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The Big U

Hemos posted about 15 years ago | from the neal-in-the-beginning dept.

News 81

There's been quite a bit of attention to Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon as well as The Diamond Age. The Big U, reviewed here by Sebbo, is one of his earliest books. Click below to read more - and to try your hand at the questions at the end of the review.

The Scenario

In the late 1980s, I was in High School. A friend of mine named Matt Lawsky, browsing through the remainder bin at a local bookstore, found a strange-looking paperback he'd never heard of. He bought it and took it home to read. Shortly thereafter, he pressed his new favorite book on me, insisting that I have a look at it.

It might be overstatement to say that The Big U changed my life, but it certainly helped gel my already-forming perspective. The Big U careens between soap-opera, adventure novel, venomous satire, and pure silliness--often in the course of a couple pages. Though the book is of average length, it feels like a big novel due to the accumulation of characters, groups, and events. It is never less than entertaining, and often hilarious and moving--sometimes at once.

The first half of the book is a sharp and nasty description of a large college called American Megaversity. Though we get some looks at classes and faculty members, the real concern is the students and the groups they belong to. Important groups include the Megaversity Association for Reenactments and Simulations (MARS), which is the gaming club, later renamed the Grand Army of Shekondhar the Fearsome. The student left is represented by the Stalinist Underground Battalion (SUB), and the student religious right is the Temple of Unlimited Godhead (TUG), an "outlaw breakaway Mormon sect." As with all subsequent Stephenson novels, characters recieve ludicrous Dickensian names: the geeky protaganist is Casmir Radon; the hallucinogen-addled Stalinist leader is Dex Fresser; the president of the school is Septimus Severius Krupp. Other names, though as jokey, are a little subtler. the uberhacker with godlike powers over the school mainframe and master-key access to every building on campus is named Virgil Gabrielson.

Interestingly, the drunken and violent yahoos who are the primary cause of suffering for some of the main characters are identified neither with the fraternities or the sports teams, but are simply their own group, initially the Wild and Crazy Guys, and later, the Terrorists. Their female counterparts, the Airheads, over the course of the first half of the book take up wearing ski masks to informal public gatherings (like cafeteria meals) since it saves them so much time applying makeup.

Though this is all mostly played for laughs, a few scenes of grief and violence (including a horrifying attempted rape) emphasize that the environment is no joke for some of the students trying to live in it.

In the second half, faculty and maintenance workers go on strike, and a number of the students revert to bicamerality.

What am I talking about? In brief: In The Origin of Conciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, author Julian Jaynes asserts that until about 3000 years ago, people weren't concious in the way that we are, but instead were something like schitzophrenic robots who heard divine voices speaking to them from the right hemispheres of their brains. Some characters in The Big U use their conciousnesses little enough that they begin to revert to this state, and begin hearing voices coming out advertising billboards and washing machines. You'll find other ideas cribbed from Jaynes in Snow Crash. A good summary of Jaynes in the context of The Big U can be found here.

I can't particularly reccommend Bicameral, by the way, except to conniseurs of kooklit. Though immensely clever, his evidence mostly comes from idiosyncratic interpertation of fine points of the wording in the Old Testament and the Illiad. While the observation that people seem to have talked to the gods a lot more frequently back then is prety reasonable, Jaynes generally comes across as someone so in love with the hammer he built that he can't resist declaring everything he sees a nail.

Where was I? Oh, soon, civilization utterly collapses when the maintenance workers (Crotobaltslavonian refugees) sieze comtrol of the nuclear waste disposal site beneath the school. This breakdown percipitates, and Stephenson lovingly describes the process with his characteristic gusto for any scene of mass mayhem. The semester progresses from the live-ammo foodfight in the cafeteria (sample quote: "Unfortunately a stray weapons burst had struck a pressure vat by the exit. The top of the vat exploded off, blasting a neat hole throught the ceiling, and the vat, torn loose by the recoil, tumbled over and spilled thousands of gallons of Cheezy Surprise Tetrazzini onto the floor.") to the complex territorial divisions as several armed gangs stake out different areas of strategic value.

Did I mention the giant mutant sewer rats? There are giant mutant sewer rats.

Eventually the protaganists manage to effect a mass evacuation, end the Crotobaltslavonian nuclear threat, and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. I shall close my summary with words from the book's introduction: "What you are about to read is not an abberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest."

Availability

Okay, okay I admit it. Some of my affection for The Big U derives from the way I first read it Matt and I watched the growing Cult of Stephenson with a little dismay, as the pioneers of any wildeness are saddened as their forests becomes farms and then bedroom communities.

Now comes the bad news: this book is incredibly rare. Copies online go for $200 to $500. Rumors have circulated that Stephenson had been suppressing the book, but sources close to him deny this. I'm not sure who has the rights to the damn thing now, so I'm not sure who you should be bugging to reprint it. If Stephenson holds the rights, perhaps we can persuade him to make it freely available. Anyone know his e-mail address?

