Book Review: The Big U by Neal Stephenson

May 1st, 2012 by jkastronis

I like Neal Stephenson. I think he’s a pretty darn good author. I really enjoyed Snow Crash and thought the Diamond Age was brilliant once I got past the beginning. His first novel ever is called The Big U. I finished it up last night after spending quite a long time reading it.

Perhaps I should have done a little more research on the novel beforehand. Stephenson himself has basically said the book is no good. You may think, “Of course. All authors think poorly of their early stuff.” And that’s pretty true.

But in this case, Stephenson was on the mark. The Big U is an utter mess of a novel with very few strengths and a lot of weaknesses.

The novel is, at its core, a satire of life on a big university campus, uncleverly named American Megaversity. The main characters are a mostly-unnamed professor who serves as the first-person narrator, a foreign student named Casimir who has come to the US to engage in a fabled university life, and Sarah, a feminist student council president. Numerous other characters round out the cast, some of them playing important roles in the plot, but overall not really worth talking about.

The book starts off pretty decently with the satire angle, actually attacking issues like dumb frat boys, the true meaninglessness of student government, the awkward situations that can be created through forcing total strangers to live together in cramped dorm rooms, and the disconnect between higher education and universities as businesses.

Unfortunately, it rapidly devolves from satire into something approaching Pythonesque parody, but does it so inelegantly that it completely misses the mark. The events that occur are so over the top and ridiculous that they cannot be taken seriously (such as a professor being crushed by an object launched from a catapult), but they are still written as if it is subtle satire. The contrast is jarring and takes away any of the potential humor that could arise from true parody or satire.

Additionally, the plot is a mess as well. It has no focus, with three different “sections” that are connected with the flimsiest of threads. Events happen just to happen, with only mild buildup and little pay off. Toward the end, it just becomes a giant pile of random occurrences with no feasibility. The ending took me a good two weeks to bother getting through. The only reason I slogged through it was because I’d already read so much of it.

Now, a bad plot can be saved by good characters. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t interesting or well written. The narrator is so divorced from the plot that his inclusion in the novel is almost incidental. Things happen around him but he is basically unneeded. He has a name, but as I mentioned above, it’s almost never mentioned and while characters interact with him, they rarely do so meaningfully. He doesn’t have much of a defined personality regardless.

That’s actually a big problem with most of the characters in the novel. The main characters switch their personalities around constantly to fit whatever the plot demands. Since the plot shifts so much, the characters shift along with it. Additionally, none of the characters are particularly likeable. Sarah and Casimir often complain about things, such as the actions of other students, but we’re generally forced to take their complaints at face value without any proof.

Sarah, for instance, often makes accusations of rape against the ill-defined fraternities, but there’s no actual proof any have occurred. The reader is simply supposed to take it for granted that they’re a frat in a large university, so of course they go around raping. Casimir, similarly, complains about the insanity of the student body, but we never actually see anyone hindering his efforts to learn.

In all, the book is not recommended. Not even if you’re a huge fan of Neal Stephenson. It’s a poorly written book, with boring characters, and a chaotic plot. Only get it if you’re a completionist.

Posted in Book reviews | Comments Off on Book Review: The Big U by Neal Stephenson

Comments are closed.