The god himself may never visit the world he conceived, but at least his shrine is here now. Sometime this week, obelisks of burnished steel will sprout up in various places around Second Life: a metaverse edition of Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash, the novel that taught us to dream about an online digital world that exists in parallel with the corporeal realm.
As originally reported in 3PointD, the SL edition was created with the approval of Stephenson himself, then brought in-world by Fizik Baskerville of UK virtual world branding company Rivers Run Red, working with Penguin, Stephenson's publisher.
"We have only two hundred of them," Baskerville tells me, after offering an advance peek at the SL edition Snowcrash. "One is going in the Welcome Area. The others will be 'lottery' picks for discerning communities."
The SL edition, it should be said, only contains the book's first forty pages, displayed on an accompanying HUD, with buttons to launch an hour of the book's audio recording (or an ambient music channel for background reading music), and a button that launches a web browser, taking you straight to the Amazon page where you can buy the full version.
Then again, reading the entirety of this SL edition was probably never the main goal-- it's enough to have it in here as a godhead-blessed totem, a symbol of the world's significance. Written nearly 15 years ago, Linden Lab's founders often acknowledge Snowcrash as a core source for what eventually became Second Life.
It's a marvelous acheivement for the world, especially since Stephenson hasn't seemed particularly enthused about Second Life, up to now. While I was still with the company, my colleague Reuben Linden (now Reuben Tapioca, CEO of virtual world developer Millions of Us, a sponsor of this blog) sent around an e-mail describing his chance meeting with Neal Stephenson:
Last night I went to a small gathering at a machine shop in San Rafael where my friends at the Long Now Foundation were demonstrating the Orrery that they've spent the last five years building... After watching the clock demonstration, the 25 of us in attendance were sort of milling around, eating chicken and drinking beer. I (as usual) was talking about Second Life, when a woman said, "You should really tell Neal about this..."
"Who's Neal?" I asked, innocently.
"Neal Stephenson," she replied. "He wrote a book that's a lot like what you're talking about. He's right over there."
As I turned my head, Neal began walking over and I had a couple seconds to decide what to do. I decided to go for it, and introduced myself and told him that it was nice to meet him given that Snowcrash had had a large influence over Second Life...
At this point, the story gets weird. Neal's reaction was the same as if I'd told him that I was an accountant specializing in handling the returns of Science Fiction authors-- almost complete disinterest. We chatted for 5 minutes, he was not overtly rude, just bland and unexcited.
After he left, I was initially puzzled and somewhat upset. It was sort of like being a horror film-maker and meeting Hitchcock, gushing your admiration, and having him answer with, "uh-huh".
After thinking about it for a while, I realized that one of several things is true. Either:
1. He's been approached by thousands of people saying they've built the Metaverse and is tired of being disappointed.
2. He wrote the book a long time ago, is now bored with the concept and has moved on.
Whatever the case, the important realization I had was that it really doesn't matter. If he "saw" SL, he'd think it was cool (or not) and that day will inevitably come. But his endorsement or lack thereof is immaterial. And that's a cool thing.
While Stephenson did sign off on Snowcrash's SL edition, there's no word of any other participation from him. So I suspect Reuben's second hypothetical is correct: Neal Stephenson wrote the novel nearly fifteen years ago, and like St. Anselm high on amphetamine-laced smartdrinks, created a perfect mental image of the metaverse, made it exist as much as it mattered to him-- then moved on. He's since written five other acclaimed novels, and I have to wonder if geeks like us who wonder why he doesn't want to talk about the adventures of Hiro Protagonist are like Jim Carrey fans who get annoyed by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because it means he won't do his hilarious Fireman Bill thing from "In Living Color" anymore.
But Reuben's meeting was last October, and the seismic shifts that have happened
since then make the last two lines of his e-mail all the more profound. In most ways, Second Life has already created the underlying structure of what was described in Snowcrash, in some ways surpassing it-- and now, while acknowledgement would be lovely, it's rather beside the point what the original author thinks of it.
Or as Fizik announces with typical Baskervillian verve, "Snowcrash has returned to its errant child."