Analysis

There are numerous bad people in The Big U; the Terrorists are cruel, stupid, and violent; the trustees are selfish and hypocritical; the Crotobaltslavonians are ruthless killers. The villain of the story, however, is arguably the building itself. American Megaversity is one enormous cinderblock-and-florescent-tube structure, called the Plexus--a portmanteau, presumably, of complex and campus. "The Plex's environmental control system was designed so that anyone could spend four years there wearing only a jockstrap and a pair of welding goggles and yet never feel chilly or find the place too dimly lit." Eight identical dormitory towers loom over the main structure. The building is therefore uniform and impersonal in style throughout, with no real privacy or comfort. This anonymity and affectlessness of dormitory life under these conditions, Stephenson suggests, are deeply dehumanizing and promote irresponsibility. He makes it clear, though that the madness does not end at the walls of the American Megaversity, taking swipes along the way at the news media and AM's board of trustees.

Geeks

The role of geeks in all this is interesting. The story's sort-of-protagonist, Casmir Radon, is a resumed-ed physics student in his 30s, with no social skills. He's an anomaly at American Megaversity, since he's there hoping to learn things by attending classes, an agenda alien to the partiers, zealots, time-markers and wheeler-dealers who make up the bulk of the school's population.

Fred Fine, the head of MARS, has a flimsy grasp on reality (brought on, Stephenson fashionably hints, by too much life-action D&D), but, interestingly, is exceptionally suited to the post-collapse plex, and his Grand Army of Shekondar the Fearsome becomes a major power, primarily due to their posession of the All-Purpose Plex Armed Strife Mobile Unit (APPASMU), a tank designed for dormitory hallways, a project originally built as a joke.

One subplot concerns the battles of Virgil Gabrielson with the Worm, a malicious program written by the previous maintaner of the school mainframe, which Gabrielson describes at one point as "probably the greatest intellectual achievement of the ninteen-eighties."

After civilization has collapsed, down in the science departments, "research and classes continued obliviously. Most of the [math/science] folks regarded the whole war/riot as a challenge to their ingenuity."

The computer use in The Big U is a glimpse into the twilight of the Mainframe Age. Some students write their papers on PCs, but all hacking is centered on the Janus 64 mainframe, with its custom OS, the Operator, mastery of which gives Virgil Gabrielson demiurgic power in the school's little universe.

In general, Stephenson mocks the nerds of American Megaversity quite sharply, particularly the members of MARS, but he also presents their isolation from reality as a psychological and practical survival skill when reality is an inhospitable place.

Pick this book up at Amazon.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are Stephenson's views on relativism? How does his assesment of its results compare with that in The Diamond Age?
  2. Compare and contrast AM President S.S. Krupp with Uncle Enzo in Snow Crash.
  3. What American college is AM a parody of?
  4. Does Ephram Klein's carefully-plotted murder of his ex-roommate make him a less sympathetic character? Does his vindication on the issue of bicamerality indicate that he is also correct on the role of the building in the breakdown of Plex civilization?
  5. Were the giant rats really necessary? I mean, really?
  6. Which character(s) are autobiographical?

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Big bucks for "The Big U" ?? (1)

Schnedt (99690) | about 15 years ago | (#1631729)

Copies are selling online for $200-500?

Yikes! My original paperback copy just became available for sale, I guess! (send email with your offers) I think I paid a dollar or two for it (back before most people knew enough to be watching out for it on the used bookshelves).

I think it's one of his most entertaining books.

Passive suppression (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631730)

I asked Neil (yes, we're on a first-name basis) about this book at a relatively recent signing near San Francisco. He seemed to be moderately embarrased about it, and stated that there were absolutely no plans to do a reprint. When I mentioned that it's been seen for $500, and that a majority of his fans can't (and probably wouldn't) shell out that much, he replied that "no one should have to pay that much to read that book."* in tones that made it clear he thinks it sucks. Could this statement also be seen as a green light for some kind person with a copy, a scanner, and a Hotline server? Maybe.

On a somewhat related note, anyone else noticed his I-can't-believe-I-have-to-put-up-with-this-bullshi t expression/attitude at booksignings? Is he always like this? Does it just come out when he's on the road? Why does he tour if he hates it so much? It sort of sucks to drive a bit to see someone you like, only to have them grump at you for being there. Stay at home and write, Neil!

Nathan
tsm_sf@hotmail.com

*or Words to That Effect

Hey, I've got TWO copies! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631731)

One of which I'll probably auction off on eBay in the not-so-distant future. I haven't read it yet, but it gets such good press that you wonder why Stephenson himself loathes it so (other than the fact that he writes better now). lawrence@bga.com

Re:Sounds like RTS Game fodder to me... (1)

Sebbo (28048) | about 15 years ago | (#1631732)

This has occurred to me too and, considering the important role of MARS and the APPASMU in the book, I suspect it was on NS's mind as well.

Might also work as some kind of board game/CCG.

Sounds like "Zodiac" (1)

sean.k (20273) | about 15 years ago | (#1631733)

which was reprinted recently. It was obviously written either while Neil Stephenson was in college or not long after he graduated and while I found it entertaining, it was obvious that he still hadn't crystallized the writing style evident in his current works.

I'm sure Zodiac was reprinted because the publisher wanted to make a bit of money off an older book now that NS had gained a bit of popularity, and while I may sound critical, it really was a fun book -- especially knowing the boston area.

