Snow Crash, the book that imagined a metaverse, turns twenty years old

In 1992, Neal Stephenson published a book entitled “Snow Crash” that in many ways predicted a virtual world like Second Life. While Stephenson’s ideas for a virtual world were much more dramatic, his terminology and vision shaped the virtual world we know as Second Life.

Terms we use every day, such as “metaverse” or “grid” or even the word “avatar” stem directly from this book. Every time you talk about “rezzing”, thank Mr. Stephenson.

Set in the distant future, the book introduces us to “Hiro Protagonist”. Hiro, a pizza delivery boy for the mafia by day,  is also a hacker/ninja warrior in the virtual world, aka the metaverse. In Stephenson’s metaverse, folks like Hiro log into a three dimensional world using a digital representation of them self,  called an avatar, to navigate through a virtual setting where information and data is stored in buildings instead of a flat webpage. Snowcrash also features a digital atlas called “Earth” that has an amazing resemblance to what is now “Google Earth”

Sound familiar? Second life creator Philip Rosedale acknowledged that some of his ideas for Second Life came from the book. A 2010 broadcast on NPR includes  Rosedale talking about how the book, a gift by his wife, inspired Second Life.

In Snow Crash, Hiro is asked by an ex girlfriend to help figure out how an online virus, called Snow Crash, is causing hackers to die in real life. Along the way, we meet bionic guard dogs that move at the speed of sound, a United States that is broken into corporations, a scateboarding delivery girl named YT (short for “Yours Truly”) and a media evangelist, L. Bob Rife, who has founded a religion (L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology?) that is housed on a floating city that consists of the former USS Enterpise aircraft carrier and 100’s of attached floating rafts and boats.

The book described how a language based on early sumarian can work as “code” for the human brain and what can happen when that code falls in the wrong person’s hands. (Go ahead and laugh, then watch somone “speaking in tougues”.)

I first read the book in 2000 and have read it about five times since. Not only is it my favorite science fiction novel, it would definitely rank high on my list of best books that I have ever read. Time magazine listed Snow Crash in its list of 100 all-time best English-language novel

Having read the book and loved it, I guess it should not have been a surprise to me that when I would eventually stumble up Second Life, I would become immediately fascinated with it.  One of my avatars is based highly on one of the books main characters, YT. All of this came back to me today when I read that Paramount Pictures has announced that it intends to make the book, now 20-years old, into a movie with Joe Cornish (Attack The Block) directing. If you have never read Snow Crash, I urge you to give it a try, espeically if you enjoy Second Life. Meanwhile, you can get a taste of Snow Crash in world at an exhibit sponsored by the University of Texas San Antonio. The exhibit, developed by Igor Ballyhoo in collaboration with Rebeca Bashly, uses a setting from the book as a way to display works by some works by prominent SL artist. The setting is the aircraft carrier owned by the Rife with dozens of attached rafts showing various works of art.

More about Snow Crash here

The UTSA exhibit “Snow Crash”