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Snow Crash cover art, Neal Stephenson
Snow CrashImage courtesy of Neal Stephenson, Bantam Books

Snow Crash: the 30-year-old novel that predicted today’s twisted Metaverse

Prophetic sci-fi author Neal Stephenson tells Dazed what his seminal story got right and wrong about today’s terminally online world

Reading Snow Crash in 2022, there are moments when the images and situations in the 30-year-old sci-fi novel seem eerily prescient, from robot dogs employed by defence contractors, to monopolistic billionaires ushering in a neo-feudal society. Other times, Neal Stephenson’s predictions are so spot-on that they transcend eeriness and take on an almost comical quality. Take early in the book, for example, when the author describes how characters exist in the virtual world where much of the action takes place. “The people are pieces of software called avatars,” he writes. “They are audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” 

Today, this straightforward definition of tech as basic as avatars verges on ridiculous. Why would we need it spelled out for us, when we inhabit versions of these “audiovisual bodies” on a daily basis – in virtual meetings, video games, on the catwalk, at gigs, and, increasingly, as an extension of our endless attachment to social media? But Stephenson isn’t being ironic or patronising when he describes the Metaverse in Snow Crash; he was just way ahead of the curve. In fact, if the novel hadn’t been written three decades ago, the virtual worlds we inhabit, and the language we use to describe them, might look and sound very different today.

When Stephenson uses the word the “Metaverse” in Snow Crash, he isn’t referencing something that already existed in the late 80s and early 90s, when he was writing the novel, or making an educated guess about the language used by today’s big players such as Meta or Decentraland. No, it was Stephenson who invented the term, and everyone else followed suit. The same goes for “avatar” (although, when asked about avatars, the author adds an “obligatory disclaimer” that others were using the word already, unbeknownst to him – “It was independent ideation”).

First published in 1992, Snow Crash revolves around Hiro, a pizza deliveryman and freelance hacker (so far, so 90s) who’s roped into an investigation of an apocalyptic virus alongside his new sidekick, Y.T., a young skateboard courier surfing the freeways of near-future LA. The problem is, the virus, AKA Snow Crash, is spread via a highly addictive drug in the real world, and an unassuming bitmap image in the Metaverse; crossing the line between the two realities, it obliterates avatars and sends IRL users into a vegetative state. Together, Hiro and Y.T. race against time to prevent the “Infocalypse” and uncover the virus’ ties to a shady tech monopolist and his army of brain-chipped acolytes. Sound familiar?

“When I wrote this, the internet existed, but people didn’t use it,” Stephenson tells Dazed over Zoom. “We had isolated email systems like CompuServe and AOL, but they didn’t talk to each other very well and most computers had very limited capabilities in the way of graphics and sound. Video games were generally two dimensional, the World Wide Web that hadn’t been invented yet.” Nevertheless, it was clear to Stephenson and others playing around with early computer graphics – taking Moore’s Law into account – that dramatic changes were coming in the next few decades.

The similarities between Stephenson’s fiction and reality go beyond just technological concepts, though. His prophetic ability to envision the culture, aesthetics, and new social structures that have developed in and around the Metaverse is arguably even more impressive. Essentially, Snow Crash is set in a slightly more extreme version of today’s world: online spaces are garish and jumbled, animated with violent combat, laser shows, and explosions that double as invasive ads. A close approximation of Soundcloud rappers walk around as avatars with mile-high hairstyles, while in the ‘real’ world inequality soars under an anarcho-capitalist gig economy.

Below, Stephenson reflects on what he got right and wrong in Snow Crash, what surprises him most about the brave new world we’re living in, and how he’s feeling slightly more optimistic 30 years later.


Everything that happens in the Snow Crash Metaverse happens in or around The Street, a “brilliantly lit boulevard” that stretches 65,536 kilometres around the black sphere that makes up the virtual world. Parcels of land branching off this street grant hackers the ability to build what they want or even rewrite the laws of physics, but the central space is governed by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group. Today, different Metaverse projects such as Decentraland or Roblox work on a similar model, but overall the Metaverse is fractured between various competitors: Roblox, Decentraland, Meta, Riot Games... the list goes on. Maybe this is partly to blame for the lacklustre populations of each platform so far. 

