The Big U, Neal Stephenson

Harper Perennial, 1984 (2001 reprint), 308 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-380-81603-2

Neal Stephenson vaulted to the top of the SF best-seller list with 1992’s Snow Crash, (a book that became a surrogate bible for many cyber-heads even as the Internet took off) but this first success wasn’t his first book. That honor would belong to 1984’s The Big U, which quickly became a collector’s item as geeks of all stripes started hunting it down in used bookstores and rummage sales. For a while, copies of the book fetched three-figure prices in online auctions. Stephenson was reportedly disenchanted with the book, but even less happy with the price-gouging and so allowed the book to be reprinted following the boffo mainstream success of his Cryptonomicon in 1999.

After reading the book, it’s hard to understand Stephenson’s reluctance to acknowledge The Big U: Even if it’s nowhere as polished, sophisticated or impressive as Cryptonomicon, it still ranks highly above most of what I’ve read recently.

It takes place on the pseudo-fictional “American Megaversity” campus, an entirely artificial structure called “the Monoplex” composed by a series of eight massive towers arranged around a central campus building. As an institution of higher learning, it can only disappoint 30-year-old junior Casimir Radon: students seem to be far more interested in drunken partying than good grades and there’s more anarchic violence on-campus than anywhere else in the city.

Typical? Maybe, but Stephenson stomps the pedal to the metal and never lets go. American Megaversity students use so little of their brain capacity that they eventually devolve to a state where the halves of their brain stop forming a unified whole. Those morons quite literally start hearing “voices in their heads”. It wouldn’t be so bad, but alas the campus is also overrun by radioactive rats, fanatical D&D players, anarchists, illegal kitten pushers, religious nuts, foreign revolutionaries and a physics student building a mass-driver railgun. That’s in addition to the usual bunch of campus neurotics. Very Bad Things are about to happen and our narrator is in the middle of it all. Unlike many campus novels, this one is quite literally about how university can kill you if you allow it to.

But even then, The Big U is one of those books that will make you laugh out loud repeatedly, a delight of gonzo writing style than you’ll have a hard time abandoning whatever the circumstances. Even though my own campus experience was nowhere as bad as the one described here, I only wish I could have read that novel at the time; maybe it would have made everything more amusing. The novel certainly plays well with my own liking for high-concept satire, tech-infused plotting and a dense prose style. The increasing bursts of violence may upset some (there are certainly a few disturbing passages in here) but fit increasingly well with the rising chaos of the book. Too many novels step back from the abyss just before we have the chance to have some fun, but The Big U jumps in it with glee and Jolt-fuelled abandon. The Big U is Hell on Campus. You’ve been warned.

In the end, my only quibble with the book is that when the dust has settled at the end of the story, we have the outline of a conclusion, but scarcely any resolution about the relationships between the characters. Stephenson makes his characters so sympathetic that the bare-bones conclusion is a let-down.

So what are you waiting for? Find The Big U right now, especially if you’re a college-age fan of Stephenson’s other works. Despite the original 1984 publication date, you’ll find that the book hasn’t aged much, and still is one of the best read you’ll find even this year. While we’re anxiously waiting for his next book (Quicksilver, due 2003), this will do.

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