I would treat this book the same. It is one of his first works and, while entertaining, probably isn't the best-written novel in the world. I would understand why NS wouldn't wholeheartedly endorse a reprinting -- he obviously feels that it doesn't warrant it. While I'd read it if I could find a copy for the cover price, only a collector should want to pay more for it.

Bought copy for approx 200 dollars (1)

Random Hamster (76396) | about 15 years ago | (#1631734)

Can I just say that I am one of these people who has bought a copy for approx 200 dollars - I forget the exact amount.

Inter-library loan doesn't go across the Atlantic. In fact, in Britain, it doesn't cover fiction. You can get them within a county, but not country-wide.

Anyway, I bought a copy for approx 200 dollars. The only other place it would have gone is the retirement fund, so what the hell???

I felt that Stephenson's disavowal might not mean very much since his books seem to be getting worse (one could argue that Cryptobloaticon was better than the 'gee isn't nano cool' age, I suppose).

I tend to agree that it's recognisably a first novel, but I would vote for it being republished.

Re:AM=BU (1)

Ianderthal (79449) | about 15 years ago | (#1631735)

It doesn't help that the wealthy children of foriegn heads of state who frequently attend BU like to crash their expensive sports cars into the center trolley strip on CommAve after an evening of imbibing alcohol, cocaine, and MDMA.

Re:No need to be out of print (1)

Indomitus (578) | about 15 years ago | (#1631736)

What this guy is talking about is not reprinting entire catalogs and leaving them in warehouses but the ability to print one book for a customer when they buy it. Some publishing company has the ability to print a paperback in 7 minutes, from the button push to the customer leaving with the book. People in the industry have talked about bookstores downloading books over satellite connections and printing a copy for customer if they don't have one in stock.

One of the worst. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631737)

I read this book when I was in college myself. It was given to me by a friend whose opinion I really respect, so I read it right away. I thought it was the most putrid bit of juvenile sloth I had ever read. Yeah- first novel, worst novel.

I hated it so much I had to be _forced_ to read _Snow_Crash_, which I did long after it had generated all of the (much deserved) praise. I loved SC and liked _Diamond_Age_ and _Cryptonomicon_ as much or more. NS is one of my favorite authors now, but a recent rereading of _Big_U_ still left me worse off for it.

Bottom line- save your money on eBay!

Cryptonomicon in Australia (1)

dabrig (58538) | about 15 years ago | (#1631738)

Cryptonomicon is available as an import in Australia. I seen it in a coup0le of stores. I would've bought it myself except its about $A 55

ARMY OF DARKNESS (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631739)

It's clear from the title this guy saw Army of Darkness one too many times and ripped off a catchy tiltle from the "Necronomicon" (Book of the Dead).

Re:Cryptonomicon in Australia (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631740)

You can get this book either through www.ozbooks.com for AU$39.60 (+8.- to 20.- delivery) or you can go to www.zdnet.com, pick up a US$10.00 credit for Barnes and Noble (Look in the bottom part of the opening screen), and order it there.
To compare prices use www.addall.com.
Rainer

Re:Neat, thanks! (1)

zorgon (66258) | about 15 years ago | (#1631741)

The writing sets the Victorian mood very well, but it can be challenging, especially if you're looking for the exuberance of Snow Crash.

Spot on! I think both novels had a high style:substance ratio and were significant achievements in style. I just didn't like the Gothic-esque style of Diamond Age (just my own personal preference, this is not criticism). Cheers
--

The Big U (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631742)

Can't get a copy of the Big U? Try reading Giles Goatboy by John Barth. The same book but written in 1966

So reprint in under a psudonym. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631743)

How about 'Steve Neilson'.

You bastard! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631744)

Are you aware that not only is this book just hard to find, that if you DO find it, you should expect to pay several hundred dollars for a copy. I think it ahd one print run and that was it. Now that Neal is popular, the price has skyrocketed. I didn't read the review because I know I'd only want to read it, and reading it would be torturing myself. Why don't you pick a book we can get ahold of next time? How about Idoru by William Gibson?

Re:Book signing (2)

Schnedt (99690) | about 15 years ago | (#1631745)

Well, there are always better things one can do with one's time.

I feel the same way (I imagine a LOT of you out there agree) about the poor kids who've been convinced it's important for them to be bidding their allowance on Pokemon cards.

The Big U is a fun book. For less techie readers, it might even be viewed as his most accessable book. I personally would rank it's readability well above the last two books (Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon). But I think Stephenson is getting more didactic as he "matures" into someone who writes for a narrowing audience of readers.

Re:Geek Culture (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631746)

Grab a dictionary genius. Labels have meanings. You can't say "I hate this label because it is true to its meaning! It said the book was about cats and all I see are these furry things that spit up hairballs and chase mice! I am highly ffended!"

If you want to read a book about well-adjusted average joes that nobody harasses and yet are still called geeks... well, you're going to have to find an author with a complete ignorance of the english language to do that.

Re:Other Stephenson early novels ... (1)

seth (984) | about 15 years ago | (#1631747)

Yup. Zodiac is much more enjoyable living in Boston. I read it when I first moved into Brighton and it seemed incredulous. Living in Boston for a couple more years and it all seems very believable now.

