The Big U

ISBN: 0380816032
ISBN 13: 9780380816033
By: Neal Stephenson

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About this book

The New York Times Book Review called Neal Stephenson's most recent novel "electrifying" and "hilarious".  but if you want to know Stephenson was doing twenty years before he wrote the epic Cryptonomicon, it's back-to-school time. Back to The Big U, that is, a hilarious send-up of American college life starring after years out of print, The Big U is required reading for anyone interested in the early work of this singular writer.

Reader's Thoughts


I (and a lot of people here, it seems) enjoyed Stephenson's first novel more than he might think we would. Of course, when reading a first novel it helps to know that the author gets better, but there's nothing terrible about this one and a lot to like, like the huge mess of ideas, interesting characters, and crazy ending.It's a quick read, it's a lighter kind of book than his other works, and less grounded in reality, but those aren't necessarily bad things. It's fun to read, even the gruesome parts, and I'd recommend it to any Stephenson fan, especially one straight out of college.

Chrys Albarado

This book was odd, intellectual, meaningful... But mostly odd. I enjoyed it. It was entertaining. It was definitely a break from my normal reading fare. This is a book to read when you want something that is more like "steak" than potatoes. You need to reach in to yourself and also have a decent understanding of the world around you to understand the goings on. I think of the story as a George Orwell style writing. It's deeply symbolic. This novel was recommended by a friend and I admit, I knew nothing about it going into it. Halfway through the second chapter, I had to stop and re read because I had been reading it as a "fun" book and I was utterly confused. I think anyone about to read this book should at least read the Wikipedia page about the book first. It helps to clarify a few things such as who the characters are and the purpose of the story.I overall enjoyed the book but it took my a long time to read because it's just not "light reading". I enjoy some heavier material from time to time but mostly I read for fun these days and need something that isn so involved. This was difficult to digest with corralling three kids. :)


Just about as challenging a read as any of his other works- but lots shorter. There are some aspects that definitely show a less mature style than Cryptonomicron or System of the World, but I readily saw some common themes and hints of what Stephenson would ultimately create in those books. It gets quite convoluted, and there are lots of inside references to what life in a big institution can become in an absurdist setting. Somehow, though, even not being a full geek, I waded through all the computer-related issues, and enjoyed the story. Took some effort and concentration, however!


This book is one of the funniest things I have ever read. It gets a little outrageous, especially in the second half, but a lot of this is just expanding on real-life ridiculousness which already borders on hyperbole. Anyone who enjoys satire and/or attended Boston University (on which it seems to be based, though BU is never named) should give it a look.

Markus Jevring

This book is only slightly better than terrible. I've read many other Neal Stephenson books, and they are all much better than this. The writing is aweful, the story has only hints of interesting plot points, and it will go off on psychedelic interludes every so often, for no apparent reason. Avoid this book. Go read Cryptonomicon instead. Much better!


Its eye-rolling start tried to discourage me from continuing: Kafkaesque, petty-tyranted bureaucracy; an isolated, hothouse society of weirdo student behavior; an impersonal, implacable crushing of human spirit under cinder block architecture and lousy food. I had had enough of this style of satire with Bill, The Galactic Hero. Over a progression of increasingly strange developments, it becomes something other. Something Lord of the Flies, as various factions of the student body are cut loose from the nominal administrative control, and the arcology-like "Plex" is divided among violent, deranged groups such as the party-animal Terrorists, the Stalinist Underground Battalion, and the Temple of the Unlimited Godhead. Many of them are receiving instructions from invisible or mystic sources, such as hearing it in the whirr of fan blades or in the white noise of radio static.And then giant radioactive spiders are found in the sewers and a splinter group of Crotobaltslavonian nationals threaten domestic terrorism. Somewhere in there my jaw hit the floor.


