The Big U by Neal Stephenson

a review by TC, in the genre(s) Science Fiction. Book published by Vintage Books in September 1984

The Big U is the first novel by the award winning author Neal Stephenson.

Reading the reprinting of the first (and unsuccessful) novel of a now successful author can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes there’s actually a good reason why it wasn’t that successful the first time around. The Big U has been out of print for a long time and there’s a reason for that. Its not a bad book, it just not that interesting.

It’s a lot more interesting than I thought it would be, but it’s still very far from the quality we are used to from Stephenson. The perspective is so narrow and the things that happen on the campus, where The Big U takes place, has no real relation with, connection to or impact on the rest of the world. It’s like a small closed artificial micro cosmos. This is in high contrast to Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (the only other Stephenson books that I’ve read at the moment), which both has open worlds, that seem to stretch infinitely beyond the story, while interacting with it.

The Big U takes place on the campus of a large American university, simply called The Big U. About forty thousand students and teachers live in eight towers, they have their own restaurants, malls and stores. The towers of The Big U are a world to it self and has no real contact the world that surround it. Your never need to go out side and there’s really no reason to want to. The front page of this book has a quote from The New York Times Book Review saying: “An Entertaining and sometimes murderous satire on campus life.”. Well, I don’t really know anything about campus life in America (not that I’m some kind of oracle on non-American campus life), must of my knowledge is from Beverly Hill 90210 and several Nerd movies, not exactly trustworthy sources of hard facts. My point is two fold. 1, I don’t care about it. 2. I don’t have too, to know that this isn’t great satire – for satire to work you has to walk a fine line between reality and fiction. If you tell it like it is, it isn’t satire, it’s a documentary. If you exaggerate or underplay a bit it may make great satire. If you remove yourself totally from reality it does not have to stop being satire, but it is no longer effective satire as the focus has been moved somewhere else. Unless you mean it as satire on reality, but that’s a different story.

The Big U is a story about reality and subjectivity. The people of The Big U as divided into different fractions each perceiving reality in their own ways, they each have their own subjective reality. Normally this doesn’t hold to many problems, but as the fractions take on more radical world views and the forced proximity of the fractions on campus gets worse, the stress mounts and … well as they say, something has to give. Add some terrorists who wants to carve themselves their own bit of reality and the most intelligent computer worm ever seen and you have the basis for one hell of a ride. The results may be a bit ultimate, but all in all I think that Stephenson does a really good job at describing what happens when you stop on insisting on some minimum rules for reality.

When I stopped looking for satire, I started to like this book.

Written on Tuesday 30th April 2002 by .

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The Big U, a novel by Neal Stephenson

Book Details

  • The Big U
  • Publisher: Vintage Books
  • ISBN: 9780380816033
  • Published:
  • Pages: 320
  • Format reviewed: Paperback
  • Review date: April, 2002
  • Language: English
  • Age Range: N/A