Sample Chapter: Neuromancer & Snow Crash

This is a work-in-progress look into the upcoming book “Field Notes from the Metaverse”. Note that the content is still changing. If you have relevant feedback, or additional insights or context to share, please use the comment section below or contact me directly to add your voice to the book. Thank you!

The following chapters are lifted from the section “A new subculture is born”, which describes what led to the cyberpunk genre, how cyberpunk spawned different visions for digital virtual worlds, and how these visions influenced the development of the emerging Internet.

“A new subculture is born” is the first section in the book, acting as an introduction into the earlier concepts of the metaverse. Chapters before explain the socio-economic context of cyberpunk as a genre, and the history of fantasy literature that outlines a world separate from reality, facilitated by some kind of technology. Chapters afterwards go into more examples, including the “Cyberpunk 2013” role placing game, “and “Otherland” by Tad Williams, and others.

Neuromancer (1984)

In the early 1980s, William Gibson took the visual and narrative shape of cyberpunk and filled it with details, creating a deep lore and terminology for the entire genre.

Born in March 1948 in Conway, South Carolina, Gibson grew up in a region torn between Southern traditions and societal change based on technological progress. This environment led to a fascination with the interplay between humans and an increasingly mechanized and digitized world.

As a teenager Gibson developed an affinity for science fiction, punk music, and countercultural movements. He spent the 1960s and early 1970 travelling the US, Canada and Europe, immersing himself in the counterculture around the Vietnam war. Together with his wife, he eventually settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1972.

While looking after their first child, Gibson realized that he qualified for student financial aid and enrolled at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In 1977, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English.

After leaving university, Gibson started writing short stories for several influential science fiction periodicals. Two stories, “Johnny Mnemonic“ (1981) and “Burning Chrome“ (1982), gained a following due to their imaginative characters and world building.

Set in a near-future dystopia, Gibson created a vivid and immersive world brimming with tension, technological complexity, and a sense of impending disruption. In Gibson’s future, rampant capitalism has given rise to mega-corporations that wield enormous influence and power. These entities control advanced technologies, manipulate global economies, and operate beyond the reach of traditional government regulation.

This is contrasted by a subculture of criminals and mercenaries that engage in more or less illegal activities to either harm or profit from the mega-corporations.

The world itself is characterized by overcrowded cities, where luxury skyscrapers tower over vast slums, populated by a chaotic amalgamation of cultures and ethnicities. Cybernetic enhancements have become commonplace, and individuals can augment their bodies through implants to enhance physical and mental abilities.

Parallel to the physical world exists the “Cyberspace”, a hyper-connected, information-saturated digital space, where virtual reality landscapes come to life in vibrant, hallucinatory detail, filled with hackers, artificial intelligence, and augmented bodies.

When Gibson was commissioned to write his first full-length novel in 1982, he set “Neuromancer“ in the same world, using previous concepts and characters.

Neuromancer tells the story of Case, a once skilled and well-known computer hacker. Prior to the events of Neuromancer, he suffered nervous system damage that rendered him unable to enter cyberspace, the virtual reality network that replaced the Internet. This loss of ability is a significant challenge for Case, as it had been his main source of income and personal fulfillment.

The story begins as Case is approached by a mysterious employer who offers to restore his ability to enter cyberspace in exchange for his help in pulling off a complex hack. Case agrees and embarks on a dangerous mission to infiltrate the computer systems of a powerful corporation, aided by a cast of characters including a bodyguard, voodoo priestess and an artificial intelligence named Wintermute.

The concept of cyberspace was first introduced in Gibson’s short story Burning Chrome, but it was Neuromancer that introduced the term into the public consciousness. It is described as a sprawling virtual world that exists within a vast decentralized network of interconnected computers. Users gain access through personal devices called “decks,” allowing them to “jack into” the network.

Gibson looked at the early Internet and applied the cynical lens towards technology of the 1980s to extrapolate a cyberspace that is both empowering and potentially dangerous, with governments, corporations, and criminal organizations all wanting to control it for their own purposes.