I'm a huge Stephenson fan, so I was predisposed to love this book, let me get that across first. But still I love the intricate layers of plot, the satire smashing down like sledgehammers the whole time, and especially the fractalization of the civilization into almost tribal classes. This seems to be a recurring theme in his novels, but it definitely helps to punctuate all the cliques and territorial behavior you see in many modern universities. The entire thing takes place inside the Megaversity which could be anywhere, there are clues that it's in America, but that's about as specific as it gets. Fight Club was the same way. Anyway it's hilarious, huge (in scope, not length), and yet somehow still sentimental. I'd read it again, and may do so someday soon.


Definitely my least favorite Stephenson book. I can see why he tried to disown it. The satire was too over the top to really work for me. The plot was unnecessarily convoluted. I can deal with a complex plot, but it irritates me when plots are made to look more complex than they really are. If I weren't going for my 100% Stephenson Completion achievement I probably would have bailed.There were a few bits that were borrowed by Anathem. One of those was a major plot twist and I'd rather not spoil Anathem. Another room in the library included the names of several main characters (Erasmus and Archibald are the two I can remember). I wonder if Stephenson knowingly recycled them or if his naming scheme needs more entropy.

Duffy Pratt

At first I thought: "Cool, it's Yossarian Goes to College." And for a while, that's what this book felt like. Then, it either derailed or got on track, depending on how you look at it. Ultimately, the whole thing becomes a giant, but always fun, mess. There are alot of great parts here, and they are all jammed together in ways that might or might not make sense. From a pure plot standpoint, the various parts actually fit together pretty nicely -- but the way they fit, it feels like Stephenson has built something out of the game "Mousetrap". They all fit together like a bizarrely conceived puzzle, but none of them really seem to go together, except perhaps by the force of the author's will.But they are really cool parts: Stereo wars of Bach Organ works that hit upon the resonant frequencies of redundant skyscrapers; irradiated giant rats living in the sub-sewer systems; college frat boys who worship a neon sign; a clandestine nuclear waste facility; a computer virus that becomes a kind of overarching artificial intelligence... And these are just a smattering of the assorted craziness that forms the Big U. Ultimately, however, it seems to fall apart, as though Stephenson is a juggler running out of hands. But, even for its flaws, it was almost always fun and engaging. It lacks the diversions and infodumps that come in his later books. The characters are reed thin. The satire is so over-the-top that it becomes hard to even think of it as satire -- it's closer to pipe dreams. But there's plenty of humor and exuberance to pull through these weaknesses.


An okay first book, though pretty forgettable... the only saving grace for me is that I believe it was modeled after my college (Boston University), and his satire of BU's BUreaucracy is fairly accurate. In my time BU was nowhere near as big as a party school as it was when the author went there, so unfortunately (or fortunately) there were no party cults that worshiped the Citgo sign, and I also don't remember the B&G (Building and Grounds) workers being nearly as sinister as they are portrayed in this book (though they were eerily prevalent everywhere). Now at least I have a good nickname for my school.


In my ongoing effort to read everything by Neal Stephenson that isn't the very intimidating 3000-plus-page Baroque Cycle...Neal Stephenson has essentially disowned the book, this being his first effort and not up to the Cryptonomicon standard. Personally, I thought it was great. It's still very Stephenson in style, although the scope is smaller than his other books and doesn't go as deep. The Big U is a send-up of large university life, taking every paradigm and sterotype to a hyperbolic extreme. Drunken jocks become pseudo-terrorists, drama-club nerds play out real life Dungeons and Dragons in the sewar warrens of the "Plex," the massive towers for residences, the university president is both cunning and hyperintelligent as a good-guy and bad-guy in different venues, and science club projects become full scale weapons of war. The style was snarky and excellent, still very funny and scathing of university culture.The whole book is technically narrated by a younger-30s new professor and faculty-in-residence who just started at the American Megaversity. The cast of good-guys is pretty solid: the 30-year-old-junior devoted physics nerd-cum-hero who simply wants the ideal university experience who also befriends (and falls for) the student-body-president with a pragmatic worldly view, she herself who falls for another girl that is the deadly rebellious type on the inside of a sorority-airhead act that she plays, not to mention the overeager philosophy major, the systems engineer/supreme mage with a normal-student alter ego, and what essentially amounts to an early inception of Enoch Root: megaprogrammer, keenly intelligent on many levels, and has access to the deus-ex-machina skeleton key to the entire campus.At first I thought that the final "battle," as it were, was going to be drawn out and cheesy. But the narrative really held true to the overall theme, and the plot finishing up with this over-the-top event was a pretty decent page-turner- not for what happened, but for how it was described.I liked how a few of the main ideas in later volumes popped up here (potential spoilers):1. Discussion on the bicameral-mind theory and its theoretical effects - integral to the main plot point of Snow Crash.2. "One of my professors has interesting things to say about the similarity between the way organ pipes are controlled by keys and stops, and the way random-access memory bits are ready by computers." Yeah, that's pretty much the entire first chapter of Cryptonomicon. 3. The housing of nuclear waste at academic institutions since they tend out outlast governmental cycles - major plot point of Anathem.All in all, it comes recommended for the Stephenson crowd and the non-Stephenson crowd who just wants some apocalyptic collegiate satire. It's not as epic in scope as his later books, but definitely a "light" Stephenson read, if you want the humor and snark without all of the need for a glossary or dramatis personnae to have to refer to.


