Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Big U

The Big U

Neal Stephenson

Date: 05 February, 2001   —   $10.50   —   Book

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Fiction, Speculative

You know that the university experience is strange. Now imagine that experience squared, cubed, and diced for your convenience, and you might come up with something like The Big U. American Megaversity, almost out of money, sold off its prime downtown real estate while retaining a three-by-three city block of land, where it built up. There are eight 25-story dorm towers over a building that not only contains classrooms, offices, and the cafeteria, but a mini-mall and entertainment options, with the net result that a student - or 40,000 students - can spend the whole semester without leaving campus for the "real world."

As Stephenson speculates, this is a recipe for disaster.

This is especially bad when it becomes evident that aside from the tangled bureaucracy, horrible food, and idiot tenured teachers who can't teach the subject they are supposed to master, there are other considerations pointing to a downfall - the fact that the administration will do nothing to punish perpetrators of appalling violence, the computer program that is slowly eating away at the AM records, the student-run Stalinist Underground Battalion, and the union held in thrall by the Crotobaltislovians.

Of course, this trek to disaster is immensely entertaining, as Stephenson's prose sometimes reads as an absurdist parody of some things that are silly enough to begin with:

"Mister Krupp, sir. Last year. According, to the Monoplex Monitor, you, I mean the Megaversity ruling clique, spent ten thousand dollars on legal fees for union-busting firms. Now. There are forty thousand students at American Megaversity. This means that on the average, you spent... four thousand million dollars on legal fees for union-busting alone! How do you justify that, when in this very city people have to pay for their own abortions?"

Krupp simply stared in her direction and took three long slow puffs on his cigar without saying anything. Then he turned to the blackboard. "This weather's not getting any better," he said, quickly drawing a rough outline of the United States. "It's this low pressure center up here. See, the air coming into it turns around counter-clockwise because of the Coriolis effect. That makes it pump cold air from Canada into our area. And we can't do squat about it. It's a hell of a thing."

When things start going bad, it is usually in a fashion that is an amplification of the ills of college life. Uncontrolled drug use, rape, and extreme social pressure are merely a few of the things that are injected into the mix, but it is outside concerns - the Crotobaltislovians - that become the tipping point. Once that point is reached, it becomes like the fall of Rome (Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is mentioned in the dedication.) The end is, perhaps, inevitable, and hinted at from the very beginning. My only gripe is that this early novel is a prime example of Stephenson's flaw - he is not good at endings, and this one is a prime example of his abrupt whiplash-inducing style of having the climax and ending a few sentences later. Just take my word for it: that is the end, and not just a misprint.

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