One of the perks and occasional pains of the gaming industry is attending conventions on behalf of your company. Mentor was pretty charismatic, and people liked his hacker stories, so he got invited out more than anyone else besides Steve.
Sometime between Pyramid issues 2 and 3, he’d gone to a convention in Toronto. Up super-late one night and figuring he’d simply stay up for his early morning flight, he hit the paperback turnstile in the convention hotel’s gift shop. Like most of my favorite nerds, and like myself, Mentor consumed cheap science-fiction and fantasy books like breathing air. I especially appreciated what good taste he had, which isn’t always a characteristic of someone who’ll happily give many books a try. That night was no different.
The next day, he stumbled into work mid-morning and pressed a paperback into my hands.
“Go home,” he said. “You have to read this. Right now. Tell me if it’s as good as I think it is.” Mentor would read a lot, but he didn’t actually like a lot, so a recommendation from him carried some weight. As it turned out, though, I didn’t need any convincing to fall in love with Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. I read the whole book that day and into the evening, laughing out loud and quoting long passages to my roommate, who eventually ran out to get his own copy. My girlfriend crossed her arms and gave me the night to myself.
“Holy crap,” I told a much more well rested Mentor the next morning. “This is the most amazing book I’ve read in years.” Then I added, “I’m not sure it had an ending, though.”
Mentor squinted at me. “What do you remember happening?” I told him, and he smirked. “You know,” he said, “it’s funny. When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t remember how it ended. I figured I got so excited about having to give it to you that I’d fallen asleep reading it and had forgotten that I hadn’t actually finished it.”
“No,” I said. “It just didn’t end that well.”
“Still,” he said, plucking his copy of the book from my hands. I nodded, raising my eyebrows as he opened it up to the first page. A grin swept broadly across his face. He punched a telephone extension and picked up the line.
“Andy, you doing anything?” He hung up. “Jeff,” he called into the other room. “Get over here.” With Jeff and Andy and a few others gathered around, Mentor read the first two chapters, with full arm gestures and righteous intonation, which remain to this day some of the most joyful, exuberant, and visionary fiction I’ve ever read. The rest of the book isn’t all great, though the parts that are great are really, really great.
Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash was an evolution of cyberpunk. It felt fresh and raw and it was thrilling, even if it rather famously didn’t come to a conclusion particularly well. (He took 150 pages ending one of his more recent novels, as if having been given too much crap for wrapping stories too abruptly and unclearly.) It had come out in hardback a year before, garnering zero attention as far as I could tell until it hit paperback. The book would be a colossal success. Snow Crash was Cyberpunk 2.0, in an era when Blade Runner had become an older, classic movie, deserving of a Director’s Cut release, and popular nightly news shows talked regularly about the promises of virtual reality.
Like True Names and Neuromancer, the protagonist of Snow Crash — and you could take that literally: the character’s last name was Protagonist — spent a lot of his time in an online virtual world called the Metaverse, which struck us as a fantastically cool name. Even better, unlike previous cyberpunk characters, who were high-tech thieves or game designers or someone else with a reason to be playing with computers, the novel’s hero — again, literally: his first name was Hiro — was one of the original designers of the fictional future’s virtual reality world itself. The character peppers his recollections with a few precious asides recalling how he and his girlfriend-at-the-time had worked on the Metaverse, first getting it up and running, and how before the virtual land rush and the online population explosion, people in the unsettled digital world had free rein to do things like race vehicles that looked like enormous, Gothic cathedrals down what quickly became dense virtual storefronts and precious online homes for the wealthy. Even online, the poor had to live on the outskirts of everything interesting, and even in a virtual world, if you didn’t have the money to move yourself around, you had to walk. The point, though, is that the book wasn’t about crooks who were hacking, it was about actual hackers, in the traditional sense of people who were going deep on computer stuff because simply for the love of it, driven by the need to make things work. The hero of the book was a nerd, and a cool one at that.
“This is exactly what Steve’s talking with other game companies about,” Mentor said. “Set up virtual stores, get a bunch of people doing business online, and then build the world out around that. Can you imagine selling virtual real estate?”
Doug laughed, pointing at the far room in editorial which we would sacrifice to the cause of hosting io.com. “We have a lot to get set up here, first. We haven’t even moved Multiverse off of Wixer, yet.”
“It’ll happen this week,” Mentor said. “And let’s call it Metaverse.” It was a great idea, but there was a lot of head-scratching. “We’ll call this —” He glanced at the book’s spine. “—Neal Stephenson and ask permission. It’ll promote him as much as it’ll help us.” Not that he’d need it, but it was early enough in the man’s fame that he was happy to help. So we got to call our virtual world Metaverse.
Also, when Mentor called around to see if any copies of Snow Crash still existed in hardback, suspecting they might be worth something some day, he found half a case of them at a local bookseller, where they’d never sold and were about to be shipped back to the publisher where we knew they would be destroyed. Having scared up enough people to claim a copy, he was able to save them all. Then he took the next logical step of shipping them to Neal Stephenson with an extremely nice note (and return shipping). The books came back beautifully autographed and personalized. I still have mine. The author later even agreed to let me run the first two chapters of Snow Crash in an issue of Pyramid. I was ecstatic.
We had no way of knowing that a few years later Neal Stephenson would base one of the main characters in one of his finest novels on Doug, though we’ll get to that.
In the meantime, over a small handful of months we went from, “Hey, the Secret Service is about to give us a bunch of money,” to being the first truly functional and decently promoted Internet Service Provider in Austin. If there’d been another, I hadn’t heard about it. The promotion part was easy, using Pyramid, though as an international magazine it didn’t go deep in our immediate vicinity, the 512 area code.
Though in retrospect I was being payed very little, I was buying about seven copies of Snow Crash a month and giving them to people who I thought might be remotely interested, along with the sign-up info for io.com. It was while reflecting on how poorly that was scaling that my roommate’s girlfriend walked in to ask if I would if I’d ever heard of Timothy Leary, and would I mind putting him up at my place for a couple of days? He was in town to promote the launch of a local futurist literary magazine that she and a friend had started. Just to confuse things, it was called IO. And hey, since this is costing her an arm and a leg, and our new service was called io.com, was there any way we could pitch in to help out?
I had heard of Timothy Leary. If you don’t know who he is, you’ve got a surprise coming up. I knew who he was, and I still had a hell of a surprise coming. Yes, I could put him up at my place. And yes, I was pretty sure that IO — Illuminati Online, that is — could see its way clear to kicking in a bit to help. Could we hand out fliers at the door?
She said we could, if we pitched in a couple hundred bucks.
It would be the most irrationally successful disaster I’ve ever witnessed. Here’s how it went down.