** spoiler alert ** SpoilerYou can get a sense from the book of Stephenson yen for complexity. He just loves fucking with you, forcing you to recall the little things, making you fall for the unlikeable, then just basically blowing everything up. Seriously why do you end up admiring the giant sewer rats, or the stalking role player?The only commonality in all of his books is that unrelenting twining of disparate stories. It is so great. And the characters... I always miss them when the books are completed.


I’d fallen out of the habit of reading…. The street outside my restaurant pulsates with life. Fad-adorned hipsters walk up and down the main drag likes it’s a track ducking into local bakeries, cafes, music stores, bars, and eateries. The sidewalks narrow as random guys hold signs offering free advice. Tables are strewn with trinkets for sale. A French hippie carves one-hitters and juggles badly. A wannabe thesbian dresses in crazy outfits and sings and jumps around without rhyme, reason, or talent in a bizarre attempt to entertain at all costs: a sort of street theater of the rude and crude. Book peddlers are spaced every half a length of a north-south block. From time to time, the book peddler, who sets up two long church basement tables almost every day just outside my restaurant, offers a free book as I arrive for work. I’ve picked up a copy a biography on William Carlos Williams, a couple of mysteries, and a couple of artist retrospectives filled with photos and descriptions. They remain untouched. I went three months without a day off and convalesced without reprieve from sundry ailments. I began to consider skimming a few articles in the paper or online, a huge accomplishment. I wiled away my days downloading television episodes and watching cheesy DVDs. I was in a rut….One night, my friend Sandro, the intelligent, scrawny, dancing Dominican who works as a dishwasher and busboy at my restaurant, came in with a find from a stack the book peddler had left up for grabs next to some freebie newspaper carrels. Sandro speaks English rather well but has never attended school so he doesn’t read books in English. But, one night he found a book that looked interesting. He loves history and natural history in particular. Thinking he’d uncovered a botanical compendium of some sort he rushed in with the book in hand to see if I’d like to read it not wanting it to go to waste. He told me in Spanish, “it takes a lot of time to write a book. You shouldn’t have to find your book on the street.” What a great attitude! He was also excited because he thought he’d found something I’d enjoy. I accepted the book and began to read. Turned out the book, “The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe,” was a novel, and a very good one at that. Thanks to the enthusiasm displayed by my friend, I was back in the reading groove. By the next morning, I was better than half way through the novel and woke up early. I rushed to The Strand, one of the world’s great booksellers. Based out of lower Manhattan, The Strand boasts that it shelves “18 miles of books.” With two large downtown locations as well as sidewalk operations along the southeast corner of Central park, I don’t doubt it. I scanned through metal racks of paperback books on sale and stacked on tables. I looked over the sale racks and tables that are not organized like the rest of the store. Books are not strictly sorted by genre, subject, or author. I love looking at books this way when I’m not sure what to read next. I just wait for a spine, a cover, or title to leap out at me. Then I read back covers and keep going. Within minutes I had ten or twelve options that I narrowed down to two, two paperback novels and five bucks later I emerged on the street just south of Union Square. I walked through the market, picked up a couple of perfect peaches and walked up to Madison Square Park where they were playing U.S. Open matches on a big screen in the park. A seat in the outdoor park, a tennis match, a good book with two more ready to read and I found the perfect form of relaxation before going to work. As I searched through the sale ranks of The Strand, I was drawn to “The Big U.” The back cover announces that the protagonist is a thirty year-old college junior named Casimir Radon. I was hooked. I suppose I have to believe that dreams can be realized even if outside the conventional