In an effort to exhaust the novelty of my current favorite author, Neal Stephenson, I’ve been reading his first novel, The Big U (I think I’ve covered everything else but his pseudonymous work). Stephenson himself describes this as “a juvenile work,” but I’m greatly enjoying myself. Filled with geeks pursuing… geeky pursuits, I’m reminded of the latter day portions of Cryptonomicon (though when you compare those two, I can see why The Big U would be called juvenile). It’s quite entertaining so far, though there does seem to be a lack of traditional plot points and I’m not expecting a particularly revelatory ending. The book is probably best described by it’s setting (American Megaversity) and characters (geeks). Some choice quotes are below:

Most of the facilities of the Big U are contained within a group of buildings refered to as the Plex:

The Plex’s environmental control system was designed so that anyone could spend four years wearing only a jockstrap and a pair of welding goggles and yet never feel chilly or find the place too dimly lit.

Sounds like a fun place, and it seems that Stephenson’s humor was fully in place when he started his writing career. I’ve also noticed that he seems to have a fascination with how smart people find one another in the throngs of normal people. For instance, two of the characters get lost in the Plex’s labyrinthine stairway system and end up exiting at the back of the building:

Later I was to think it remarkable that Casimir and I should emerge from those fire doors at nearly the same moment, and meet. On reflection, I have changed my mind. The Big U was an unnatural environment, a work of the human mind, not of God or plate tectonics. If two strangers met in the rarely used stairways, it was not unreasonable that they should turn out to be similar, and become friends. I thought of it as an immense vending machine, cautiously crafted so that any denomination too ancient or foreign or irregular would rattle about randomly for a while, find its way into the stairway system, and inevitably be deposited in the reject tray on the barren back side. Meanwhile, brightly colored graduates with attractively packaged degrees were dispensed out front every June, swept up by traffic on the Parkway and carried away for leisurly consumption…

Much the same situation brought Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton together in Quicksilver. Other similar scenarios populate his various other books as well.

The book is obviously a satire, but I still can’t help but find a grain of truth in some of the absurdly bureaucratic obstacles that pop up for various students.

“I’m an English major. I know this stuff. Why are you putting me in Freshman English?”

The General Curriculum Advisor consulted little codes printed by the computer, and looked them up in a huge computer-printed book. “Ah,” he said, “was one of your parents a foreign national?”

“My stepmother is from Wales.”

“That explains it. You see.” The official had swung around toward her and assumed a frank, open body-language posture. “Statistical analysis shows that children of one or more foreign nationals are often gifted with Special Challenges.”

Sarah’s spine arched back and she set her jaw. “You’re saying I can’t speak English because my stepmother was Welsh?”

“Special Challenges are likely in your case. You were mistakenly exempted from Freshmen English because of your high test scores. This exemption option has now been retroactively waived for your convenience.”

“I don’t want it waived. It’s not convenient.”

“To ensure maintenance of high academic standards, the waiver is avolitional.”

Nothing that bad has ever happened to me, but there was that time the university lost my enrollment (in which I had very carefully picked what classes and professors I wanted) and, for my convienience, enrolled me in the remaining open courses that fulfilled my needs (at this point, though, everyone else had already registered, so the only classes that were open were the ones no one wanted to take). That was a fun semester.

It turns out that Freshmen English is being taught by a lunatic The student from the above excerpt gets a bad grade and decides to speak with the professor because other barely literate students got a better grade than her:

He took a long draw on his pipe. “What is a grade? That is the question.” He chuckled, but apparently she didn’t get it. “Some teachers grade on curves. You have to be a math major to understand the grade! But forget those fake excuses. A grade is actually a form of poetry. It is a subjective reaction to a learner’s work, distilled and reduced down to its purest essence-not a sonnet, not a haiku, but a single letter. That’s remarkable, isn’t it?”

Oh, but he’s not done yet. He actually goes on to describe how the barely readible grammar of a competing paper is better than Sarah’s:

“You aren’t necessarily a better writer. You called some of them functional illiterates. Well those illiterates, as you called them, happen to have very expressive prose voices. Remember that in each person’s own dialect he or she is perfectly literate. So in the sense of having escaped orthodoxy to be truly creative, they are highly advanced wordsmiths, while you are still struggling to break free of grammatical rules systems. They express themselves to me and I react with little one-letter poems of my own – the essence of grading! Poetry! And being a poet I’m particularly well suited for it. Your idea of tearing down these little proto-artists because they aren’t just like you smacks of a kind of absolutism which is very disturbing in a temple of academic freedom.”

They sat there silent for a while.

“You really said that, didn’t you?” she finally asked.

“I did.”

I think he perfectly captured the futility of Sarah’s quest in this scene. It’s masterful, really. The book was published in 1984, so it seems that this sort of PC lit-crit babbled newspeak was just as common and annoying then as it is now. It’s kind of reassuring, in a dejected way. When I hear about crazy professors going on about this or that these days, it’s always tempting to assume that the sky is falling and that we’re all doomed. But it appears that this has been going on for quite some time now, and while I don’t like it and it may be harmful, it probably doesn’t mean the end of the world either. Anyway, I’m only halfway through the book, but I thought I’d share my impressions, because I was expecting a lot worse…

3 thoughts on “Megaversity”

  1. I read The Big U not too long ago. I too expected it to be worse than it was. The first two thirds or so was no worse than Zodiac or The Daimond Age…I’ll leave you to form your own impressions of the rest, though I didn’t think it was terrible. Stephenson may actually deserve the common criticism about his endings, but you probably already knew that if you read The Diamond Age.

  2. One thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be almost no plot whatsoever. I mean, people are doing stuff, but there’s no overarching conflict or story arc. This isn’t particularly unusual for Stephenson, but then his books are usually long enough that some threads start to become more important… but there’s only a hundred pages or so left in this, so… I’m not sure I’m expecting anything in terms of an ending.

    The criticism of his endings only really holds up for The Diamond Age, imho (and possibly this book). Quicksilver too, but since that’s the first in a series, I wasn’t expecting much (but I thought the Confusion had a great ending, and so did System of the World). Snow Crash and Zodiac had fine endings, and so did Cryptonomicon (despite the strange inclusion of Andrew Loeb, jungle warrior, which was kinda dumb, but fine and small enough that it didn’t bother me)…

  3. Yeah, there wasn’t much plot structure…and it was all kind of loosely slapped together right at the end. Although that’s not uncommon for Stephenson, you can really tell this is an early effort by him. He didn’t really start to hit his groove until Diamond Age and Snow Crash, IMO. Zodiac wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really up to par with his later efforts.

    Aside from The Diamond Age, I’ve never had much in the way of complaints about his endings…some of them aren’t great, but they’re certainly not bad.

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