Snow Crash takes on a common cyberpunk theme, that of the implications of the information explosion caused by new technologies such as a global fiber-optic network. One way in which the novel differs from cyberpunk works such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991) is the way Stephenson situates his discussion in ancient history. By drawing a sweeping link between religion and viruses, he plays with the self-replicating tendencies of both. All information is viral in nature, Stephenson suggests, but some has more violent effects.
The book traces a virulent metavirus from the childhood of humanity that has been spread through religious cults and that manifests itself in the twenty-first century as Pentecostalism. Large sections of the novel trace ancient religious struggles, which Stephenson interprets as primarily concerning battles over information. The Deuteronomists’ effort to codify Judaism, for example, is read as “informational hygiene,” an effort to regulate which aspects of the religion were replicated. In this way, Stephenson reminds readers that the generation and preservation of all information—whether recipes for bread or religious practices—is always an evolutionary process whereby some knowledge will be lost and some preserved. That global networks can be manipulated by power-hungry individuals such as L. Bob Rife accentuates the tension between representation’s fragility and persistence.
Snow Crash also differs from most cyberpunk in its technical particulars. Stephenson is a computer programmer, and his detailed descriptions of how the Metaverse works and how people, through simulations called avatars, can enter it provide a more solid basis for his fiction than do the typical mysticisms about limitless cyberspace. This level of realism does not detract from the novel’s fun, however; the charm of Snow Crash is in its wry wit and liberally scattered puns. With a zest that recalls Douglas Adams, Stephenson presents a hero named Hiro, a pizza Deliverator for the Mafia who drives a “car with enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt” and who lives in a U-Stor-It with a Russian named Vitaly Chernobyl (2) who wants to be a rock star. The pace is frenetic, the characters larger than life, and the plot fascinating.