An Unsettlingly Familiar Place

Adam mazer '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University

Much of the power of Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash comes from the unusually familiar, near-future setting that serves as a background to the strong characters. Stephenson deftly combines and exaggerates a variety of disparate elements from modern society into an often equally prophetic and ridiculous hodgepodge of American society. From the ethnically based burbclaves like New South Africa to the omnipresent cute-named franchises like Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates, so many elements of Stephenson's world have bases in modern consumer culture. Stephenson wastes no time in delving into the comfortable absurdities of his future, describing the stark importance of pizza delivery.

Pizza delivery is a major industry. A managed industry. People went to CosaNostra Pizza University for four years just to learn it. Came in its doors unable to write an English sentence, from Abkhazia, Rwanda, Guanajuato, South Jersey, and came out knowing more about pizza than a Bedouin knows about sand. And they had studied this problem. Graphed the frequency of doorway delivery-time disputes. Wired the early Deliverators to record, then analyze, the debating tactics, the voice stress histograms, the distinctive grammatical structures employed by white middle-class Type A Burbclave occupants who against all logic had decided that this was the place to take their personal Custerian stand against all that was stale and deadening in their lives: they were going to lie, or delude themselves, about the time of their phone call and get themselves a free pizza; no, they deserved a free pizza along with their life, liberty, and pursuit of whatever, it was fucking inalienable . . . [p. 3]

This interplay of the familiar -- guaranteed pizza deliveries -- with the seemingly absurd -- Mafia-run "Pizza Universities" -- characterizes all of the settings in Snow Crash and distinguish the book from most other, conventionally dark cyberpunk dystopias.


1. Stephenson takes something of a risk in creating an essentially humorous backdrop for his apocalyptically serious main story. Does it work? Is there ever a point wherein the humor of the book takes the edge off the suspense? Or does the seriousness of the central plot ever make the more outrageous aspects of the setting seem frivolous?

2. How does Stephenson use setting as a vehicle for social commentary? Does he actually believe a future like the one he writes about is possible, or does he merely play it for comedic and dramatic effect? What elements might he intend as more predictive than satirical?

3. How anarchic is the America, or California, at least, of Snow Crash's world? Do the variety of currencies used and the multitude of tiny nation-states imply a state of entropy, or is there a general order even in the lack of an overall government? In the context of the novel, how is this possible?

4. How does the Metaverse function as a setting? More specifically, does it reflect the outside "Reality", or does it exist as a completely separate entity? For that matter, does the actual internet reflect the real world?

Website OV Cyborg Literature SnowCrash

Last modified 14 April 2005