Picture university life gone wrong: the students and faculty do whatever they want, the computer randomly munches files, giant rats live in the sewers, and the sub-basement holds nuclear waste. In the second half of the book the student population degenerates into bicamerality (as Snow Crash readers know, Stephenson has a thing about Julian Jaynes) and a small-scale war breaks out on campus.
The Big U is a hilarious, manic satire on life at a big public university in the United States. Stephenson has great riffs about the nonsensical nature of a large administration, the bizarre varieties of people who wouldn't be able to survive outside of academia, and the architectural ugliness of recently constructed university buildings. Although it's funny, The Big U is conspicuously a first novel: the dialog often fails to ring true, the tone changes unpredictably, and the use of the first person was almost certainly a mistake: most of the book is in third person and the narrator is never developed into a real character.
Stephenson's novels feature physically unimpressive male protagonists who are nevertheless intelligent, resourceful, and competent at a wide range of technical activities, especially computer programming. These protagonists are often interested in female characters who are their intellectual equals but are also physically attractive. These two classes of characters combined with detailed, tactical action sequences and at least one lavish multi-page description of heavy weaponry epitomize Stephenson's novels. In other words, he writes books for nerds.
The Big U is a fun book. I believe that it tanked when it came out in 1984 not so much because of its flaws but because it was ahead of its time: Microsoft and the Internet had not yet entered the public consciousness and books for nerds were just not yet socially acceptable.
copyright © 2000 John Regehr