I haven't been able to find Big U in any of the interlibrary loan networks. The network Waltham Library is on (Minuteman, I think) doesn't have it, nor does the network that Brandeis is on (which includes all the schools, I think). Let me know if you find it.

Re:No need to be out of print (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631748)

No-brainer? I suppose if you ignore the cost of scanning your entire inventory, most of which noone will ever purchase a copy. The older the book (especially paperback) the more probable the ocr misreads, the more investment cleaning up the typos, etc etc. Certainly The Big U will attract enough buyers to make it an economically attractive proposition. However, if Stephenson doesn't want it available isn't there some ethical , not to mention potential copyright, issues involved in producing a work against the wishes of the creator.

Re:Neat, thanks! (2)

theonetruekeebler (60888) | about 15 years ago | (#1631749)

Diamond Age disappointed me because I thought it was a tad too serious.

Stephenson's writing style tends to be very contextually adaptive, and creates mood very well. Witness the way Snow Crash's writing style changes depending on whether we're on the Raft, or in the Library, or just chatting with Uncle Enzo. Much of The Diamond Age is set in a neo-Victorian society, and the writing is very Gothic, ornate and literate when about the neo-Victorians, but quite straightforward when about the rest of the world. The writing sets the Victorian mood very well, but it can be challenging, especially if you're looking for the exuberance of Snow Crash. The only writer whose vocabulary challenges me so much is Nabokov.

--

Re:ARMY OF DARKNESS (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631750)

As off topic as this comment is as well as my reply, it is the Evil Dead trilogy you are refering to which in turn ripped it off of H.P.Lovecraft. The Necronomicon by Al Azif. Watch Evil Dead I & II as they are much better movies than the commercialized sell out Army of Darkness (Evil Dead III).

Back on topic (sort of) since this was a review of Big U not Cryptonomicon, but I highly recommend it as well as Snow Crash, the tech stuff is surprising and the plot is amazing.

I have a paperback copy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631751)

In good condition, I think. Didn't know who it was by, haven't read it yet. Will accept unreasonably large cash offer for it. ;) george42@usa.net

Re:oddity on amazon.co.`uk (1)

fmackay (23605) | about 15 years ago | (#1631752)

Well, it has the same page count as Cryptonomicon...

Re:Pick this book up at Amazon? (1)

ibbey (27873) | about 15 years ago | (#1631753)

Several copies online from $200 to $500. See Bookfinder [bookfinder.com] .

NEVER buy a used book from Amazon.com. They double the price & you don't really get any choice as to the copy you'll get. GO to bookfinder & you'll get a better copy for less money.

Here's the Official Word from Neal... (1)

salsbury (101341) | about 15 years ago | (#1631754)

I decided to go right to the source and ask.

Here's his reply.

Pat

I don't hate The Big U, and I haven't been buying up copies of it. I think it's a fair book and that people should devote their time and money to reading good and excellent books instead. It is going to be re-published by Avon Books in the fairly near future, which should have very little impact on the price of the old first edition copies.

The reason there are so first editions in existence is because after the book tanked in the marketplace, the publisher pulped the unsold copies.

Neal Stephenson

Good review! (1)

kubrick (27291) | about 15 years ago | (#1631755)


I'm ashamed to say I haven't read the book.... I own everything else Stephenson's done, except _Cryptonomicon_ which probably won't be out here in Australia for a while.....

I just wanted to say how good that review was -- a number of the fiction review here on /. have not been much longer than "I liked it -- you will too. Buy this book here.", but this was a detailed analysis that covered a range of topics.

Ebay (1)

tweek (18111) | about 15 years ago | (#1631756)

A guy I work with was auctioning his copy of the Big U on ebay. I'm not a big fan of ebay though. The funny thing is that he said he had heard stephenson was a bit ashamed of this one. Who knows.

First Novel, definitely (1)

mrchrist (25055) | about 15 years ago | (#1631757)

Being a rabid Stephenson fan, I tracked this book down using inter-library loan a couple of years ago...It's definitely a first novel. It goes nowhere, but goes nowhere in an entertaining way. I actually had a secret suspicion that the author was a different Neal Stephenson, so I asked him point blank at a book signing -- yes, he did write it.

BTW, if you're having trouble tracking it down, and live in Western Mass., Mount Holyoke College library has a copy.

Good article (1)

ralphclark (11346) | about 15 years ago | (#1631758)

Well written, I mean. i particularly liked the swipe at Jaynes ;o) Oh...er...first post?!?!

Consciousness is not what it thinks it is
Thought exists only as an abstraction

Neat, thanks! (1)

zorgon (66258) | about 15 years ago | (#1631759)

Having no decent remainder bins in in my neighborhood bookstores I've never run across this novel. I will now diligently search, thanks to your review.

On a related topic, I thought Snow Crash was a wonderful read but Diamond Age disappointed me because I thought it was a tad too serious. But I'm looking forward to reading both Cryptonomicon and The Big U.
--

AM is Boston University (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631760)

AM is clearly a roman a clef presentation of BU, the president is a send up of John Silber. Stephenson has clearly spent a lot of time in Boston--his descriptions of some of the corners (esp. in Interface) are brilliant, and instantly recognizable by those who've lived there.

