The Big U – Review

Neal Stephenson. The Big U. 1984; New York: Harper, 2007. E-book.

We have usually enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s writing. He is known for his clever scenarios, generally set with available technology but with an extreme twist. The Big U is his first novel, and it does give a hint of what his work would be like, especially his breakout novel Snow Crash.

The Big U satirizes American university life. That is something that is easily satirized, but seldom done because university people tend to take themselves very seriously. While much of The Big U is humorous, some of the satire is too serious to be funny.

We meet a smorgasbord of characters. The English major student government leader who is trying to make American Megaversity a little more habitable. The president who is credited with turning things around. Members of the SUB, Stalinist Underground Battalion, Stephenson’s version of the SDS who are trying to overthrow the American government and getting practice by trying to overthrow the power structure of the university. And, as with all Stephenson novels, a few science and computer nerds including a group who is trying to do a live action Dungeons and Dragons in the catacombs of the university and another who is making a mass driver accelerator out of spare parts in the lab.

While there are apparently no sororities or fraternities on the campus, there is a group of male students who call themselves Terrorists and treat female students like sex objects ripe for the picking and a corresponding group of status-conscious girls. Because this is an eighties campus, there is the token lesbian.

The sense of oppression, such as it is for our proto-snowflakes, is the megaversity setup. The entire school consists of four twenty-five story high rises, so dorm life and student life are restricted to this tight urban space. On one side of the campus (I use the term loosely) is a major highway. Also bordering it are some office buildings, one topped by a huge, colorful neon sign known as the Big Wheel, that some students pretend worship both as a joke and a hazing ritual.

And one conflict, perhaps exaggerated but typical of dorm life everywhere, pops up between roommates who both have powerful stereo systems that try to drown each other out.

Even from this brief introduction to the tale illustrates Stephenson’s strength as a writer: He puts together wild but believable scenarios. The Big U is no different. At the same time it satirizes the university scene.

But her petition was rejected because of a computer error which made it appear that she had gotten a 260 instead of a 660 on her SATs. (792)

Tokenism. They have to have tokens. Lucy is their token black, I’m their token individual. They love having a loudmouth around to disagree with them—makes them feel diverse. [And this was written in 1984 before the term politically correct had been coined!] (600)

Above their heads they [the SUB] carried their big black-on-red posters of S. S. Krupp [the Megaversity president] with a target drawn over his face. (1508)

Even speech today has become a form of violence…(661)

Before the gaming group takes to the underground tunnels, they play a World War II simulation game using a large room with players themselves acting as playing pieces. This prefigures Infinite Jest’s game of Eschaton. (Since Stephenson and Wallace were acquainted, I suspect that the debt may have been acknowledged.)

In his introduction, Stephenson acknowledges an indebtedness to Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This was a theory published in the 1970s and which had some currency back then. Jaynes was a lecturer at Princeton. I once read a book in the early eighties that alluded to this, but then the book was written by a dean at Princeton. I had written a critique of Jaynes’ book, but no one was interested in publishing because his ideas never caught on. Of course there is a Catch-22: If it did catch on, who would dare publish a critique?

Though the introduction makes it sound like the bicameral mind theory will be important in the book, the mageversity president dismisses it in a single sentence in a manner very similar to Jason Lisle, whose book I reviewed here.

You’re a Jaynesian and a materialistic monist. In which case you’ve got no reason to believe anything you think, because anything you think is just a predetermined neural event which can’t be considered true or logical. Self-refuting, son. Think about it. (1507)

Indeed, ultimately it appears that the whole American Megaversity is self-refuting. Still one person in the novel notes bicamerally:

You know about the Central Bifurcations that separates magic and technology. Some of you have probably noted that lately Leakage has been very bad. (3333)

Briefly, Jaynes’ theory is that the two cerebral hemispheres of ancient man were completely separated. When attempts were made for one hemisphere to connect with the other, ancient man perceived this as some kind of inspiration or god. Some time around the turn of the first millennium B.C., this “bicameral mind” broke down and modern man evolved, using reason instead of depending on gods, which was really just a form of schizophrenia.

Perhaps Stephenson is symbolizing this theory, or, I suspect, satirizing it. We have the two roommates with overly loud stereo systems competing and resulting in conflict. Similarly, we have the Terrorists and some of their friends speaking of the Big Wheel, which is just outside the “Plex” (i.e., the campus), as if it were some kind of divine voice. Awareness of Jaynes’ theory could add a layer of interpretation.

I do not want to give more of it away, but besides the characters and scenarios mentioned above, the tale also includes giant mutant rats, a women’s center, and spies from Crotobaltislavonia, as one can guess from its name, a land somewhere in Eastern Europe, which back in 1984 would have been either part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact and whose name echoes Al Capp’s country of Lower Slobbovia.

Written in the early eighties, Stephenson may have been looking back at campus riots in the sixties:

How many other universities do you know where a civil war closes off the academic year?

Alas, it happened at Harvard in 1969 and Kent State in 1970. The cycle seems to be swinging in that direction again. At least back then there was a controversial war. Nobody was protesting Halloween costumes.

So The Big U prefigures many of the current excesses and injustices at today’s American institutions of higher learning. It also raises questions about the integrity of journalists. Reading it now is perhaps not as funny as reading it when it first came out because some of Stephenson’s jokes would be taken too seriously by snowflakes and professors nowadays, but it is still a wild ride.

Grammar is like the walls and bumpers of a pinball machine. Rhetoric is like the flippers of a pinball machine. You control the flippers. The rest of the machine—grammar—controls everything else. If you use the flippers well, you make points. If you fail to image your concepts visibly, your ball drops into the black hole of nothingness. (763-765)

Stephenson makes his points, all right.

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