Twenty years have gone by, and Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk virtual reality thriller is strangely prophetic.
As an engineer and avid tinkerer, I'm constantly reading books involving technology. After reading Neuromancer, the cyberpunk classic by William Gibson, someone suggested that I try Snow Crash. I do read books other than sci-fi, but somehow I always seem to circle back to this genre.
Snow Crash is extremely broad in scope and presents a dystopian future that appears to be set roughly in the present day. For the most part, author Neil Stephenson wisely stayed away from putting numbers on things -- a mention of using X Mb of RAM would seem silly to readers now. When you read the book now, 20 years after its publication, his future world is stunning in its similarities to today's world.
Stephenson didn't get everything right. Sadly, skateboarding has not morphed into an extreme delivery service. West Coast gangs haven't become security for hire, and Japanese rappers don't aspire to come to Los Angeles to perform. On the positive side, the United States isn't yet dominated by a series of city-state "franchulates," at least one of which is bent on taking over the world with its drone army.
The main character, Hiro Protagonist, is, naturally, a computer hacker. He is heavily involved in an immersive virtual reality world resembling Second Life. Business can be transacted here via "fact-to-face" meetings, and life here involves plenty of swordfights and all manner of virtual mayhem. Computers in the book don't generally have a traditional monitor. Instead, users "goggle in" via a device scarily reminiscent of the Oculus Rift. (I'll bet many of you just read that phrase in quotes as "Google in.")
As the current bleeding-edge technology of augmented reality and Google Glass shows, Stephenson accurately envisioned a future of wearable computers. But he saw it as only a fringe technology used by social outcasts. It seems wearble technology is becoming the mainstream in our world. In fact, we may not technically wear computers now, but a smartphone is close to the same thing.
What struck me most about the book is a scene in which Hiro is talking to a Gargoyle -- a person who uses a large, wearable computer. Hiro is constantly annoyed with the Gargoyle, who is obviously distracted and not paying attention during their conversation. No one could deny how well Stephenson portended the future in this case. We all succumb to ADD in our work, play, and social lives by being perpetually connected online.
Virtual reality and computers factor large in Snow Crash, but to say that is entirely what this book is about would be a vast understatement. Snow Crash delves into subjects from the origin of different languages to how dogs are treated and live in the future as elements of the Internet of Things. It's no Marley and Me, (which I have read), but there are a few parts that will make any dog-loving, sci-fi nerd smile.
If you want to become more familiar with the cyberpunk genre, Snow Crash is defintely a good read. For a much different take on virtual reality, you could always check out this post by EETimes' own Ransom Stephens.
— Jeremy Cook is a manufacturing engineer with 10 years of experience. He has a BSME from Clemson University. In his spare time, he enjoys writing for DIYtripods.com.