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Book Review: The Big U

By Arkady in Media
Sun Apr 08, 2001 at 05:12:22 PM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

What is quite possibly Neal Stephenson's most awaited book has been re-released. Though I have vague recollections of reading interviews with Neal in which he'd said that he was happy to see it out of print and would really prefer folks not go searching for used copies, I can't find those references now and could easily be misremembering (but see the review below for Neal's definitive statement on it).

The Big U
Neal Stephenson
first published, 1984 by Vintage Books
reprinted 2001 by HarperCollins
ISBN 0-380-81603-2

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. ;-)


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Book Review: The Big U | 13 comments (11 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Oh my god... (none / 0) (#1)
by daystar on Sat Apr 07, 2001 at 08:00:50 PM EST

Harlan Ellison spent DECADES trying to get shelved in fiction, and really never succeded. Stephenson gets stuck there whether he want it or not. Bizarre. Of course, Tomas Sowell's books on economics get put in Black Studies, which makes even less sense, so I guess I'll just ask the Borders chicks to point me to everything.

There is no God, and I am his prophet.
Zodiac (3.00 / 1) (#6)
by Luke Francl on Sun Apr 08, 2001 at 03:05:12 PM EST

Zodiac is a perfect example of a novel getting stuck in Science Fiction. Let's see: it takes place in the modern day, in a real location, using real chemistry, and with fictional characters.

Hey, wait, chemistry is "science" isn't it? Put it in science fiction!

Bookstores and libraries can never figure out where to put Michael Chricton's books either. 'Course SF purists might like him out of their section. ;)

[ Parent ]
Re: Zodiac (none / 0) (#7)
by sigwinch on Sun Apr 08, 2001 at 09:22:38 PM EST

Let's see: it takes place in the modern day, in a real location, using real chemistry, and with fictional characters.
Real chemistry? A gene-tampered micro-organism that synthesizes chlorinated aromatics is real? Or even normal?

I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

Re: Zodiac (none / 0) (#8)
by illustir on Mon Apr 09, 2001 at 06:19:51 AM EST

Real chemistry? A gene-tampered micro-organism that synthesizes chlorinated aromatics is real? Or even normal?

It could be in a year or two. Real life is catching up.

One thing I'll teach the wereld, willens nillens:
There is tremendous poetry in killings.
     --Risjaar, Ten Oorlog III

[ Parent ]
fiction versus science-fiction (4.00 / 1) (#2)
by danny on Sat Apr 07, 2001 at 08:45:39 PM EST

Heh, Ursula Le Guin always insisted on being labelled science fiction, though the critics wanted to canonize her as "literature". She didn't like the "ghettoisation" of the genre, where those outside could safely ignore it and those inside ignored broader critical traditions. (See the essays in The Language of the Night.)

But thanks for the review, gives a good feel for the book. I've never got around to reading it or Zodiac, though I enjoyed Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

Science Fiction as Literature (4.50 / 2) (#4)
by Luke Francl on Sat Apr 07, 2001 at 09:29:25 PM EST

I just wrote an essay about political and social themed science fiction for a book collection contest. It talks about how science fiction can be real literature, and is important for social critique. In the list of books for the contest you'll find 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange, but also books like The Dispossesed and Snow Crash.

Give it a read! I don't think it's all that great of an essay, but I was a finalist in the contest. :)

[ Parent ]

His other books? (4.00 / 2) (#9)
by MostlyHarmless on Mon Apr 09, 2001 at 07:53:36 PM EST

What did everyone think of Neal Stephenson's other books, such as Diamond Age?

(I'm figuring this is the closest story this comment will ever get to be on-topic in)

I have read Snow Crash and Diamond Age. Both were really good (Diamond Age being the better of the two imho); in particular, I liked the technology involved in them, the computer science castles in Diamond Age, and the creativity in their plots. However, it seemed that Neal Stephenson ended both of them really, really quickly, especially given the amount of space devoted to the development in each. Did he run out of hard drive space or something? :-p Because I'm sure there could have been better ways to end Diamond Age, ways not involving having the world crumble to pieces all within the last 20 pages.

Does everyone else feel the same way about these novels? I noticed on amazon.com that Diamond Age got really high ratings from almost everyone. Did I perhaps miss something in the endings?

"Nevertheless, that is the theorem." - Tom Stoppard
I think it's a style thing (3.00 / 1) (#10)
by Arkady on Mon Apr 09, 2001 at 08:44:23 PM EST

As I said in the review, Stephenson's books are constructed out of large sets of interweaving threads, rather than as exposition of a linear "Plot" (he's a big fan of hypertext, and had originally been trying to do "Snow Crash" as some kind of computer program insted of a novel). His books all suffer from unresolved material at the endings, "Zodiac" perhaps least of all.

I think he either hasn't come to grips with how to end such a book, or doesn't want to. It's possible that he sees the threads which are resolved as the main points of the novel and considers the books over when they resolve. It's also possible that, in a future book, he'll find some amazing new stylistic mechanism for pulling the whole tapestry together to resolve at a single point.

I don't think he's ever spoken of it, but I could have missed it. He gives few interviews, but I doubt I've read even all of those.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

[ Parent ]
Just exposed to his work. (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by CYwolf on Tue Apr 17, 2001 at 10:57:53 PM EST

I just finished Diamond Age yesterday, after starting Snow Crash about 10 days ago. Amazing work in my opinion; I'm busy cramming them down a friend's throat. Didn't see The Big U or Zodiac when I was picking them up, unfortunately, so now I'll have to read them out of order.

I also found the endings in both books to be pretty abrupt, but still satisfying. If Neal had wrapped up every thread for me, the stories wouldn't still be buzzing around my head. I like it better this way.

[ Parent ]
Since I'm a Janes nut... (none / 0) (#11)
by Rand Race on Wed Apr 11, 2001 at 05:08:29 PM EST

Both in The Big U and Snow Crash Stephenson takes and extrapolates from the ideas in Julian Jaynes' Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Both the "central bifurcation" in The Big U and the Snowcrash virus are based in large part on Jaynes' ideas.

I read The Big U in the early nineties and have been a Stephenson junky ever since. It has it's problems, including some severe editing problems in the original printing, but I've never thought it deserved the scorn that many people, including the author, have heaped upon it. 3.8 out of 5 is what I would give it as well.

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson

Big U Answers Questions (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by Blarney on Thu Apr 12, 2001 at 12:48:28 AM EST

I just read it, and liked it. Neil Stephenson answers all the questions that a college student might have:

Why does she want to be "just friends"?
Why are the grades random?
Is LSD dangerous?
Why don't people let me play my stereo or guitar?
Why shouldn't I throw flaming things out the window?
What's the point of D&D, anyhow?
Should I become religious? Join a political movement?
and many more....

What I admire is not so much his answers - a lot of them are completely silly - but the fact that he actually tries to answer EVERY question that a college student might have about life. Just like on a test, answer everything....

Book Review: The Big U | 13 comments (11 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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