Re:Where is the OCR'ed version? (1)

Chris Pimlott (16212) | about 15 years ago | (#1631761)

Ignoring any questions about the quality of OCR to accurately convert the text, it would take a rather long time to sit in front of a scanner flipping pages. Not to mention it'd be illegal to freely distribute the contents of this book.

Geek Culture (1)

LordChaos (2432) | about 15 years ago | (#1631762)

So we're different. So what? Why is it that geeks are always portrayed as the poor, innocent souls trampled on by society just waiting for revenge?
Sure, I can take a joke - but just as in this book "Casmir Radon, is a resumed-ed physics student in his 30s, with no social skills. " - the society at large sees us this way. Why? Who knows
I, for one, am sick of seeing the media at large portraying geek culture in this way. Sure, some will say I've missed the point of this book. That it's a parody - and therefore is a detached introverted objective blah blah blah etc look at society and is making fun of every societal group - but how different is persecuting geeks to persecuting any social minority?
"The role of geeks in all this is interesting."
Interesting? Heh More like typical.

Pick this book up at Amazon? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631763)

E-commerce link seems a tad optimistic...

-- AC [ntk.net]

Big U = BU (1)

tangram (23057) | about 15 years ago | (#1631764)

The Big U is a parody of Boston University. With the Massachusetts turnpike roaring behind Warren Towers, I can see the parallel.

When I got my copy of Cryptonomicon signed at a reading, I mentioned I'd finally found a copy of The Big U. Stephenson didn't say anything negative, but seemed distinctly underwhelmed by the subject. The smile disappeared.

I enjoy the Big U for nostalgia. I first read it when I went to UMass Amherst, home of ~26,000 students, and The Big U was funny, comforting, and dead on about life at a large university.

Tangram

Where is the OCR'ed version? (2)

georgeha (43752) | about 15 years ago | (#1631765)

Since this is impossible to find for a reasonable price, and it hasn't been reprinted yet (though Stephenson hinted they might just to shut everybody up, though dang it if I can't find the link), where is the OCR'ed version?

Come on, someone must have scanned, OCR'ed and put it up somewhere by now?

Until then, I'll keep scouring garage sales for two copies, one for myself to reread ( I first read my roommates in college in the 80's), and one to sell for $500.

George

Re:Pick this book up at Amazon? (1)

portnoy (16520) | about 15 years ago | (#1631766)

No kidding. I've had my name in at Amazon for months waiting for this title in case they trip over a copy somewhere.

If you want this book, I suggest a steady regimen of crossed fingers, mixed with wishes on stars.

Other Stephenson early novels ... (2)

seth (984) | about 15 years ago | (#1631767)

I've been told (and I think I read it on the back of the book covers) that Stephenson wrote or cowrote (not sure which) the books Interface and The Cobweb under the pseudonym of Stephen Bury. I own both books, and they sit in my to-read bookcase (some people have a shelf, I have a bookcase). Has anyone read these? Are they any good? Where do they fall on Stephenson's timeline? (i.e., before Big U? After?)

-Seth

Re:Good article (0)

ralphclark (11346) | about 15 years ago | (#1631768)

Oh...er...first post?!?!

Damn! Gotta learn to read faster...

Consciousness is not what it thinks it is
Thought exists only as an abstraction

Re:Geek Culture (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631769)

hey! as a resumed-ed computer student in my early 40s with no social skills, i think Stephenson understands whereof he writes.
I'm proud to say I've been a Stephenson fan since the Big U came out. Sure it kind of unravels at the end, but so do all his books. He does atmosphere and detail work, not plot.

AM=BU (3)

The Cunctator (15267) | about 15 years ago | (#1631770)

The Big U is based on Stephenson's experiences at Boston University, whose campus is actually responsible for student deaths in that it compels them to cross a throughway to get anywhere, leading to a few hit-and-runs every so often.

Here's a Neal Stephenson FAQ: this one at dmoz [dmoz.org] which quotes Neal as saying that "Big U" will be reprinted "Over my dead body." Later quotes have him saying he doesn't want the resources necessary to publish a book wasted on the "Big U", but it may happen just to keep people from spending $200 on the book.

There are a bunch of nice profiles/interviews on him out there; check out dmoz's comprehensive
listing [dmoz.org] .

DocuTech 135 is old news (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631771)

The current high end from Xerox is the DocuTech 6180 [xerox.com] . Boy, do I love running that box:)

ILL (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631772)


Inter-Library Loan is the best invention since sliced bread Unfortunately, the rules on it are state-by-state. In Pennsylvania, you get a card at one library, and you can use it at any other library in the state. You can also return books anywhere, and order books ILL from anywhere. This seems to include at least one university library, which is how I was able to find "The Policeman's Beard is Half-Constructed."
In Oregon, I don't know about the main library system, but there are 11 colleges who send books to each other, and *one of them has the Big U* (I think it was Willamette, but I'm not sure).
I actually think that analysis of the Big U is kinda unnecessary. It's just a satire. It was good, but not as good as Snowcrash.

