The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 16 Dec 2019

An old post about The Big U

In 2006 I wrote an essay about Neal Stephenson's not-really-a-trilogy “Baroque Cycle” and then in 2017 another about his novel Seveneves. I was telling some folks about this, and regretting that I had never written about Anathem, which is my favorite of his books, when I remembered that long ago I wrote about his first novel The Big U.

I have mentioned The Big U before, in connection with Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory, saying

I wondered when reading [The Big U] how anyone could understand it without having read Jaynes first

I still wonder this. I should write up a summary of the Jaynes someday.

I liked The Big U better than Stephenson did. Wikipedia says:

Stephenson has said he is not proud of this book. When Stephenson's Snow Crash was published in 1992 … The Big U was out of print and Stephenson was content to leave it that way. When original editions began selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars, he relented and allowed The Big U to be republished, saying that the only thing worse than people reading the book was paying that much to read it.

Here's my discussion of it, originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written in early 2002. It's a reply to a somewhat earlier post that reviewed all of Stephenson's novels. Quotations are from the post to which I was replying.

The Big U (1984, reprinted in 2001)

This was Stephenson's first published novel. It is a satirical look at life at a huge university. It is absolutely dreadful,

It was the only one of Stephenson's books that I liked. (I have not yet read Cryptonomicon or Zodiac.)

In Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I felt that Stephenson let the plot run away from him. He introduced characters and macguffins that were cool, but ultimately irrelevant. About halfway through Snow Crash, I said "Geez, if he doesn't stop bringing in new stuff, he's never going to finish dealing with the stuff he has." Three quarters of the way through, I said "Geez, he's never going to be able to tie up all these loose ends." And by the end of the book, that's what had happened. There's a famous saying about how you mustn't roll a cannon onto the stage in Act I unless you're planning to fire it in Act III. Snow Crash left more unfired cannons lying around the stage than any book I can remember reading. There was a lot to like in both books, but at the end I was left scratching my head, wondering what story had been told.

The Big U, in contrast, is a lot tighter. It is the story of one year at the U, from September to May, at the end of which SPOILER. Stephenson brought a whole bunch of stuff on stage and used every bit of it. The railgun was foreshadowed for the entire novel, and I said to myself "If he doesn't use the damn railgun, I'm never reading another one of his books." But he did get satisfactory use out of the railgun. There were no extraneous characters who were abandoned in the middle of the book with no explanation. The book had a beginning, a middle and an end. If Snow Crash had an end, I couldn't find it.

made worse by the fact almost everyone reading it will be familiar with his great later works and be expecting something that isn't painfully bad like this book is.

Well, if someone didn't find the book painfully bad, then they might not feel that it suffered by comparison with his 'great' later works. (Which in my opinion are overrated; that's another post for another day.) So this is a non sequitur.

I know there's no accounting for taste, but this is something I thought everyone could agree on.

There was no reason to have thought that, because almost all the criticisms you have of The Big U are quite personal.

Let's look at them:

Why is it bad? A story that is not funny

Just because you didn't think it was funny doesn't mean that other people will agree. Sometimes you can conclude that almost nobody could possibly find it funny (for example, because it was derivative or offensive) but I don't think any of those reasons apply it here. It appears that you made a personal judgment ("I don't think it's funny") and then extrapolated that to cover the entire universe. ("Therefore, it isn't funny, and nobody could possibly think it is funny.")

I thought it was funny. I almost never laugh when I read a book. I laughed when I read The Big U.

about unlikable characters

Same thing here. You didn't like the characters, but that doesn't mean that nobody will like them, and I don't know why you thought that nobody would like them. What didn't you like about them? Did they seem improbable? Did they behave irrationally? Could you give an example? I thought the jerky college students mostly behaved like jerky college students. When I was in college, several of the boys on my hall decided to take up chewing tobacco; they then spat their chaws into the hall water fountain and the floors of the showers, so that everyone else could enjoy it as much as they did. They would have fit right in at the Big U.

I liked the characters I was supposed to like and disliked the characters I was supposed to dislike.

which just gets worse and worse.

This doesn't even reach the level of criticism.

If you can reach the end of the book, you discover the whole thing seems to have been an excuse to have these various stereotyped groups engage in a firefight on the campus. Yes, a firefight, complete with machine guns, a jury-rigged tank, and so forth. Reads like some sort of adolescent day dream, for all the wrong reasons.

Finally a substantive criticism!


I don't have a very clear recollection of the book (I read it only once, several years ago) but I seem to remember that some of the groups involved in the final showdown were

  1. a gang of steam-tunnel-exploring geeks who have crossed over into an alternate universe in which their bizarre role-playing games are real,

  2. a pack of giant mutant sewer rats,

  3. the President of the University (who reminds me of a cross between Mr. White from You Bright and Risen Angels and Rambo. Well, no, that doesn't quite capture the essence of Septimus Severus Krupp. I don't know what to say except that he's an original.)

  4. dorm inhabitants who have reverted to a Jaynesean bicameral mind mentality,

  5. malevolent Slavic dwarves bent on constructing an atomic bomb, and

  6. bats.

There are a lot of criticisms you could make of this book, but I don't think "stereotyped groups engage in firefight" is one of them. Firefight, yes. Stereotyped groups? How many novels have you read that involve a pack of bicameral college students whose god is an electric fan? Maybe the giant mutant sewer rats are old-hat. I saw them as more of an homage.

I don't think that the book was just an excuse for the firefight. The book builds towards the firefight in the same way that any book builds towards its climactic scene. But the firefight isn't the only reason for the book to exist. It has a theme, which is that the architecture of the Big U influences the behavior of its inhabitants, and because architecture is horrible, it makes the inhabitants horrible. The theme is developed, with many examples: The U is insular and inward-looking, so the inhabitants become selfish and arrogant. The U itself is made of identical parts in precisely artificial geometric arrangements, so the inhabitants lose their individuality and become mobs. The U is impersonal and inhuman, so the inhabitants become cruel and inhumane.

There's a lot of commentary on the relationship between the U and its inhabitants with the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Having grown up near Columbia University, I found this to be incisive.

There are many details of people being incidentally and unthinkingly screwed over by bureaucracy, very much in the style of the movie Brazil, or Douglas Adams' game Bureaucracy. (The Big U predates both.) I thought that the scene at the very beginning that introduced Sarah Johnson was an excellent satire of the casually destructive nature of bureaucratic screwups. I was strongly reminded of the conclusion I came to when I was trying to register for summer classes at Columbia: Absolutely everything is implicitly forbidden, and the only way to get anything is to make an appointment to get special permission from the Dean.

Another part of the book that stands out in my mind is the section dealing with the pettiness and stupidity of student (and all) government. I felt like I'd been waiting a long time to read that.

I don't know what to say about 'adolescent day dream', since I haven't read it recently enough to remember the tone. But I don't think that many adolescent daydreams are as bizarre and surprising as this one was.

In the future, I think your reviews might be more useful if you would avoid statements like "It was absolutely dreadful", which don't really tell anyone anything except that you thought it was dreadful.

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