Once inside cyberspace, users can interact with other users, artificial intelligences, and digital information through a combination of physical movements and mental commands. They can communicate through text-based messaging systems, engage in virtual reality simulations, manipulate information, even create new realities themselves.

In Gibson’s future, any interaction within cyberspace is always shaped by the politics of the outside world. Corporations and government agencies use their control over the network to surveil and control users, while hackers and other criminal organizations use the network to conduct illegal activities and evade detection.

Gibson’s cyberspace is an expression of real-world concerns about the rise of corporate influence and the erosion of state authority in the face of globalization. The juxtaposition of technological advancement in cyberspace with social decay in the real world highlights the dangers of an unchecked capitalist expansion and the consequences of neglecting societal welfare.

Fundamentally, the boundaries between reality and cyberspace are blurred, since real conflicts are fought in virtuality, and all virtual actions have real effects.

In an interview with Larry McCaffery in 2000, Gibson said he had written Neuromancer in a state of “Blind animal panic” after watching an early showing of Blade Runner. In 2003 he added on his blog:

“Blade Runner came out while I was still writing Neuromancer. .. When I saw (the first twenty minutes of) Blade Runner, I figured my unfinished first novel was sunk, done for.”

/ William Gibson

Driven by a sense of failure, Gibson re-wrote the first two-thirds of the book twelve times. The result is a fast-paced, gritty, and highly descriptive style, creating a vivid and immersive world that readers could easily get lost in. Gibson introduced an entirely new vocabulary of tech jargon, street slang, and hacker terminology that became the cornerstone of the cyberpunk genre.

The book’s themes of corporate power, government surveillance, and the potential dangers of technology resonated with readers who were worried about the direction society was heading in.

While not an instant commercial success, Neuromancer hit a cultural nerve, channeling the anxieties and fears of the time. It became the first novel to win the coveted “triple crown” of science fiction awards in the same year: The Nebula and Hugo awards, as well as the Philip K. Dick award.

The novel cemented many themes and tropes for the emerging cyberpunk genre, including the fusion of technology, counterculture, and urban decay in the digital age. Much like Blade Runner, the book became a template for how this new cyberpunk genre should feel.

But where Blade Runner was confined to the physical world, Burning Chrome and Neuromancer introduced a fully immersive, spatial virtual world. Cyberspace represented a “late-stage Internet vision” that was in line with cyberpunk’s cynical and dystopic version of the real world. This inspired a new generation of technologists, to the point where “Cyberspace” would eventually become a synonym for the emerging Internet.

Snow Crash (1992)

Neal Stephenson initially envisioned Snow Crash as a computer-generated graphic novel. However, due to the lack of available tools and image-processing software in the late 1980s, he turned the story into a novel. Building on top of the cyberpunk genre, Stephenson pushed deeper into speculative fiction, creating entirely new concepts – one of which being the “Metaverse“.

Neal Stephenson was born in October 1959 in Fort Meade, Maryland. His father being a professor of electrical engineering and his mother working in a biochemistry laboratory, Stephenson’s developed a fascination with science and engineering from an early age.

This foundation led him to pursue higher education at Boston University, where he studied physics. With the emerging computing revolution, Stephenson developed a deep curiosity about the intersection of science, culture, and technology. He shifted his focus to geography after he found out that this would allow him more computing time on the university mainframe.

It was also at Boston University where Stephenson began to explore his passion for writing through contributions to the university’s science fiction magazine. His early stories featured themes of environmentalism, satire, as well as historical and societal exploration.

His breakthrough came in 1992 with “Snow Crash,” a cyberpunk novel that combined memetics, linguistics and computer networks with Sumerian mythology.

In Snow Crash, the United States went through economic collapse and rampant inflation, as most industries went abroad. What remains is a collection of largely independent, hyper-libertarian states, where most government functions are performed by private corporations. This includes organized, incorporated crime, including the Mafia.

