The Big U, by Neal Stephenson

In the late 1980s, I was in High School. A friend of mine named Matt Lawsky, browsing through the remainder bin at a local bookstore, found a strange-looking paperback he'd never heard of. He bought it and took it home to read. Shortly thereafter, he pressed his new favorite book on me, insisting that I have a look at it.

It might be overstatement to say that The Big U changed my life, but it certainly helped gel my already-forming perspective. The Big U careens between soap-opera, adventure novel, venomous satire, and pure silliness--often in the course of a couple pages. Though the book is of average length, it feels like a big novel due to the accumulation of characters, groups, and events. It is never less than entertaining, and often hilarious and moving--sometimes at once.

The first half of the book is a sharp and nasty description of a large college called American Megaversity. Though we get some looks at classes and faculty members, the real concern is the students and the groups they belong to. Important groups include the Megaversity Association for Reenactments and Simulations (MARS), which is the gaming club, later renamed the Grand Army of Shekondhar the Fearsome. The student left is represented by the Stalinist Underground Battalion (SUB), and the student religious right is the Temple of Unlimited Godhead (TUG), an "outlaw breakaway Mormon sect." As with all subsequent Stephenson novels, characters recieve ludicrous Dickensian names: the geeky protaganist is Casmir Radon; the hallucinogen-addled Stalinist leader is Dex Fresser; the president of the school is Septimus Severius Krupp. Other names, though as jokey, are a little subtler. the uberhacker with godlike powers over the school mainframe and master-key access to every building on campus is named Virgil Gabrielson.

Interestingly, the drunken and violent yahoos who are the primary cause of suffering for some of the main characters are identified neither with the fraternities or the sports teams, but are simply their own group, initially the Wild and Crazy Guys, and later, the Terrorists. Their female counterparts, the Airheads, over the course of the first half of the book take up wearing ski masks to informal public gatherings (like cafeteria meals) since it saves them so much time applying makeup.

Though this is all mostly played for laughs, a few scenes of grief and violence (including a horrifying attempted rape) emphasize that the environment is no joke for some of the students trying to live in it.

In the second half, faculty and maintenance workers go on strike, and a number of the students revert to bicamerality.

What am I talking about? In brief: In The Origin of Conciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, author Julian Jaynes asserts that until about 3000 years ago, people weren't concious in the way that we are, but instead were something like schitzophrenic robots who heard divine voices speaking to them from the right hemispheres of their brains. Some characters in The Big U use their conciousnesses little enough that they begin to revert to this state, and begin hearing voices coming out advertising billboards and washing machines. You'll find other ideas cribbed from Jaynes in Snow Crash. A good summary of Jaynes in the context of The Big U can be found here.

I can't particularly reccommend Bicameral, by the way, except to conniseurs of kooklit. Though immensely clever, his evidence mostly comes from idiosyncratic interpertation of fine points of the wording in the Old Testament and the Illiad. While the observation that people seem to have talked to the gods a lot more frequently back then is prety reasonable, Jaynes generally comes across as someone so in love with the hammer he built that he can't resist declaring everything he sees a nail.

Where was I? Oh, soon, civilization utterly collapses when the maintenance workers (Crotobaltslavonian refugees) sieze comtrol of the nuclear waste disposal site beneath the school. This breakdown percipitates, and Stephenson lovingly describes the process with his characteristic gusto for any scene of mass mayhem. The semester progresses from the live-ammo foodfight in the cafeteria (sample quote: "Unfortunately a stray weapons burst had struck a pressure vat by the exit. The top of the vat exploded off, blasting a neat hole throught the ceiling, and the vat, torn loose by the recoil, tumbled over and spilled thousands of gallons of Cheezy Surprise Tetrazzini onto the floor.") to the complex territorial divisions as several armed gangs stake out different areas of strategic value.

Did I mention the giant mutant sewer rats? There are giant mutant sewer rats.