Can a single, unified Metaverse, like the one in Snow Crash, exist today? “I think it can exist,” says Stephenson. “Whether it should exist or will exist... those are different questions.”

That being said, Stephenson doesn’t believe that we should regard each provider’s Metaverse as distinct, but as part of a multifaceted whole – the same way we refer to a singular Internet – in line with pioneer Tony Parisi’s seven rules. “Rule number one, which I agree with, is that there is only the Metaverse,” he says. “There should be one of them. When people talk about multiple metaverses, and they say, ‘Our company’s building a metaverse’, it rings false. It’s a signal to me that they don’t quite understand the point of it.”


On The Street, Snow Crash characters are distinguished by their avatars. Hiro, an experienced hacker with expensive hardware, has a “slick custom avatar who’s packing a couple of swords”, while those who can’t afford personal computers have to use public terminals that render them in “jerky, grainy black and white”. In reality, Stephenson believes that there’s more equality in today’s Metaverse, partly thanks to the booming popularity of video games in the wake of 1993’s DOOM, which lowered the cost of graphics hardware “shockingly fast”.

“It’s still true that if you have more money, you can buy fancier stuff,” says the author. “But, for example, lots of people have smartphones. Smartphones obviously don’t give you the same 3D graphics capabilities as a big PC with a fancy graphics card, but nevertheless you can play games, you can do video conferencing... that’s well beyond what I would have predicted 30 years ago as a science fiction writer.”

That doesn’t necessarily stop the class divide bleeding over from reality into the Metaverse, of course. You only have to look as far as video game skins, or PFP projects such as Bored Apes or CryptoPunks, to see that people are willing to fork out thousands of real-world dollars to flaunt their wealth in virtual worlds. As Stephenson says, this shouldn’t be dismissed as frivolous: “Even in extremely simple systems, where your ‘avatar’ might just be a thumbnail, a square static image, a few pixels, even then people pay a lot of attention to what those avatars look like.” Dressing straight out of Meta’s in-built digital wardrobe? Not chic!

“Did you win your sword fight?” 

“Of course I won the fucking sword fight,” Hiro says. “I’m the greatest sword fighter in the world.” 

“And you wrote the software.” 

“Yeah. That, too.”

– Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash


The physical infrastructure that underpins the Metaverse in Snow Crash is owned by L. Bob Rife, a sinister tycoon who is responsible for unleashing the titular virus as part of a scheme to hijack the brains of the wider population. Now, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t explicitly stated that his end goal is global mind control, but he has poured a staggering $36 billion into Metaverse development since 2019. Few people on Earth have the kind of resources to compete. Does this mean we’re heading for another billionaire monopoly – and if so, what can we do to stop Zuck turning into an evil overlord like L. Bob Rife?

“To be honest, I haven’t paid a lot of attention to what Meta is doing,” says Stephenson. “I am sceptical of the revenue model of social media companies in general, because whenever I’m using a system for free, I’m asking myself in the back of my mind, how is this company making money? Of course, the answer is that advertisers or what have you are paying them for my data. It’s certainly possible to pursue that kind of revenue model in a Metaverse type of environment. And I’m sure that people will.”

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that Facebook (sorry, Meta) has no qualms with harvesting data, and this data’s dark real-world applications came to light in the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018. Knowing this, it’s probably worth asking why Meta is so eager to get us into its digital worlds, where our every movement, interaction, and utterance can be recorded. It’s also worth noting that many smaller projects are being set up in opposition to such industry titans, such as Stephenson’s very own decentralised Metaverse project, Lamina1.


“As described in Snow Crash, the Metaverse is an entertainment medium, first and foremost,” notes Stephenson. “It’s something that people use during their free time, to socialise, to have fun, to play games.” As such, a thriving artistic underground emerges around the platform and its resident hackers, with figureheads including rapper Sushi K and the “Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge collective” Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns. 

With a punk attitude and abrasive sound, these characters could be compared to Extremely Online artists such as 100 gecs or Frost Children, or the robot Soundcloud rapper FN Meka. In reality, though, today’s Metaverse scene hasn’t quite reached the cultural highs (or lows) seen in Snow Crash. “A lot of companies working in this space at the moment are basically doing what companies always do, which is trying to figure out how to pay their investors back,” says Stephenson. Unfortunately, this has led to a lot of work on things like virtual meetings and tech to streamline businesses – but this hardly helps foster experimental art. “It’s almost actively discouraged, to be overly artistic or expressive in a corporate environment.”

