I decided I needed something SF-y that I knew I’d enjoy: a reread, in other words. Something with spaceships. Prowling my shelves, this is what I came to. No spaceships, but fast skateboards and faster motorbikes, katanas and glass knives; and of course, the Metaverse.
I was struck by how little of it I remembered, but it is something like 26 years since I read it (published 1992, so I’m guessing I read it in 94 or so).
Hiro Protagonist, the fantastically-named hero, is a hacker.1 He’s also the greatest samurai swordsman alive, supposedly. And he’s delivering pizzas for the Mafia. Which fact is the first view we have of how the world — or at least America — has changed. There is almost no government, no laws; and everything is split up into ‘burbclaves’ and franchises, run by companies, churches, or criminal organisations.
But there is the Metaverse. Nothing we have today is close to what it is like, but it’s what virtual reality wants to be, and maybe will be one day.
The internet is everywhere (which of course wasn’t the case when it was written). Though phoneboxes still exist, and using them is one way to get into the Metaverse. And if you want mobile access, you have to ‘go gargoyle.’ Which is to say, wear your special goggles and carry a computer around with you, strapped to your body. There are mobile phones, but the conversion of them into pocket computers is not something that Stephenson foresaw. Or at least, not something he made use of here.
I had the impression that everyone thought that early Stephenson had problems with endings. I mean, I had that impression myself, and have alluded to it here before. And I thought that this was one with a slightly weak ending.
But it isn’t at all. The bit that I remembered — the climax that takes place in the Metaverse — comes at the end of a tense chase/fight sequence, and while it depicts a scene that might be anticlimactic for the people in-universe who witness it, it’s fully satisfying and sound to us, the readers. Then the last couple of chapters wind things up neatly back in the outer world.
The criticism that might be levelled at it, especially in SF terms, is that we don’t see how the world has been changed by the events of the story. But I think that can easily be left to our imaginations.
A genuine classic.
Interesting to note that even programmers for the government are called ‘hackers’ here. In the positive sense, of course. ↩