Now if you want to analyse something, I recommend "The Iron Dragon's Daughter." It's got satire, it's got structure, and it's got psychological realism. It, simply, is one of the best books in the genre, whether you think the genre is sci-fi or fantasy.

Books = Pizza (1)

sugarman (33437) | about 15 years ago | (#1631773)

Keeping on the Stephenson theme here...

Having an online bookseller strike an arrangement with the ubiquitous Kinko's, or even a larger chain like Staples or Office Max. Currently, pizza places will only have one number and route your call to the closest location. Why not have the same with Kinko's.

Just add a couple checkboxes for paper type and binding (cerlox, 3-hole, whatever), and then:

"Will that be for pick-up or delivery?"

all i want for christmas. (0)

unc_onnected (6084) | about 15 years ago | (#1631774)

did you love the railgun? i know i did.

the suit of armor wasnt bad either.

Stephenson has talent, but Cryptonomicon... (1)

FallLine (12211) | about 15 years ago | (#1631775)


Cryptonomicon is overrated in my opinion. While it definetly has some interesting parts, the novel falls apart by pandering too much to techihood. I don't like to nitpick at novels, after all i'm looking for entertainment, not academic/literary value. However, Stephenson can't seem to decide if he wants a good plot, a story on WWII, or discuss various crypto technologies. The coverage of WWII crypto was interesting, but I think present day plotline (eg: Randy) was just extraneous.

Perhaps, the readers who are particularly impressed by this novel are nerds who otherwise don't read novels regularly. It is the attention to crypto that undoubtably draws them out of the woodwork. The techiness detracts from its coherance and storyline, and I feel even the biggest nerds missed something because of it.

I believe Stephenson could be an excellent author if he focused a bit more: introduced fewer subplots, and worried less about the techie aspects. He has certain insights and his techie leanings could make him an author to be remembered....

Re:Stephenson has talent, but Cryptonomicon... (1)

Garrett Rooney (1508) | about 15 years ago | (#1631776)

i dissagree completely. the present day storyline was brilliant simply because of how on target its take on techies was. i couldn't read a chapter about randy without saying many times "oh my god, that's me he's talking about."

the fact that stephenson can so acurately portray a subculture that many people know nothing about is what makes the book fantastic.

I almost read the Big U (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631777)

But then I read an interview where it was slammed realy badly.

Wouldn't have cared but the slammer was neil himself...

Re:AM is Boston University (1)

Chris Pimlott (16212) | about 15 years ago | (#1631778)

"roman a clef" implies the events in the book actually happened, which is highly doubtful. Not to say it wasn't based on BU but roman a clef isn't the best term to use here.

Re:No need to be out of print (1)

Kyrrin (35570) | about 15 years ago | (#1631779)

> There's no reason for paperbacks to be out of print anymore.

Actually, there is, and like everything else, it has to deal with money. Publishers are not encouraged to keep stock for very long at all; titles go out of print more quickly, and sell fewer copies. The reason for this is the tax situation that was created in a US. Supreme Court ruling, Thor Power Tool Company vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, having to do with the taxation implications of inventories.

As a note: this is also why companies physically destroy books that are sent back to them, rather than simply holding on to them to re-sell them.

For more information, see this article [sfwa.org] on the SFWA site.

Re:Stephenson has talent, but Cryptonomicon... (1)

gomi (57888) | about 15 years ago | (#1631780)

I'm not sure if you realize this, but there's almost no attention paid to modern crypto in Cryptonomicon, at least not in the technical sense. It's *mentioned,* sure, and as an important plot point, but I certainly don't remember seeing pages and pages of number theory.

Crypto is mentioned in Cryptonomicon about as much as tech in a good science fiction book -- enough to draw the setting and provide plot hooks, but not enough to get in the way of the story.

Stephenson doesn't need to focus more to be an excellent author -- he's doing quite well already. Just look at how his ability to coherently end a book has improved with Cryptonomicon (rather ironic given that it's the first in a series).

As someone who does read a lot of novels, I can tell you that multiple subplots are a boon -- they drive the attention forward, and the contrast between different storylines enhances both.

The present-day plotline was *vital* to the book -- the Shaftoe/Turing plotlines simply don't stand alone without the Randy plotline to give the WWII events closure. And Randy provides a modern-day viewpoint for readers to follow, which is also crucial.

Re:Good article (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631781)

you will never get first post if you actually _read_ the articles

:P

Re:AM=BU (2)

cpt kangarooski (3773) | about 15 years ago | (#1631782)

Oh, like it's the fault of us Boston drivers that all the idiot BU students keep trying to cross Comm. Ave. Don't they know that the speed limit is something like 70mph? Living in Brighton cost me a fortune in car washing, let me tell you.

For anyone who has read Zodiac (set in Boston) and the Big U (based on Boston) let me tell you, the books are very true to life. And ever so much fun.

Re:Other Stephenson early novels ... (1)

stx23 (14942) | about 15 years ago | (#1631783)

yeah, interface is quite amusing, it is worth reading. It was on my 'to read' list, but I finished cryptonomicon, and couldn't leave the house, so I didn't have a lot of choice. I think it's post big-u, and co-written with his uncle.