Even the boom in digital art that surrounds NFTs and virtual galleries is disappointing, for the most part, spawning endless waves of absurdly ugly collectibles. Here, though, the author is a bit more optimistic. “[The] NFT phenomenon has quite a raw energy about it that feels sort of punk and seems like it has some potential,” he says. Nevertheless: “It’s got kind of an uneasy relationship with financialization... people who are interested in these things, not for their qualities as art, but as tokens that can be traded. It’s been interesting to watch some of the culture clashes.”


Much of the backstory in Snow Crash is delivered by the Librarian, “a pleasant, fifty-ish, silver-haired, bearded man with bright blue eyes” who is actually a piece of anthropomorphic, self-aware software that inhabits Hiro’s office. Handily, it can navigate “nearly infinite stacks of information [...] with the agility of a spider dancing across a vast web of cross-references”. 

Stephenson’s prediction that we’d have an unimaginable quantity of information at our fingertips – from up-to-date satellite images, to ancient Sumerian transcripts – may not have been a massive stretch in the early 90s, but the way that Hiro interacts with the Librarian is remarkably close to the way we treat AI assistants and internet chatbots today. Ever catch yourself thanking Siri for telling you the weather, or getting irked by Alexa’s pedantic little asides? It’s like that... or a vision of how those interactions might take place five years down the line, when some of the conversational glitches are ironed out.

“The librarian is essentially the the legacy of a character named Lagos, who dies early in the book,” Stephenson explains. In the anniversary edition of Snow Crash, he’s had the opportunity to flesh this character out in more depth. “It’s been interesting to rethink his story a little bit, knowing what is known now about AIs and how they work,” he adds. “What I’ve been able to think about now in greater detail is the process by which Lagos cobbled the Library together from different open source programmes that were available to him, and trained this AI upon the vast amount of information that he had acquired.”

“This Snow Crash thing – is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?”

“What’s the difference?”

– Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash


In Snow Crash, the stakes are high. The Infocalypse is just around the corner, and it’s all thanks to someone figuring out how to transmit a virus from the Metaverse into reality. Farfetched, right? Or maybe not. It’s no secret that our internet usage has rewired our brains; political opinions have been polarised by algorithms designed to trap our attention, and drug-like triggers keep us scrolling for hours on end. Our online lives are already bleeding out into reality, altering our bodies and smoothing our brains.

“When I wrote [Snow Crash] I certainly didn’t see social media coming. I tended to think of TV as the mass medium,” says Stephenson. “All of the stuff in there about the mind virus, and people speaking in tongues, and losing their intellectual autonomy... there was a couple of decades, after the book came out, until the election of Donald Trump let’s say, when I thought of that as just an interesting plot device, but a bit silly in some ways. Now, I see all kinds of connections of the sort that you’re talking about. The way that these algorithms embedded in social media platforms can subtly change our perception of reality over time, and rewire our brain, put us into a weird feedback loop where we want to keep clicking to get that little dopamine hit.”

“I’d like to say I predicted that. I didn’t see social media coming, I didn’t think about memes or any of that. But it feels like something that came true in a different way.”


It’s pretty clear that the world has gone downhill in Snow Crash, regardless of what happens to the novel’s intrepid hacker heroes after the final showdown. America is a minefield of mafia franchises, racist enclaves, and spooky religious sects, and the virtual world that people tune into to escape it is a precarious place with apocalyptic potential. 30 years on, however, Neal Stephenson has a more hopeful outlook on technology and where it could take us.

“Sometimes it’s easier to see bad things coming than to see good things coming,” he says. “The reason that things get better [or] happen in a more positive way than we expect is that element of human creativity. Really, that’s inherently hard to predict. I see that with the climate. It’s easy to see why things are bad and will continue to get worse – and that’s all true – but the wildcard is the ability of the human mind to evade problems and to come up with new approaches.”

“It’s easy to write dystopian fiction and harder to write fiction in a more positive vein. I’m trying to change my ways.”