Study Guide

Snow Crash Setting

By Neal Stephenson


The Dystopian Future

America (Or What's Left of It)

In some senses, America is still America in this version of the future, in all its gun-loving, individualistic glory: "This is America. People do whatever the f*** they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can f***ing stop them" (1.6). Sounds kind of familiar, right?

That's because in Snow Crash, things in America have been going downhill thanks to greed and stupidity, so now the good ol' U. S. of A. isn't what it used to be. There are only four things Americans do better than anyone else: make music and movies, program software, and deliver pizzas at high speed. Everything else got outsourced.

Moreover, America's not in good shape anymore—literally, its shape on a map is different. Cities became city-states with their own sovereignty, while other parts of the U.S. were outright destroyed in disasters we never actually hear about. Y.T. speculates upon meeting a huge group of Feds that "all the gun-carrying Feds are probably out in what used to be Alabama or Chicago trying to confiscate parts of United States territory back from what is now a Buy 'n' Fly or a toxic-waste dump" (41.46). Yup, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore (if Kansas even exists).


Even living in a city is no guarantee of having a decent quality of life. Take, for instance, Compton (a neighborhood in Los Angeles):

Lepers roasting dogs on spits over tubs of flaming kerosene. Street people pushing wheelbarrows piled high with dripping clots of million- and billion-dollar bills that they have raked up out of storm sewers. Road kills—enormous road kills—road kills so big that they could only be human beings, smeared out into chunky swaths a block long. (18.10)

And here we thought Compton was rough in the real world; in Snow Crash, things have gotten so much worse.

A lot of the action takes place around Los Angeles, so you'll see landmarks like Griffith Park, the 5 and 405 freeways, and LAX. Deliveries get made to the San Fernando Valley, to San Bernardino, to Long Beach, and so on—if you're a SoCal native, these places will sound familiar to you. If not, sit back and enjoy the local flavor. Or hop online to check out maps of these places. Your call.

The Metaverse

This is where you go when you log into a virtual reality computing system. It's just a program, a series of code, but it lets you see and hear and talk to anyone else who's also logged on. Here's how the place looks:

The sky and the ground are black, like a computer screen that hasn't had anything drawn into it yet; it is always nighttime in the Metaverse, and the Street is always garish and brilliant, like Las Vegas freed from constraints of physics and finance. (3.35)

The Street, the main corridor of the Metaverse, has a monorail people can ride to visit different parts of the Metaverse. It is, in itself, part of the spectacle, and "A lot of people just ride back and forth on it, looking at the sights" (3.39). This reinforces the idea that the Metaverse is a place where people come to see and be seen.

Everyone who's anyone has an invitation to The Black Sun, Da5id's hacker company/hang-out. Since everything's so gaudy in the Metaverse, The Black Sun looks "extraordinarily somber" in comparison, since it's just "a squat black pyramid with the top cut off" (5.20). Despite its boring appearance, though, it's surrounded by "ten thousand shrieking groupies" (5.25). Exclusivity will do that, even in virtual reality.

The Metaverse used to be one hundred percent safe—since it is virtual, not physical, nothing that happened to you there could really affect you (your computer might crash, you might lose data or get hacked, but you physically would still be fine). However, this changes over the course of the book. As Hiro knows:

The Metaverse has now become a place where you can get killed. Or at least have your brain reamed out to the point where you might as well be dead. This is a radical change in the nature of the place. Guns have come to Paradise. (48.28)

So yeah, that place where you feel safe because nothing is actually real? Think again, kiddos. And you know what that means? In Snow Crash, you aren't safe anywhere.

The Rest of the World

On the plus side, with the brain drain happening in America, a lot of business is being exported to other countries—for instance, "they're making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan" (1.6)—but that still only goes so far in evening out the global inequalities that have been in place for, like, a long frickin' time. This is especially evident when it comes to technology:

In the real world […] there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer; these people have more money than all of the others put together. (3.37)

So…yeah. This is a future where wealth is not evenly distributed, to put it mildly. There are some hints that various ecological disasters have occurred, but very little is made concrete. We can only imagine that whatever happened.

What's Up with Nippon?

Turns out that Nippon is one of the names for Japan, often used by the Japanese themselves. When we see it used in Snow Crash, it's usually Hiro doing the using. Why? His mom was Korean but from Japan, so it makes sense that he would've gotten the native version of the place name rather than the outsider version.

So while we never get to see Nippon (perhaps Hiro and Y.T. will go on a vacation there after they save the world), we thought it was worth mentioning that yes, Nippon is just another way of saying Japan. And Japan gets mentioned a fair bit because (a) its businessmen are all over the Metaverse, (b) Hiro has a personal connection to the culture, and (c) Japanese characters like Sushi K pop up every so often.