The novel follows the adventures of a hacker and master swordsman named Hiro Protagonist, who works for the Mafia as a pizza delivery driver. Early on, Hiro wrecks his car during a delivery run, but can complete the job with the help of a young skateboard courier named Yours Truly (Y.T.).

Out of a job, Hiro is looking for a new occupation to repay the damages. He turns to the “Metaverse”, a massive virtual world in which the rich, hip, and connected escape reality in search of self-expression and entertainment. In the Metaverse, he hopes to make money by collecting, indexing, and organizing gossip.

As Hiro visits a well-known Metaverse night club, he encounters a computer virus named “Snow Crash” that can affect people in both the virtual and physical world, causing brain damage. He teams up with Y.T. to track down the source and stop the spread of the virus. However, they are confronted by powerful corporations that want to utilize the virus for their own nefarious goals, determined to create chaos and destruction.

The Metaverse in Snow Crash is a vast structure of computer-generated three-dimensional virtual spaces.

“So Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and is pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.”

/ Neal Stephenson, “Snow Crash”

The virtual world of the Metaverse is a featureless, black void in the shape of a giant sphere, around 20.000km in diameter. The world and its basic infrastructure are developed and managed by a global organization called the “Global Multimedia Protocol Group”, sitting within the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). The organization also assigns or sells the available address space, which represents plots of land on the virtual world.

The central element of the Metaverse is the “Street”, a boulevard going across the entire equator. Branching off this main roadway are side roads leading to individual properties, districts, or cities, owned by individuals or corporations. These plots of lands can be programmed with anything the owner desires, including structures like landscapes, houses, or office buildings, as well as fantastical objects and constructions that defy the conventional laws of physics.

New users initially spawn in a “Port” – telephone box-like constructions on the Street. At this point they create or select an existing avatar for themselves.

“The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.”

/ Neal Stephenson, “Snow Crash”

Users have total creative freedom when styling their avatars in terms of body type or representation, meaning that users can chose human forms, but also animals, fantasy creatures, or even abstract shapes and forms. The only hard limitation is size, as avatars can only be about the same dimensions as their users in reality. There are also social conventions and avatar etiquette, which however are not enforced.

All other interactive elements also follow a physical metaphor. “Hypercards” are object avatars representing files – once their avatar is handed over, the respective data is downloaded onto the holder’s computer. “Daemons” are avatars representing automated programs, usually for a specific task, taken from “the old jargon of UNIX operating system utility software”.

Movement in the metaverse is modeled after reality: When spawning somewhere, people can walk to their destination, take a private mode of transportation (bike, car, or similar), or use the public monorail that travels along the Street.

The number of users in the Metaverse is not limited by the system itself, but by access to technology to run the virtual world, and network connectivity with the requisite bandwidth. At the time of Snow Crash, the Metaverse has around 120 million users, in a virtual world with around double the surface area of Earth. Consequently, most of the Metaverse is empty, with people concentrating in hotspots on or close to the Street.

In line with typical cyberpunk themes, Stephenson took the general distrust towards technology and capitalism, as well as the home computer and Internet revolution, and extrapolated a hyper capitalistic, post-apocalyptic, fully digitally transformed future vision.

While Stephenson also used a narrator, it wasn’t the protagonist Hiro. Because Snow Crash was originally envisioned as a graphic novel, Stephenson used an external perspective, as if the reader experienced a movie. This led to a very descriptive, visual writing style.

The book alternates between the perspective of the main characters and detailing their surroundings. Stephenson describes speculative, futuristic objects in detail, some core to the story, but many others mundane and only used to make the everyday life of the characters more relatable.

The same is true for society and culture. Language, gestures, slang words, fashion, and music are described in detail, leading to a vivid and immersive reading experience. The sheer amount of highly relatable speculative fiction instantly extended the stylistic template of cyberpunk, adding concepts like the “Cyber Samurai” and “Avatars” to the genre.

