Stephenson's Mafia

By Jacob George

One of the most endearing aspects of Neal Stephenson's novel is the way in which he weaves today's simple idioisyncracies of life (pizza deliveries, lame-duck Presidents, skateboards) into the more futuristic Metaverse. The result is a thriller which manages to be at once both technically complex for the hacker and widely accessible to the GUI-challenged reader. Chains and corpoprtaions, for example, continue to dominate the landscape. Instead of a vast information Superhighway, hackers jack-in to the more analogous Street. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Mafia -- as omnipresent today as cockroaches, yet somehow even more foreboding -- are central to Stephenson's caper.

The technology of Stephenson's world has led to a widespread collapse of government, super-inflation, and general de-localization of resources. Although billion-dollar bills may used as toilet paper, citizens still have their priorities in order. Love matters, even to the Raven; so does happiness. But what truly brings people together more than The Family? In the last half-century alone we have seen the Mafia shift its criminal focus from booze to guns to gambling to drugs and back again. It has kept New York neighborhoods protected and run casinos in Las Vegas. If the Mafia is not location independent by today's standards, then who is? So the Mafia simply continues to change with the times. Stephenson's Mafia still inspires fear through the use of force, still has Italian roots, and still makes deliveries. Furthermore, in an era without Federal regulations, the Mafia thrives:

"The Mafia has a sample of the drug for the first time, thanks to me and my pal Ng. Until now, it always self-destucted before they could get to it. So I guess they're analyzing it or something. Trying to make an antidote, maybe." "Or trying to reproduce it." "The Mafia wouldn't do that." Don't be a sap," Hiro says. "Of course they would." Y.T. seems miffed at Hiro. "Look," he says, "I'm sorry for reminding you of this, but if we still had laws, the Mafia would be a criminal organization." "But we don't have laws," she says, "so it's just another chain." (p.250)

Stephenson's Mafia is able to step out of the shadows and into prominence as major player in the business and technology industries. The Mafia even advertises! The fact that such a conglomerate can deliver a pizza and help save the world in one fell swoop speaks volumes about its global influence. One cannot help but wonder how much of its success relies on its outspoken promise to uphold the familial structure in these de-centralized times.

While in large part inspired by the desire to safeguard its own monopoly, the Mafia is nonetheless one of the good guys in the novel. Enzo is the caring father figure Y.T. never had; the "Sicilian Colonel Sanders" himself even makes personal appearances to apologize for late Pizza deliveries. Of course, that likely spells death for the tardy driver, but the loyalty to the neighborhood remains the same. De-localization is a truly frightening concept whose implications are not fully explored in "Snow Crash." Citizens stare death in the face every day, whether it be in reality or the Metaverse. At a time when so many lost souls search for acceptance and meaning, the simple Mafia promise that "You've got a friend in The Family!" goes a long way.

[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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