street, where everything seems to be a mile high. This is Downtown, the most heavily developed area. If you go a couple of hundred kilometers in either direction, the development will taper down to almost nothing, just a thin chain of streetlights casting white pools on the black velvet ground. But Downtown is a dozen Manhattans, embroidered with neon and stacked on top of each other.
In the real world—planet Earth, Reality—there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer; these people have more money than all of the others put together. Of these billion potential computer owners, maybe a quarter of them actually bother to own computers, and a quarter of these have machines that are powerful enough to handle the Street protocol. That makes for about sixty million people who can be on the Street at any given time. Add in another sixty million or so who can't really afford it but go there anyway, by using public machines, or machines owned by their school or their employer, and at any given time the Street is occupied by twice the population of New York City.
That's why the damn place is so overdeveloped. Put in a sign or a building on the Street and the hundred million richest, hippest, best-connected people on earth will see it every day of their lives.
It is a hundred meters wide, with a narrow monorail track running down the middle. The monorail is a free piece of public utility software that enables users to change their location on the Street rapidly and smoothly. A lot of people just ride back and forth on it, looking at the sights. When Hiro first saw this place, 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.
When Hiro learned how to do this, way back fifteen years ago, a hacker could sit down and write an entire piece of software by himself. Now, that's no longer possible. Software comes out of factories, and hackers are, to a greater or lesser extent, assembly-line workers. Worse yet, they may become managers who never get to write any code themselves.
But “snow crash” is computer lingo. It means a system crash—a bug—at such a fundamental level that it frags the part of the computer that controls the electron beam in the monitor, making it spray wildly across the screen, turning the perfect gridwork of pixels into a gyrating blizzard. Hiro has seen it happen a million times. But it's a very peculiar name for a drug.
“Daemon” is an old piece of jargon from the UNIX operating system, where it referred to a piece of low-level utility software, a fundamental part of the operating system. In The Black Sun, a daemon is like an avatar, but it does not represent a human being. It's a robot that lives in the Metaverse. A piece of software, a kind of spirit that inhabits the machine, usually with some particular role to carry out. The Black Sun has a number of daemons that serve imaginary drinks to the patrons and run little errands for people.
Condense fact from the vapor of nuance.
Hiro would have chalked it all up to class differences, except that her parents lived in a house in Mexicali with a dirt floor, and his father made more money than many college professors. But the class idea still held sway in his mind, because class is more than income—it has to do with knowing where you stand in a web of social relationships.
"All people have religions. It's like we have religion receptors built into our brain cells, or something, and we'll latch onto anything that'll fill that niche for us. Now, religion used to be essentially viral—a piece of information that replicated inside the human mind, jumping from one person to the next. That's the way it used to be, and unfortunately, that's the way it's headed right now. But there have been several efforts to deliver us from the hands of primitive, irrational religion. The first was made by someone named Enki about four thousand years ago. The second was made by Hebrew scholars in the eighth century B.C., driven out of their homeland by the invasion of Sargon II, but eventually it just devolved into empty legalism. Another attempt was made by Jesus—that one was hijacked by viral influences within fifty days of his death. The virus was suppressed by the Catholic Church, but we're in the middle of a big epidemic that started in Kansas in 1900 and has been gathering momentum ever since.”
“Do you believe in God or not?” Hiro says. First things first.
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yes. But not in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.”
“How can you be a Christian without believing in that?”
“I would say,” Juanita says, “how can you be a Christian with it? Anyone who takes the trouble to study the gospels can see that the bodily resurrection is a myth that was tacked onto the real story several years after the real histories were written. It's so National Enquirer-esque, don't you think?”
“No. Materialists in the philosophical sense. All philosophies are either monist or dualist. Monists believe that the material world is the only world—hence, materialists. Dualists believe in a binary universe, that there is a spiritual world in addition to the material world.”
A speech with magical force. Nowadays, people don't believe in these kinds of things. Except in the Metaverse, that is, where magic is possible. The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. And code is just a form of speech—the form that computers understand.
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. If I moved to a martialarts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
“The important thing is, Hiro, that you have to understand the Mafia way. And the Mafia way is that we pursue larger goals under the guise of personal relationships. So, for example, when you were a pizza guy you didn't deliver pizzas fast because you made more money that way, or because it was some kind of a fucking policy. You did it because you were carrying out a personal covenant between Uncle Enzo and every customer. This is how we avoid the trap of self-perpetuating ideology. Ideology is a virus. So getting this chick back is more than just getting a chick back. It's the concrete manifestation of an abstract policy goal. And we like concrete—right, Vic?”
“We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information. But being physically infected with a virulent strain of the Asherah virus makes you a whole lot more susceptible. The only thing that keeps these things from taking over the world is the Babel factor—the walls of mutual incomprehension that compartmentalize the human race and stop the spread of viruses."
“Rife's key realization was that there's no difference between modern culture and Sumerian. We have a huge workforce that is illiterate or alliterate and relies on TV—which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite—the people who go into the Metaverse, basically—who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages."
Want to get my latest book notes? Subscribe to my newsletter to get one email a week with new book notes, blog posts, and favorite articles.