William Gibson’s vision for cyberspace was utilitarian in nature. Cyberspace, like the Internet, was an extension of reality. Individuals and organizations in cyberspace are fundamentally the same as in reality, with the same assets, bank accounts, relationships and so on.

In contrast, Stephenson’s Metaverse was envisioned as a separate world, a place where people escaped from the limitations of reality. According to the novel, many people would spend their entire lives in the Metaverse, living out their fantasies. The name was capitalized, making it clear that “Metaverse” was a product, not a general concept like Gibson’s “cyberspace.”

Assets and wealth in the Metaverse do not necessarily transfer into the real world. The protagonist Hiro owns several high-profile properties in the Metaverse while living in a tiny storage unit that he shares with a friend. However, wealth in the real world can be used to buy or rent virtual assets in the Metaverse, for example property and avatar skins.

The Metaverse also didn’t replace the Internet in Snow Crash. Traditional digital communication channels still exist and are relevant enough to be added to people’s business cards. Official documents referring to real assets, for example passports or bank accounts, are still managed through terminals and Internet services. And the Internet still powers products and services like navigation systems in cars or delivery management systems.

Stephenson’s Metaverse is thus closer to an alternative fantasy world, and very similar to the “dreaming reality” that Laurence Manning described in The City of Sleep in 1933. It takes familiar concepts like “Stepping through the wardrobe into the fantastical world of Narnia” and places them in a science fiction setting: “Interfacing through a computer into the fantastical Metaverse.”

Field Notes: The Metaverse as Narrative Device

When analyzing the metaverse, it is important to reflect on the inception of the term. Neal Stephenson told Vanity Fair in an interview in 2017 that:

“I never really saw myself anticipating the future. The book was just me making shit up.”

/ Neal Stephenson, “The Sci-Fi Guru Who Predicted Google Earth Explains Silicon Valley’s Latest Obsession”

And that is an important distinction in the “creation myth of the Metaverse”: Neither Snow Crash nor Neuromancer were written as predictions or instructions on how to create a potential future. They were created as commercial pieces of entertainment. As such they didn’t need to be scientifically accurate, or even make sense. When introducing new concepts, Gibson, Stephenson, and the others remained very broad, only focusing only on specific aspects that drive the story.

Case in point: Snow Crash is a pulp science fiction novel. The literally named Hiro Protagonist is a broke and down-on-his-luck hacker. He previously worked as a talented software developer on the Metaverse, but now delivers pizza for the Mafia as a stunt car driver, calling himself “The Deliverator”. He also happens to be the greatest swordfighter in the world, in both the virtual and real world. His sidekick Y.T. is a teenager that works as a delivery girl and moves about by literally shooting harpoons at cars to get dragged across the city on a skateboard. The antagonist is a biker that carries a nuclear weapon in the side-carriage of his motorcycle. None of this is meant to be taken seriously.

Thus, when the book spends three pages on describing how the adaptive wheels on Y.T.’s skateboard work, it is not to create plausible speculative fiction on the future of mobility, but to be a “future-cool” set piece:

“Back on the paddle again. It rolls across the yard on a set of RadiKS Mark IV Smartwheels. She upgraded to said magical sprockets after the following ad appeared in Thrasher magazine.

Each one consists of a hub with many stout spokes. Each spoke telescopes in five sections. On the end is a squat foot, rubber tread on the bottom, swiveling on a ball joint. As the wheels roll, the feet plant themselves one at a time, almost glomming into one continuous tire.

The ad was right – you cannot be a professional road surfer without smartwheels.“

/ Neal Stephenson, “Snow Crash”

While this sounds intuitively believable, none of this makes actual sense. How would a spoke know how far to extend itself? Given that a skateboard wheel rotates around 100 times a second at 60 km/h, how quickly would it need to be extended? What material would be able to withstand this force?

But, as a concept, it sounds cool. It takes a trend and stereotype from the 1990’s present (“skateboarding kids”) and transports it into a futuristic cyberpunk setting (“armored skateboarding data courier kids”). Above all, it is meant to be entertaining.

