The Big U

by Neal Stephenson

Cover image

Publisher: Perennial
Copyright: 1984
Printing: 2001
ISBN: 0-380-81603-2
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 308

Buy at Powell's Books

This is Stephenson's first published novel, published in 1984 before he hit it big with Snow Crash and the books that followed. The publication date is worth knowing in this case, since the book is firmly placed in a particular era.

This is neither a science fiction nor a fantasy novel, although I suppose there are tiny bits of what might marginally be called science fiction. It's a massively over-the-top parody of life in a major university, one that exists in a set of towers in the midst of a giant freeway interchange. There's a fair bit of focus on the geeks, which is why the publication date is important; knowing the book was written in the early 1980s, you know what to expect in terms of computer technology (one massive mainframe for the whole school), role-playing games, and live-action role-playing.

There are funny moments here, but unfortunately most of othem are in the first fifty pages, and by the time he reaches the middle of the book, Stephenson has mostly exhausted his material. The school environment is a bit too much of a parody to be particularly believable, so once the well of humor has dried up, the story takes on an unappealing unreality that doesn't provide a lot of incentive to keep reading.

As someone who's spent quite a bit of time around a major university (admittedly, more of an ivy league one than the state school portrayed here), I found some bits of parody spot-on, most a bit overdone, and a few puzzlingly off. For example, the blasé attitude towards sexual assualt by the university administration struck me as unrealistic. I wouldn't have expected the university to actually do anything effective, but I would have expected at least some spin effort designed to head off lawsuits, although that may be a difference between the early 1980s and the present. (And regardless, it was neither funny nor particularly well-handled in the plot — there are some plot elements that may be best left alone unless one is going to take the time to really deal with them seriously, and Stephenson didn't.)

What there is of a plot stumbles along in a sequence of semi-random events towards a conclusion that annihilates the setup rather than really resolving it. As Stephenson endings go, it at least makes a passable attempt to acknowledge the existence of all of the loose ends, if not quite tie them up, and for a change the ending isn't abrupt (if anything, the climax drags on a bit). It's just that there really isn't anywhere to go, and the reader's attraction to the characters never gets deep enough for one to particular care about what ends up happening to them.

All in all, I can see why Stephenson isn't particularly proud of this one. It's not horrible, but it's very forgettable.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-06-13

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2013-01-04