Re:Where is the OCR'ed version? (2)

georgeha (43752) | about 15 years ago | (#1631784)

, it would take a rather long time to sit in front of a scanner flipping pages.

If I had a spare copy, I could cut the binding off and through it into the 23 ppm duplex scanner I have access to. Maybe I'll practice first with a Gutenberg bible.

Not to mention it'd be illegal to freely distribute the contents of this book.

Doh! So are illegal drugs, mp3's of released music for non personal use, warez, bootlegs, etc.

Just consider it a thought question.

George

Re:AM=BU (1)

Sebbo (28048) | about 15 years ago | (#1631785)

Here's a Neal Stephenson FAQ: this one at dmoz which quotes Neal as saying that "Big U" will be reprinted
"Over my dead body."


This may well be true, but it's worth noting that the source given for the quote is a Usenet posting that does not mention where or when Stephenson said it.

Moral: Fact checking becomes embarassingly easy when done to generously crosslinked hypertext.

No need to be out of print (2)

Hydrophobe (63847) | about 15 years ago | (#1631786)

With new technologies it's possible to print books one copy at a time... for instance Ingram [ingram.com] now has "Lightning Print". So why don't publishers just crank up the OCR and scan in their entire back catalog?

For hardcovers with glossy paper and pictures and high production values, it might not be feasible.... but for paperbacks, it's a no-brainer. There's no reason for paperbacks to be out of print anymore.

oddity on amazon.co.`uk (2)

stx23 (14942) | about 15 years ago | (#1631787)

i thought i'd have a look at amazon.co.uk to see if there was a local press of the big-u available. alas, no, but there is this [amazon.co.uk] . And it's not cryptonomicon, since it's out in may in paperback. i wonder if the 4069bit error will have been fixed by then.

sharing is caring. (1)

unc_onnected (6084) | about 15 years ago | (#1631788)

i just realized im probably the third person (mrchrist, tangram) posting on slashdot to have found and read the copy of Big U from mt. holyoke through interlibrary loan. wonder if theres anyone else out there?

also, did anyone else get the impression that The Big U was like stephenson's fantasy of what he wouldve liked to have been in college? or perhaps even that that was the way he did experience college, only slightly (well maybe more than slightly) exaggerated and with the names changed?
maybe thats pretty obvious to most people but it definitely sounded to me like the work of someone who was bitter and swallowed up/overwhelmed by the mob at a large university.

As for LordChaos' post about geeks "always portrayed as the poor, innocent souls trampled on by society just waiting for revenge" you should remember that stephenson is almost definitely writing about himself and how he felt as a student. i personally thought it was a bit self-indulgent, but it was his first novel after all.

unc_

Maybe we should mail this thread to ppbk publisher (1)

alumshubby (5517) | about 15 years ago | (#1631789)

Fawcett Crest or somebody (hey, I know: Penguin Editions!) should see the anecdotal evidence for the pent-up consumer demand. And if Stephenson doesn't want it republished, maybe it's time to coax him down out of his tree. Early novels are nothing to be ashamed of.

Re:No need to be out of print (2)

georgeha (43752) | about 15 years ago | (#1631790)

With new technologies it's possible to print books one copy at a time...

New? Only if you consider a 9 year old high speed printer new, such as the Xerox DocuTech [xerox.com] . Of course, it's prohibitively expensive, but if I ever win about $50 million on a lottery I'd consider one.

George

Libraries in eastern Mass. (1)

himself (66589) | about 15 years ago | (#1631791)

I just checked, and the Somerville library has a copy. Go to the Minuteman Library Network home page at http://mln.lib.ma.us/ [lib.ma.us] with your library card and PIN to put in a request. (By the way: the MLN library network site is great; I use it to find books, request them from far-off libraries, and save trips across town. Borrowing from the library is cheaper than buying, too, and it increases usership so that the library gets more money for access, hardware, etc.)

I'll agree to disagree... (1)

FallLine (12211) | about 15 years ago | (#1631792)


Lets agree to disagree... I've been fan of novels ever since I was a kid. I really don't see why its necessary to bring Randy in. Why? WWII provides plenty of material. What exactly is it that Randy brought into the story? Besides, even though public knowledge of crypto has improved thousandfold in recent years, it doesn't mean that WWII crypto is merely outdated. A great deal of advances in crypto were made during the war effort, some of this is still classified.... Its not merely outdated.

No idea... (1)

Narf Narf (63083) | about 15 years ago | (#1631793)

I had no idea that this book was so rare. I went to the library one day and was wandering around and purely by chance came upon this book, and of course checked it out having read his other books. If I had only known I would have stolen it for sure, because this was a while ago and I would not have thought of all the others who would no longer have the opportunity, just that I could make a bunch of money from it.

Re:Pick this book up at Amazon? (1)

acb (2797) | about 15 years ago | (#1631794)

I think I've seen a price of US$10,000 quoted for a secondhand copy; well up from the $200-$300 usually cited.

It could lend credence to the rumour that Neal has been buying up and destroying copies.

Put it on Guttenburg! (1)

cr0sh (43134) | about 15 years ago | (#1631795)

I am just starting to get into NS (starting out with Snow Crash - so far loving it!) - but this book sounds interesting too.

