The Big U

The Big U. By Neal Stephenson. Originally published in 1984 by Vintage Books. Reprint by Perennial (Harper Collins), in 2001.

Review (Book)

One could come to blows over whether Neal Stephenson's most important book was either Snowcrash or Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon is by far and wide the better book. It is inventive, smart, challenging in all the right ways, and is damn near a work of magic in its effectiveness. But, Snowcrash has the more distintive voice. Its worldview is second only to the works of Gibson as far as inspiring every cyberpunk since then. It is also short enough that it can be read within a night or two, amazing considering what it accomplishes.

What I am saying is that they are both important books. I think Crypto wins, but I will probably read Snowcrash more.

But while these two books, along with the Baroque Cycle, make up the Stephenson axis, some of his earlier books get ignored. I have read his opinion on this (generally, it seems that he agrees that they are lesser books) but I was curious to see how the stacked up. I consider myself a fairly author-driven reader, more apt to read a handful of books by a handful of authors than to go by a genre or time period, and Stephenson is one of those author's I dig. I figured that, at worst, I would merely get to see some of his "developing" stuff. I chose Big U to start.


The Big U focuses on a handful of college students at the American Megaversity, apparently a huge single building college with thousands of rooms and very little order. The main characters are sort of your standard fair rejects: the older nerd, the extreme gamer, the computer programer, the girl leaving her past behind, the lesbian, the black man, and the philosophy major (sorry, had to put that one in). The characters aren't developed so much as exposed. Most of them are where they are at, and there you are. You like them, as well as not. Rather than develop a sympathetic view of them, Stephenson suggests more of a "you take 'em or leave 'em" attitude. I took them, but then again that pretty much IS the people I hung out with in college.

The first half of the book appears to be a "tortured boy meets girl" style story. The last half comes out of nowhere, an unexpected culmination of all these little events that nearly snuck by earlier on. This sets up the basic pattern of most of Stephenson's later works, at least the "culiminating minor things to an unexpected ending". Taken as a whole, it seems to work.

Nine-tenths of the reviews I have read about this have said two things: that it's no Cryptonomicon and that it's a satire. I am a little confused on what the definition of satire they are going for, here. Catch-22 is often referenced as being its spriritual cousin, but this is no Joseph Heller. Sure you have that same sort of bend towards insanity and characters that are subsisting in an insane system, but the Plex, as it is called, goes far beyond the insanities of Catch-22's army.

This novel is closer to a work of absurdism than satire. It reminded me of Christopher Moore more than Joseph Heller. This is a novel of giant rats, rail guns, impromptu spiritual movements, Stalinists, gamers gone awry, college faculty with firearms, a building that is so large that it takes half an hour to use the elevator, and a group of people from a country whose name is hard to pronounce and harder to spell (I could do it, but that would be no fun). Very little about this book seems sane.

It's No Cryptonomicon

I think the most damning thing for this book is the fact that its no Cryptonomicon. If this was Stepheson's only book, I think it would get higher praise on its own rather then being relegated to second string material. I am saying its not that bad.

The out of nowhere insanity of it detracts from it, while making it moderately unique at the same time. Equally a pro and a con. It eschews pop references a little too hard, considering that it is set in arguably the most pop-strewn time of a person's life, but then most writers have trouble balancing pop and "timelessness". Its major pop reference is Dungeons & Dragons, which it pokes fun at. This, though, as well as pipe smoking, Stephenson seems to do in an almost loving manner. One never can tell, though.

Read it if you like the works of Max Barry or if you are looking for a college novel to take the taste of I am Charlotte Simmons out of your head. Avoid it if you are looking for something to fill the void that finishing Cryptonomicon or Snowcrash left in your reading docket. I would put it in your rainy day stack, but towards the top.

My score: 65.

Written by W Doug Bolden

For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".

"The hidden is greater than the seen."