Monday, May 19, 2014

That was a distinctly odd experience

I had never read The Big U before picking it up as part of my Stephenson-mapping binge, and now I'm pretty sure I know why. The book is a good satire of college life and has many of the hallmarks of later Stephenson novels, but it's also completely insane and not terribly well organized, something that became a staple for Stephenson when his books started to exceed 600 pages.

It almost feels like I started reading a Stephenson novel that turned into a Phillip K. Dick novel halfway through and decided it wanted to be Heinlein for the last fifty pages. Having read it, I now feel very confused and wish it made more sense but it left my head too fuzzy (or maybe that's just the fever I've got) for me to re-read it immediately.

The book is totally recognizable as a Stephenson work in spite of how jumbled it is - there are recognizable (if early) versions of character-types who repeatedly pop up in Stephenson's later books; there is an awful lot of proof that Stephenson spent a lot of his life learning about and listening to organs; and there are the requisite Hackers Fighting for an Ideal who I love so much in his novels.

The book starts off pretty straight, describing the lives of students at a university, and then quickly devolves into a portrait of what a university would look like if it were drawn by H.R. Giger, complete with slimy tunnels, giant rodents, and a malevolent computer virus.

By the end the story doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense but is still fun to read. I'll probably get around to re-reading it again in a few years, but for now I'll be content to let it sit on the shelf gathering dust as I try to make sense out of what it said.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. The Big U. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 2001. (1984)

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