Consequently, the Metaverse in Snow Crash exists to provide another stage to put cool things into. It is a way for the characters to fast-travel and do things together, even if they are physically apart. It exists to make the act of hacking more exciting than “A person typing really fast in front of a computer.” The components and capabilities of the Metaverse are defined by what it needs to accomplish within the story, and not by what is realistic or desirable.

In a recent podcast interview, Neal Stephenson himself reflected on the legacy of Snow Crash and current state of the Metaverse. He found that the term now represents a narrative — a vague stand-in for the next paradigm in technology:

“Metaverse is kinda a catch-all term for stuff that people want you to buy a few years from now. And by process of elimination it’s got to be something beyond screens.”

/ Neal Stephenson, “Behind The Tech with Kevin Scott Podcast”

Field Notes: The Metaverse as Literal Internet

Gibson’s cyberspace was an extended metaphor for “The Internet, but three-dimensional.” In Neuromancer, passports and identities are managed in government databases. Money sits in virtual bank accounts. Most physical and digital assets are governed by some kind of digital system. Like the Internet today, it created a digital dimension as a mirror of reality. Cyberspace added a three-dimensional interface as an immersive window into this dimension. It wasn’t a new universe per se, but a virtual dimension on top of reality.

As a result, Gibson’s cyberspace concept is a utilitarian device: A way to achieve goals within the real world through a three-dimensional digital interface. There is no meaningful way to differentiate between virtuality and reality, as cyberspace is always shaped by the politics and social constructs of the outside world.

Stephenson’s Metaverse decoupled virtuality and reality to create a virtual world that exists parallel to the real one. It was a metaphor for “A three-dimensional fantasy world, created by computers.

Like the movie Tron, Stephenson interprets his Metaverse as a literal place. Identities in the Metaverse are not necessarily recognizable or tied to real ones. Money and assets in the Metaverse only have meaning there. And as a separate, artificial construct, politics and social norms do not automatically transfer from the real world into the Metaverse. Stephenson’s Metaverse is thus closer to modern multiplayer games: They might run on the infrastructure of the Internet, but they are not the Internet itself.

And so, the Metaverse is an expressionistic device: A world in which people can be different. An “Uber-Reality”, sitting on top of a digital infrastructure, but not replacing it. It gave computing a spiritual “home” – not a technology, not a tool, but another world.

Although Gibson and Stephenson proposed a different purpose, both cyberspace and Metaverse had the same gestalt, using the metaphor of a literal, three-dimensional computing interface.

Server hardware turned into “property” located on a virtual map. Data and services were represented by buildings and structures on these properties. Users walk from building to building on virtual streets, interacting with information and other users as they would in real life. It not only is skeuomorphic in design, where the virtual interface emulates the look of a physical object, but also in behavior: It’s spatial and physical.

At the time, this was seen as a logical next step in human-machine interaction: Instead of people adapting and learning how to use computers, an evolved computer would work like a natural object.

In 1992, Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) developed “File System Navigator” (fsn, pronounced “fusion”) as a spatial way to view files on storage media. Instead of a list, users were presented with “cities” on a plane. Each city represented a folder, and each “building” within it represented a file. Different colors and heights of the buildings signified metadata, like file size and type. Released as an experiment, it failed to attract a user base and development was eventually discontinued.

Microsoft Bob” was intended to transform the Microsoft Windows operating system by turning it into a virtual space. Released in 1995, the user interface represented rooms within a house. Users navigated to a room, which contained literal interactive items: To open a word processor, the user needed to move to the study room and select the pen on the desk. While some users appreciated the attempt to make computing more literal, the reception was underwhelming and Microsoft discontinued the product in 1996, a year after its initial release.

In 1994 ”Virtual Reality Modeling Language” (VRML) was introduced as a descriptive language to create 3D models and virtual worlds as a natural part of the World Wide Web. The goal was to transform 2D websites into 3D virtual worlds. VRML went on to become the first standard for Web-based 3D graphics, but it didn’t see any real adoption.

