The Big U

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The Big U
A blue letterman jacket shown from the back with a large letter U emblazoned on it.
Reprint Cover
Author Neal Stephenson
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Harper Perennial
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 320 pages
ISBN 0-380-81603-2
OCLC 45162137
813/.54 21
LC Class PS3569.T3868 B5 2001

The Big U (1984) is Neal Stephenson's first published novel, a satire of campus life.

Plot [edit]

The story chronicles the disillusionment of a number of young intellectuals as they encounter the realities of the higher education establishment parodied in the story. Over time their lives and sanity disintegrate in different ways through a series of escalating events that culminates with a full-scale civil war raging on the campus of American Megaversity.

Told in first person from the perspective of Bud, a lecturer in Remote Sensing new to the university, the book attacks and makes fun of just about every conceivable group at university, though its portraits of the nerds/computer scientists/role players tend to be more detailed than those of other factions.

The events take place at a fictitious big university consisting of a single building (a central complex with eight towers containing student housing), making the university an enclosed universe of its own. Stephenson uses this fact to take what starts as a mostly realistic satire and move it further and further into the realm of improbability, with giant radioactive rats, hordes of bats and a lab-made railgun.

Characters [edit]

  • Bert Nix
  • Bud Redfield (narrator)†
  • Casimir Radon
  • Dex Fresser
  • Ephraim Klein
  • Fred Fine (Chris the Systems Analyst)
  • Giant Sewer Rats
  • Hyacinth
  • Sarah Jane Johnson
  • Septimius Severus Krupp
  • Virgil Gabrielsen (White Priest)
  • The Worm
  • Yllas Freedperson

† Bud Redfield is the first of three first-person narrators in Stephenson's novels [to date], followed by Sangamon Taylor in Zodiac and Raz in Anathem. He is also the first of three Neal Stephenson protagonists of African descent, followed by Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash and Zula Forthrast in Reamde.

Groups and organizations at American Megaversity[edit]

  • The Airheads
  • Computing Club
  • The Crotobaltslavonians(AKA: 'The B-Men')
  • The Faculty Union
  • Megaversity Association for Reenactments and Simulations (M.A.R.S.)
  • Stalinist Underground Battalion (S.U.B.)
  • Physics Club
  • Temple of the Unlimited Godhead (T.U.G.)
  • The Terrorists
  • Big Wheel Men
  • Cowboys
  • Droogs
  • Ninjas
  • Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army (Unofficial)
  • Roy G Bivs
  • Wild and Crazy Guys

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Stephenson has said he is not proud of this book.[1] By the time Snow Crash was published, The Big U was out of print, and Stephenson was content to leave it that way. When original editions began selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars, he relented and allowed it to be republished, saying that the only thing worse than people reading the book was paying that much to read it.

The book was written while Stephenson was at Boston University. The fictional campus' design is based on a BU dormitory, Warren Towers. Located at 700 Commonwealth Ave in Boston, Massachusetts, it is one of the largest dorms in the US. The character of President Septimius Severus Krupp shares a number of similarities with then BU President John Silber, although his name and the names of his predecessors as Presidents of the big U are taken from the Roman Emperors Commodus to Septimius Severus. The neon Big Wheel sign plays the part of the Boston Citgo sign just east of the BU campus in Kenmore Square.

Connections to Stephenson's later work[edit]

  • Julian Jaynes' theory of the bicameral mind used by Stephenson in this novel to explain the behaviour of some of the cult-like student groups is an important part of the plot of Snow Crash.
  • The idea of institutions of learning also serving as repositories of nuclear waste reappears in Anathem.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Neal Stephenson states that "The Big U is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago." Author website


  • Cheuse, Alan (1984-09-30). "MURDEROUS PRANKS". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-09.