timeframe. I started cooking professionally when I was ten years older or more than most who start out. The idea that it’s never too late to start all over again (also the title of a good Steppenwolf song) appeals to me. I can only hope it’s true. Or, I endeavor to make that true. I knew I’d read the book. Within pages of starting this novel, I became intrigued by the narrative voice. The voice is first-person. The narrator is not omniscient per se. He identifies himself as a “tweedy” young black professor starting out teaching in what we assume is the sort of large all-American (traditionally white-bred) University. He tells us that he spent most of his time at ‘The Big U’ listening, observing, and, talking. He sets himself apart from the fray. He also tells the reader he is writing “to put ‘The Big U’ behind” him. Immediately, the narrator is complex. He is not omniscient. Yet, he is an observer. Therefore, he’ll know more than the average character. We also get the idea from the opening pages that the narrator is a player in the story. What then are his motives for telling the story? The question underlies much of the novel. Perhaps he’s trying to distance himself from the story he sets about telling. Perhaps he needs to make himself more integral. This raises the whole question of the autobiographical voice in literature. I remember reading Harold Bloom’s take on Walt Whitman, I think in “The Western Cannon.” Bloom noted that Whitman made himself a character in his poetry and by doing so Walt Whitman became greater than the man himself. He endures not because Whitman included portions of autobiography and imposed his own soul on the work in a direct fashion but because the character Whitman is immortalized by lofty words and thoughts. Whitman becomes a symbol, perhaps what he wanted to be or could have been in life, he becomes these things and more in poems. In a way, Neil Stephenson, author of “The Big U,” plays with just that. The reader is almost forced to ask himself, how is the narrator’s character different from the narrator himself? We must assume his facts are at least skewed if accurate. The whole novel has these sort of built in complexities that give the reader so much to contemplate while enjoying clear, straight-forward prose. Aside from the narrative voice, Stephenson is a powerful descriptive writer. The university’s campus becomes a character itself. The campus is a droning bureaucratic grunt that almost serves as the chief antagonist – rather “Catch-22” as one reviewer noted, although I’d add that the book accomplishes this sort feat without humanizing the campus itself. This speaks to a lucid, powerful descriptive writing that I’ve rarely come across. In the end, Stephenson provides a great piece of satire that’s worth reading. I’m just lucky the publishing house reissued the book based on the author’s subsequent success.


Ive never been to college so Im sure I missed most of the satire of this novel. Overall this was a very fun book to read that presents a sometimes scathing look at the big college life and bureaucracy. Reading this novel I also picked up the seeds of things to come from Neal Stephenson. As a first novel this is a solid writing effort. All of the pieces of Neal's style are in place. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in neal or just looking for a fun/funny book about college life.

Lissa Notreallywolf

The Big U is a good indication of how much Neal Stephenson has grown in his writing. It's an early novel and in some ways it reminds me of Neil Gaiman or Terry Prachett, because it is fun reading. He makes some insightful pokes at the the corporate model of the university, and institution whose face is undergoing remarkable changes since the GI bill went through in the US. Strange because I have been reading Neuman's The Idea of the University, a rather long and ponderous essay written in the mid to late 1800's. It's a chilling shift in the concept of the university, especially in light of the idea of discontinuing tenure to purge schools of bad professors. Yet tenure was designed to give academics liberty to spak their minds without fear of termination, not necessarily to provide them with the ability to coast after publishing. I would like to read more books on this topic, fiction or non fiction, so suggestions welcome.

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