There are many more periodic examples of individuals and organizations trying to introduce more literal computer interface metaphors, with similarly disappointing results. This highlights an issue with three-dimensional, spatial interfaces: While they are immediately recognizable and understandable, they quickly disappoint when used.

One issue is technical: In absence of a truly immersive way to experience three-dimensional virtual worlds, two-dimensional screens inherently limit the ability to interact with them. The edge of the screen literally is “the end of the virtual world.

In cyberpunk the solution was to make the virtual worlds fully immersive and context consuming. Users would either use some kind of brain-computer-interface or a multi-sensory virtual reality setup to completely immerse themselves into the virtual world. While VR setups did exist in the 1980s and 1990s, they were prohibitively expensive, room-scale contraptions, used only by military and research institutions.

But even using these highly specialized systems, the literal three-dimensional computing metaphors did not work as expected. It turned out that the confinement and compression of information into a two-dimensional window was actually a strength. By necessity, such interfaces required an efficient way for users to navigate vast amounts of information.

Instead of “walking through rooms of a house to get to an application,” as with Microsoft Bob, users were able to just click on an app launcher. Instead of “walking between website properties to get to the desired one, enter it, and walk to the correct room to read the information in a book on the correct shelf,” users clicked a hyperlink to get to the information immediately.

People found spatial and physical metaphors were simply too slow and cumbersome to be used in general computing. The same was true for navigating vast amounts of information.

The Internet, but three-dimensional” turned out to be largely undesirable as a paradigm.

Even so, Snow Crash launched just before the first wave of Internet commercialization and had a profound impact on the early Silicon Valley computer enthusiast subculture:

Snow Crash was really ten years ahead of its time. It kind of anticipated what’s going to happen, and I find that really interesting.” / Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, American Academy of Achievement Interview, 2000

It’s worth noting that, at least for a time, product managers at Facebook were required to read Snow Crash as part of their internal training.” / Dean Eckles, former scientist for Facebook, “DocSend in Snow Crash”, 2014

 “We were heavily inspired by Snow Crash in the development of Xbox Live, and that it was a mandatory read for the Xbox development team.” J. Allard , former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer and Boyd Multerer, former Xbox Live Development Manager, “The birth of xbox live”, 2013

While cyberpunk and cyberspace influenced the early Internet, the Metaverse became the spiritual blueprint for many early Web experiences. Designers and developers at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others used their imagination to re-interpret cyberspace and the Metaverse in a way that made sense. They transformed Stephenson’s fictional capital-M Metaverse into a vision for the future of networked computing, the reality-based lower-case-m metaverse.

Removing the spatial metaphor left a digital world that people could still enter to meet others and exchange information, goods, and services in a direct, tangible, immersive way. The result is the Internet we know today: Websites, online platforms, e-commerce, games, and apps. Functionally, it’s cyberspace, but without the headsets and spatial metaphor. The utilitarian infrastructure (cyberspace) provided the foundation for the expressive experience (metaverse).

At the same time, virtual worlds emerged in gaming. Functionally, these are close to the descriptions of the Metaverse as parallel worlds for entertainment, creativity, and self-expression.

The computer enthusiast subculture also evolved. They reimagined themselves to become nerds, geeks, gamers, bloggers, streamers, podcasters, social media influencers, and more, moving past the original template of “the hacker”.

A lot has happened in the last 30 years. The stylistic understanding and thus the expectations around the metaverse concept evolved beyond the scope of Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and the entire cyberpunk genre. Now trying to extract “the true meaning of the metaverse” from cyberpunk alone is moot, as reality has turned out to be different. Just like the “true meaning of space travel” cannot be extracted from Star Trek.

But just like intergalactic space travel, the metaverse is still a strong vision. People still believe that the Internet and all associated digital dimensions gravitate towards a literal digital world that people can enter. The core vision of digital nirvana remains an attractive concept to explore.

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