Last post I mentioned that I’d started reading The Big U (1984), by Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite authors. (See these posts.) Other than a few books done with co-authors, I’ve read nearly everything of his. The exceptions are The Baroque Cycle trilogy (which I’ve been putting off) and, until now, The Big U, his very first novel.
Stephenson didn’t become popular until his third novel, Snow Crash (1992), which is still one of my favorites (perhaps, in part, because it was the first of his novels that I read). As with his second novel, Zodiac (1988), his first is a biting present-day social satire and not really science fiction.
That said, it does involve nuclear waste, giant mutant rats, and a student-made rail gun.
Oops, spoilers. But the novel is almost 40 years old, and in any event I’m not sure spoilers are much of a problem with this one. The ride is so wacky that knowing a bit about what’s coming doesn’t seem much of a detraction to me. (Your mileage may vary, so be warned the spoiler light is lit throughout this post.)
The novel presents as a story about a handful of students (and a few professors) at the fictitious American Megaversity. True to its name, AM is a vast single structure with a large square base containing classrooms, labs, the library, the cafeteria, and a shopping mall. Rising above this base are eight towers, most of which are the student dormitories (one is for the administration).
The narration varies from a first person past tense account by Bud Redfield, a professor lecturing in Remote Sensing, and third person omniscient accounts of events he learned about after the fact.
The timeline follows a single year, broken firstly into two semester sections and secondly into month chapters. What begins as a slightly absurdist satire of the American higher education system descends into insanity, surrealism, and internecine civil war within the confines of the self-contained mega-university.
And by war I don’t mean a friendly skirmish with water-balloons but actual war with Ak-47s (and flaming couches and a student-fabricated tank, the All-Purpose Plex Armed Strife Mobile Unit, or APPASMU).
Stephenson is apparently not proud of the book. There was even an urban legend that he’d gone around buying up copies so no one could read it. Neither it, nor his second novel Zodiac, got much traction, and when Snow Crash became a best-seller, The Big U was out-of-print. Stephenson was fine with that. He only allowed republishing when he realized used copies were going on eBay for hundreds of dollars. He felt the only thing worse that reading it was paying that much to do so.
It’s an unruly plot that sometimes seems unsure exactly what it’s about and includes pistol-wielding lesbians succoring gang-rape victims, Crotobaltislavonian B-men, a malevolent computer worm, role-playing gamers, computer nerds, and a great deal else. And, as already mentioned, nuclear waste, giant mutant rats, and a student-made rail gun. “Unruly” seems putting it mildly.
Even the Julian Jaynes theory of the bicameral mind plays a significant role. Stephenson is clearly taken by the theory, as it appears again as an important part of the plot of Snow Crash. (As an aside, it also pops up in the first season of HBO’s Westworld, but they never really did anything with it other than mention it.)
For a novel written in 1984, it’s still surprisingly relevant (absent a few references to obsolete technology such as paper tapes for computers). For its day, it’s almost prescient in how it explores campus culture and the behavior of college kids and college administrations. The wild parties, the conflicts between incompatible roommates, the blind idealism of college-age kids, the horrible cafeteria food, and a great deal more.
Bud Redfield’s opening chapter, framed as an introduction to the madness to come, ends with:
What you are about to read is not an aberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest.
One thing that has long impressed me about Stephenson is his prescience. The guy seems a bit ahead of his time.
(One thing I won’t spoil involves the ending when everything finally comes crashing down but pay attention to what Bud says in the intro about student Ephraim Klein, his massive sound system, and how when he played Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor the low C coupled to the resonant frequency of dormitory hallways.)
The story is fairly episodic as it skips through the school year. What starts as satire turns to absurdism and finally to a violent surreal ending that brings the story to a crashing finale. The first semester sets the stage for when Stephenson really unleashes the horses in the second semester.
It’s a delightful, if somewhat chaotic, read. If you liked Snow Crash, though, you should have no problem with this. Stephenson became more restrained as he matured as an author, but for a first novel, The Big U is both fun and notable. It certainly shows off Stephenson’s abilities and potential. In context, I’m inclined to give it a Wow! rating.
You might even find the logic behind why universities should store nuclear waste somewhat compelling. (Yeah, I’m kidding. Sort of. The giant mutant rats are a problem. So were the Crotobaltislavonians, but all that poured concrete put a real crimp in their plan.)
More seriously, Stephenson raises an important point about how American universities have shifted from being about the students to being about the teachers. Universities have become places of research and development with education taking a distinct back seat. Many professors view the actual teaching as a distraction from their research and some manage to avoid it almost entirely.
And I don’t mean in the novel but in real life in real universities. (As well as in the novel, of course.)
As far off the chain as the story is, it has a sharp edge when it comes to higher education in America. Stephenson wrote it (apparently quickly) while enrolled at Boston University. The eight massive dormitory towers seem based on BU’s Warren Towers, one of the largest dorms in the USA.
The president of AM, Septimius Severus Krupp, supposedly shares similarities with John Silber, who was then president of BU. Even the Big Wheel sign, which plays an instrumental role in the book, seems to reflect the big Boston Citgo sign near the university.
Fundamentally, and I suspect this very much echoes Stephenson’s experience at Boston University, the story is about the frisson felt by the genuinely intellectual and real-world experienced people encountering the dismal, even horrific, realities and incompetence of “higher education” in America.
The story is absolutely bonkers, but it contains a lot of truth.
Stay self-educated, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.