Eventually the protaganists manage to effect a mass evacuation, end the Crotobaltslavonian nuclear threat, and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. I shall close my summary with words from the book's introduction: "What you are about to read is not an abberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest."


Okay, okay I admit it. Some of my affection for The Big U derives from the way I first read it Matt and I watched the growing Cult of Stephenson with a little dismay, as the pioneers of any wildeness are saddened as their forests becomes farms and then bedroom communities.

Now comes the bad news: this book is incredibly rare. Copies online go for $200 to $500. Rumors have circulated that Stephenson had been suppressing the book, but sources close to him deny this. I'm not sure who has the rights to the damn thing now, so I'm not sure who you should be bugging to reprint it. If Stephenson holds the rights, perhaps we can persuade him to make it freely available. Anyone know his e-mail address?


There are numerous bad people in The Big U; the Terrorists are cruel, stupid, and violent; the trustees are selfish and hypocritical; the Crotobaltslavonians are ruthless killers. The villain of the story, however, is arguably the building itself. American Megaversity is one enormous cinderblock-and-florescent-tube structure, called the Plexus--a portmanteau, presumably, of complex and campus. "The Plex's environmental control system was designed so that anyone could spend four years there wearing only a jockstrap and a pair of welding goggles and yet never feel chilly or find the place too dimly lit." Eight identical dormitory towers loom over the main structure. The building is therefore uniform and impersonal in style throughout, with no real privacy or comfort. This anonymity and affectlessness of dormitory life under these conditions, Stephenson suggests, are deeply dehumanizing and promote irresponsibility. He makes it clear, though that the madness does not end at the walls of the American Megaversity, taking swipes along the way at the news media and AM's board of trustees.


The role of geeks in all this is interesting. The story's sort-of-protagonist, Casmir Radon, is a resumed-ed physics student in his 30s, with no social skills. He's an anomaly at American Megaversity, since he's there hoping to learn things by attending classes, an agenda alien to the partiers, zealots, time-markers and wheeler-dealers who make up the bulk of the school's population.

Fred Fine, the head of MARS, has a flimsy grasp on reality (brought on, Stephenson fashionably hints, by too much life-action D&D), but, interestingly, is exceptionally suited to the post-collapse plex, and his Grand Army of Shekondar the Fearsome becomes a major power, primarily due to their posession of the All-Purpose Plex Armed Strife Mobile Unit (APPASMU), a tank designed for dormitory hallways, a project originally built as a joke.

One subplot concerns the battles of Virgil Gabrielson with the Worm, a malicious program written by the previous maintaner of the school mainframe, which Gabrielson describes at one point as "probably the greatest intellectual achievement of the ninteen-eighties."

After civilization has collapsed, down in the science departments, "research and classes continued obliviously. Most of the [math/science] folks regarded the whole war/riot as a challenge to their ingenuity."

The computer use in The Big U is a glimpse into the twilight of the Mainframe Age. Some students write their papers on PCs, but all hacking is centered on the Janus 64 mainframe, with its custom OS, the Operator, mastery of which gives Virgil Gabrielson demiurgic power in the school's little universe.

In general, Stephenson mocks the nerds of American Megaversity quite sharply, particularly the members of MARS, but he also presents their isolation from reality as a psychological and practical survival skill when reality is an inhospitable place.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are Stephenson's views on relativism? How does his assesment of its results compare with that in The Diamond Age?
  2. Compare and contrast AM President S.S. Krupp with Uncle Enzo in Snow Crash.
  3. What American college is AM a parody of?
  4. Does Ephram Klein's carefully-plotted murder of his ex-roommate make him a less sympathetic character? Does his vindication on the issue of bicamerality indicate that he is also correct on the role of the building in the breakdown of Plex civilization?
  5. Were the giant rats really necessary? I mean, really?
  6. Which character(s) are autobiographical?

[/reviews/] 5 comments


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