It was the early ’90s, the internet had just been launched and Seattle-based sci-fi author Neal Stephenson was already dreaming up what would replace it. He was writing “Snow Crash,” a novel about an immersive virtual realm that’s accessed by sporting virtual reality goggles.

Stephenson wondered what to call this fantastical universe, where users get computer-generated bodies, go shopping, hang out with friends, attend concerts and generally have a blast. A single word popped into his mind: “metaverse.”

Three decades later, Stephenson’s metaverse is about to become (virtual) reality. Silicon Valley behemoths — from the eponymously named Meta to Google and Microsoft — are hard at work designing it. Techies confidently predict the metaverse will supplant the internet. Citibank forecasts that by 2030, it may be worth $13 trillion and count 5 billion users, or around 60% of the world’s population.

“Snow Crash” hit bookstores 30 years ago this month and has sold a million copies in North America alone. (A special anniversary edition will be published by Del Rey in November.) The novel is like a bible to some people in Silicon Valley: Google co-founder Sergey Brin said it “anticipated what’s going to happen.”

“Snow Crash” is best remembered for predicting the metaverse. But its description of the real world eerily echoes ours. In the novel, set sometime in the early 21st century, the United States has been ravaged by hyperinflation. Inequality abounds. And a virus is wreaking havoc on society.

Thirty years after anticipating the future, Stephenson now intends to shape it. Along with Bitcoin Foundation co-founder Peter Vessenes, he recently launched Lamina1, a startup that will use blockchain technology to build an “open metaverse” — one that’s open-source and decentralized. The project has begun attracting investors, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.


“There’s a legit opportunity here to actually do something with the exposure that the concept of the metaverse has received,” said Stephenson, 62. In recent years, he’s pondered “whether I should just back away and become a hermit” or “jump into the fray.” Ultimately, he decided that the chance to “realize some old ideas from 30 years ago and some new ideas that I couldn’t have thought of back then” was too irresistible to pass up.

“Right now,” Stephenson said, “the metaverse is a primordial soup of lots of big and small companies banging into each other.” There’s the Decentraland metaverse, which is governed by its users, and the Sandbox metaverse, where someone shelled out $450,000 to become Snoop Dogg’s virtual neighbor. And there will be the Meta metaverse, which could take more than a decade to be fully up and running. Eventually, it’s possible to imagine that users will beam from one to the other like they go from website to website when internet browsing today.

Each metaverse will offer unique experiences, from role-playing games to interactive storytelling to esports to live music to who knows what else.

Stephenson’s vision for Lamina1 (meaning “layer one” in Latin) is to empower the creators of these experiences. He explained, “We want to create a structure of smart contracts and other utilities that will make it easier for people who want to build Metaverse applications to do that in the first place, and then to get compensated if it turns out that people like and want to pay for the experiences they’re creating.”


He intends to create some of these experiences himself. He wouldn’t reveal many details but said the experiences will be set in “the ‘Snow Crash’ story universe.” Nonetheless, he insisted that Lamina1 wouldn’t amount to the Neal Stephenson Show. “What you really want in the long run,” he said, “is for a large number of third-party developers to make their own products and use your infrastructure … to pursue their own goals.”


Although he’s best known for writing high-concept novels, Stephenson has a long tech résumé. He was chief futurist for Magic Leap — an augmented reality startup — until 2020, and before that was the first employee of Kent-headquartered Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company.

In 1999, the author and the Amazon chairman, both Seattle residents, caught a screening of “October Sky,” a biopic of NASA engineer Homer Hickam. Afterward, according to Christian Davenport in “The Space Barons,” Bezos said he’d always dreamed of starting an aerospace company. Stephenson’s response: “Well, why don’t you start it today?”

Because of his connections in the tech world — and the fact that his readers include the likes of Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey — Stephenson has gained a reputation as a guru to tech billionaires.

“Every page that he writes is just brimming with ideas,” said Jennifer Hershey, who edited “Snow Crash” and several of his other novels. Rereading “Snow Crash” recently, Hershey was struck by how Stephenson foresaw today’s “disparity” between haves and have-nots.

“Snow Crash” centers on Hiro, a 30-something hacker-for-hire. In the real world, he lives with a roommate in a 20-by-30 storage unit. But, as Stephenson writes, “when you live in a [dump], there’s always the Metaverse.” There, Hiro lives in a mansion.

Still, Stephenson’s metaverse is no utopia. Its physical infrastructure — the cables and servers on which it runs — is owned by L. Bob Rife, a sinister tycoon who unleashes a computer virus, dubbed snow crash, which hijacks people’s brains in and out of the metaverse. Those infected lose the ability to think for themselves and start speaking in tongues.


The expression “going viral” didn’t exist in 1992, but “Snow Crash” was basically an extended allegory for today’s social media sphere. “Obviously, at the time, we didn’t have social media,” Stephenson said, but “I was writing about just a long-standing human trait, which is this tendency for the mind to get hijacked by ideas.”

Stephenson pointed out that, as he first imagined it in “Snow Crash,” the metaverse “is neither dystopian nor utopian” but has “the potential to be either of those things.” He added, “This is just the nature of the human condition.”

Stephenson might be one of the most prescient sci-fi authors, but he doesn’t claim to be able to predict what will happen next in the metaverse. He offered up only a single prophecy.

“The moment when surprising things begin to emerge,” he said, “is going to be the moment when we start popping champagne corks.”