Friday, May 06, 2011

Re-Reading the Classics–The Big U

Monty has been slacking in his reading a bit lately so I haven’t felt the same pressure to get one of these done, and have reverted back to my usual fare of picture books and See and Says (I always forget what the duckie says).  In any case this week I am going to talk about Neal Stephenson’s The Big U

“The Big U” was Stephenson’s first novel and therefore doesn’t have the same rambling scope of his later works, but he still manages to pack a lot into the (relatively) slim volume:  Physics geeks, D and D geeks, Val-u-Rite drinkers, hobos, Homicidal gun-weilding lesbians, communist infiltrators bent on destroying the American way of life, and a scathing indictment of the American higher education system.  All in less than 350 pages.  Not bad for a guy who is best known for a novel that was so long that it was broken into 3 novels which was later sub-divided into 8 novels.  And it’s timeless themes speak directly to the AoS lifestyle.  Bonus!!

As a first novel “The Big U” is obviously a bit rougher than Stpehenson’s later works, and he was dissatisfied with it because of that, but you also see the beginnings of his style.  Detailed, almost absurdly, complicated story lines.  Huge casts of characters who interact tangentially until the end of the story when suddenly everyone is pulled back together, and quick almost disappointing endings, where everything resolves so quickly that you feel almost cheated for all the effort involved getting there.  It is also in my opinion Stephenson’s best novel.  I think that is because the subject relates directly to something almost every American deals with at one point or another – college, and that gives it some authenticity that his later more polished works lack. 

Beyond the (trademark?) Stephenson style this novel also lays out some of the themes that appear over and over in his later novels.

  • Societal decay or more accurately the decay of institutions
  • The importance of linchpin individuals
  • Bicameral mind theory (got this one from wikipedia)
  • Universities and not just knowledge factories but preservers of civilization (in this case part of the story is about how the university is failing in that role.)

Whatever else you may say about him the guy is deep.  Actually if you look deep enough you can see some echoes of Heinlein and Pournelle in his themes.  I don’t think Stephenson would appreciate the comparison though, I get the idea that he tends toward the anarcho-liberal side of the political scale. (I just made that up, pretty good huh?)

In summary – If you are a geek read this book, if you hate college and love long complicated story lines read this book.  Actually just read the book, it is the first work of someone who will be noted as one of this generations most important writers.

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