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The Big U

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(More recycled old material. New stuff soon.)

After spending a morning looking at potential wedding reception sites, Kate and I dropped into Borders for a little self-bribery. Much to my surprise, one of the first books I saw in the store was a reprint edition of Neal Stephenson’s The Big U. I wasn’t aware that this was being reprinted, having always heard that he was so ashamed of his early work that he was travelling around the country buying and destroying used copies so that no-one else could read it. Guess that was an urban legend…

Anyway, after hearing about this book on-line for years, I snapped up a copy at once. I finished it this afternoon, as it was vastly more entertaining than the work I was supposed to be doing (such are the dangers of bringing good novels to work to read on my lunch break…).

It’s clear from the start that this is an early book by the author of Snow Crash. All the hallmarks are there- the goofy names (Casimir Radon, Septimus Severus Krupp), the bizarre assembly of characters (spanning the full range from duplicitous military-industrial complexites, to pistol-packing lesbians, to the spiritual ancestors of scruffy bearded Unix geeks), and the absurd hodge-podge of topics (Jaynes’s theory of the bicameral mind, railguns, malevolent computer programs)- and everything is slightly less polished. Stephenson’s foray into academic satire has all the subtlety of an asteroid strike. Mentally comparing this to Cryptonomicon clearly shows his growth as an author- he’s learned a bit of restraint in the intervening fifteen years, and he’s a better author for it.

Which is not to say that The Big U isn’t a good book. It just… sprawls. It’s a tremendously entertaining read, and clatters along bouncing off one academic caricature after another, the plot becoming progressively more tangled and absurd, until everything comes crashing down at the very end. Literally. Which, actually, is probably the best ending he’s written thus far (though I do like the end of Cryptonomicon).

The plot almost defies description. The basic story follows the exploits of a handful of eccentric characters rattling around the one-building campus of the American Megaversity- chief among them are Casimir Radon, physics and engineering prodigy; Sarah Jane Johnson, President of the Student Government; Virgil Gabrielsen, who would be a scruffy bearded Unix geek if not for the fact that he bypasses the operating system entirely; and the narrator, a faculty member who appears to be named Bud Redfield (though I might’ve missed a full first name). They pinball their way through all the requisite satirical situations, interacting with impenetrable bureaucracy, eccentric faculty, stoned/ drunk/ drugged Frat Boys (they’re not called such, but the type is clear), and bizarre campus political groups, before stumbling on a sinister plot involving terrorists international and domestic, giant rats in the sewers, neon-worshipping acid-dropping hooligans, and myriad other elements.

The biggest flaw in the book is that it can’t quite seem to decide what it wants to be. It plays around with the bureaucracy of academia for a while, moves on to mocking the meaninglessness of student government, spends an unpleasant moment dealing with rape on campus, drifts into a story about live-action RPG’s gone wrong, then takes off into Chris Carter/ Oliver Stone flights of paranoid fancy. The next most obvious flaw is its heavy-handedness- it’s clear within a page or two (with one or two exceptions) whether any given character will turn out to be on the side of Our Intrepid Heroes, and those who aren’t (the vast majority) are unremittingly awful.

As I said, though, the plot rattles along with enough maniacal energy to make it a fun ride. There were a couple of ugly moments when it almost got too nasty for its own good, but they passed quickly enough.

If the unruliness of Snow Crash didn’t appeal to you, you should probably hesitate before leaping into this one. But if you like barely-controlled plots, and have ever spent time around a large university, grab a copy and enjoy the ride.

(As an aside, the most striking thing about the book was how well the academic stereotypes have aged. I was jarred out of the book for a moment by a mention of a computer program on paper tape, and had to check the copyright date. Stephenson did a marvelous job anticipating the “PC culture” of academia- but for the obsolete hardware, this could’ve been written in 1994, not 1984…)

(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel