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The Big U (1984) is a novel by American writer Neal Stephenson. His first published novel, it is a satire of campus life.

The Big U
A blue letterman jacket shown from the back with a large letter U emblazoned on it.
Reprint Cover
AuthorNeal Stephenson
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarper Perennial
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3569.T3868 B5 2001


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 who is 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.

The book was written while Stephenson attended Boston University. The fictional campus' design is based on a BU dormitory, Warren Towers.[citation needed] Located at 700 Commonwealth Avenue 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 -- like those of his predecessors as president of the big U -- is taken from the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. The neon Big Wheel sign plays a part reminiscent of the Boston Citgo sign just east of the BU campus in Kenmore Square.

Literary significance and criticismEdit

Stephenson has said he is not proud of this book.[1] When Stephenson's Snow Crash was published in 1992, the book that became a best-seller and vaulted him to fame, 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 The Big U to be republished, saying that the only thing worse than people reading the book was paying that much to read it.

Connections to Stephenson's later workEdit

  • 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 alsoEdit


  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 Archived 2011-05-20 at the Wayback Machine