The Big U
first published, 1984 by Vintage Books
reprinted 2001 by HarperCollins
Rating (of 5): 3.8 Big Wheels
To begin, here's is Neal's statement (from his web site) about the book:
The fact that virtually all of the first edition ended up getting pulped created an unnatural scarcity of the printed book, which is only now being alleviated by a new edition from HarperCollins. This scarcity caused the price of the first edition to become ridiculously high, and led to bootleg editions being posted on the Web. If the book were judged on its own intrinisic merits, it would not attract such a high price or engender such curiosity. The Big U is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago.
And, of course, he's correct about this. It is not a perfect work, but then neither were Zodiac and Snow Crash (though I would argue that Diamond Age came closest to that peak of all his novels). It shows remarkable similarity to the college-based first work by another SF writer, Matt Ruff, whose "Fool on the Hill" also takes as its subject the great battle between good and evil being waged (possibly only within the minds of the antagonists) on American university campuses. The boundary between the subjective and objective realities in these books is drawn at a different point, and Ruff's tendancy is more towards Fantasy while Stephenson's is more Science Fiction, but the books show remarkable similarity.
It's possible that this would be because both these writers began while their college time was fresh in their minds, giving them a ready structure on which to hang their work.
Possibly the most important aspect of The Big U's republication is the view it gives of Stephenson's style as a writer. Many elements of Stephenson's style, especially his way of building a novel as a massive edifice of interlocking threads, none of which can truly lay claim to being The Plot and his reticence to bring more than a sampling of them to resolution at the close of the book, are in clear evidence here. While this tendancy was most evident in Diamond Age (which is a truly astounding tapestry of individual threads), and to a lesser degree in Snow Crash, you can see its genesis quite clearly in The Big U.
I won't go into any details of the actual novel, since I found it to be extremely surprising (as all of Stephenson's books tend to be) and I'd think a first-time reader would be less effected and entranced by the book if given any real foreshadowing. I will say, however, that it's quite a good book and definitely belongs back in print. As a quick glimpse, however, I will say that it takes as its setting and theme the complete breakdown of the social order at American Megaversity (the super-university of the not-too-distant future, and the Big U of the title). As much of Stephenson's work focuses on very similar themes of societal breakdown and catharsis, it shouldn't surprise us that this is the focus of his first work as well.
I realize, by the way, that anything titled "Review" usually makes some effort to gloss the plot of the book for the prospective reader, but in this case I think the experience would lose something (for a first time reader) if I were to provide enough information to do justice to the complicated weaving of the book's plot. Suffice it to say that if you've enjoyed any of his books, you shouldn't be disappointed by this one.
For those of you not satisfied with such a distant review, here is a sampling of the book's contents:
- Project Spike
- drug-crazed Terrorists worshipping a neon oil company sign
- Airheads wearing ski masks to avoid the effort of make-up
- a Dean of Student Life with a big gun
- a janitorial staff with a radical new way to settle labor disputes
- a wargaming club with a bit of a reality problem
You may have difficulty finding it in a store, since HarperCollins has decided to label it Fiction, instead of, Science Fiction, so the store where I got my copy had it shelved in generic Fiction. The cover they chose for this addition also makes it look like a lame, stock college-boy novel. I assure you, it is not; it's Neal Stephenson's first published novel, and is definitely worthy of place alongside the others.
The Big U was reviewed prior to the re-release on Slashdot, and I hope you won't hold that against me here. ;-)