If he doesn't want people to spend ungodly sums on something, he should "open source" it...

Give it to the Guttenburg Project...

Neal's Web Site and In the Beginning essay (1)

drivers (45076) | about 15 years ago | (#1631796)

Neal Stephenson's web site is:
http://www.well.com/user/neal/

It has all the contact info you could want but don't bother him. I doubt anything you might say would interest him enough to reply since he is very particular about writing without interruptions.

One post linked to a list of his works but it missed the one that I think most slashdotters would like the most. "In the beginning was the command line..." is a brilliant essay on computers, OS's in general. It has praise for Linux and BeOS.

http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

Re:Sounds like "Zodiac" (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631797)

correction:

it was obvious that he still hadn't ossified to the writing style evident in his current works.

Re:Stephenson has talent, but Cryptonomicon... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631798)

the fact that stephenson can so acurately portray a subculture that many people know nothing about is what makes the book fantastic.

However, the book is only fantastic to the members of that subculture. Everybody else just finds the tedious depth excessive.

Re:Pick this book up at Amazon? (1)

Schnedt (99690) | about 15 years ago | (#1631799)

In any event, you can get any of the books that can be acquired off the links at the bottom of the article at better prices elsewhere. Bookpool [bookpool.com] , for instance, has lower prices and is a pure techie bookstore, so you don't have to steep through all the dreck and nick-nacks when you're looking for the latest O'reilly book (which are all discounted about 45% off cover).

Amazon is the Sears Roebuck of websites. But Slashdot gets a cut of the sales, I suppose. So it's inevitable that there will always be links.

Re:I almost read the Big U (1)

Schnedt (99690) | about 15 years ago | (#1631800)

I liked it loads better than Cryptonomicon.

But then I think Neil is getting a bit heady these days about his reputation.

email (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631801)

Neal Stephenson's email is but first read if you feel like it.

Sounds like RTS Game fodder to me... (1)

torpor (458) | about 15 years ago | (#1631802)

Warring factions with different techs, hostile environment, etc.

Sounds like a perfect scenario for a RTS game. Starcraft in a University.

A Linux-only project starter?

I'm willing to put energy into such a project.

Re:No need to be out of print (1)

alumshubby (5517) | about 15 years ago | (#1631803)

When I think back on the crap I went thru to find a copy of Pig Boats, I really wish this technology would be available at Kinko's or something; just pay a two-dollar royalty fee plus twenty for binding, or whatever.

What Stephenson says (2)

mattdm (1931) | about 15 years ago | (#1631804)

I talked to Stephenson while he was here in Boston promoting Cryptonomicon. He said that, contrary to rumor, he doesn't hate The Big U [blockstackers.com] -- he just doesn't want it confused with his current writing. He said he feels it's an okay book, but people are foolish to pay so much for it and he hates to see that happen. For that reason, he's open to doing a reprint, but he wants to find a way that won't mislead people into thinking that it's something new he's writen. If suddenly a new book appears in stores, people may to be confused: "It seems like his writing has regressed about twenty years in this new book. Maybe Stephenson is losing it".

PS: Interlibrary loan is your friend.

--

Re:Other Stephenson early novels ... (2)

mrieser (85538) | about 15 years ago | (#1631805)

Interface and Cobweb in some ways fall outside of the 'Stephenson timeline' I think. They were co-wrote with someone else (his uncle, if I remember what he said at the talk I saw correctly). I believe that Interface was written between Snow Crash and Diamond Age, and Cobweb was written after Diamond Age. Not positive on that though. I enjoyed both of these. They were much more along the lines of Cryptonomicon than Snow Crash or Diamond age. The Science fiction elements of them are only slight, if they are there at all. They fit more into the thriller/mystery genre for the most part. Both pretty cool. If you want to read earlier Stephenson though, pick up Zodiac, which came out before Snow Crash, and is still in print. Also very fun, especially if you know Boston, where it is set.

Micha
BTW- anyone know of a library in Boston which has the Big U? I'm starting to look around for it, but hey, any shortcuts would be appreciated.

Re:Other Stephenson early novels ... (2)

mattdm (1931) | about 15 years ago | (#1631806)

Any library can get it for you. Interlibrary loan is magic.

--

Book signing (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1631807)

At a book signing earlier this year, Stephenson wasn't particularly thrilled with people holding their copies of that book. He said there were better things to do with your time than read that.

Complete list of Stephenson's works (1)

Borealis (84417) | about 15 years ago | (#1631808)

The ISFDB has the most complete list of NS' writings that I've seen. To view it, hit http://www.sfsite.com/isfdb-bin/exact_author.cgi?N eal_Stephenson

According to ISFDB "The Big U" is 1984, "Interface" is 1993 and "The Cobweb" is 1996.

reprinting and email (2)

grayfuzz (78333) | about 15 years ago | (#1631809)

In the course of my web wanderings, I happened upon (supposedly) Neal Stephenson's web site, complete with the address and email of his literary agent. So I sent both Neal and his agent an email asking if they would ever republish The Big U, and pointed to this site as an example of the potential interest in the book. Hopefully someone will listen.

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