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Literature / The Big U

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"Tenuring and tenuring in the ivory tower!
The flagon cannot fill the flagoneers.
Krupp cuts a fart! The sphinxter cannot hold
Dear academe, our Lusitania, recoils."
Bert Nix, paraphrasing William Butler Yeats

The Big U, Neal Stephenson's first novel, is a satire of American college life focusing on the fictitious American Megaversity, somewhere in a stretch of quasi-urban sprawl, and its gradual slide towards apocalyptic destruction.


Not to be confused with The Big O.


  • Abhorrent Admirer: Fred Fine to Sarah
  • Attempted Rape: The Terrorist leader tries to assault Sarah, but her girlfriend, wearing a clown costume, shoots him first.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The protagonists theorize at one point that the architecture of the Plex is slowly driving everyone insane. What's certain is that its natural resonating frequency matches the frequency of Klein's music, making the entire building vibrate whenever he turns on his stereo.
  • Black and Nerdy: Professor Bud, our narrator.
  • Cargo Cult: The Terrorists' acid-induced worship of the Big Wheel and its avatar, Fenrick's Go Big Red Fan.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The building's aforementioned resonating frequency, which ultimately allows Klein and Bert Nix to destroy the Plex once and for all by playing the organ.
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  • Cool Old Guy: Bert Nix, the Megaversity's resident eccentric bum.
  • Dean Bitterman: Double Subverted. Septimus Severus Krupp is presented initially as a conservative and authoritarian dean who makes life hell for the students. However, when he finally appears to the protagonists, he seems quite the Reasonable Authority Figure, a bulwark against the rowdy least, until it's revealed that he's been using the school as a nuclear waste storage facility.
  • Dirty Commies: The Stalinist Unity Battalion.
  • Escalating War: Klein and Fenrick's stereo battles, which get more and more dramatic, ultimately culminating in Fenrick's death and the accidental creation of a race of mutant rats.
  • Geek Physiques: Both Casimir and Fred Fine are the "unhealthily skinny" kind.
  • Hippie Teacher: Professor Embers, who will happily award an A for an eight-sentence analytical essay riddled with grammatical errors since the author has "escaped orthodoxy."
    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.
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  • Mind Screw: Is this really a campus? Or is it the mystical Plexus? Does magic truly exist here?
  • Mood Whiplash: The Terrorists' attempted rape of Sarah is pretty jarring, coming as it does in the midst of a relatively lighthearted satirical novel.
  • Political Correctness Gone Mad: A key element of the SUB's platform.
  • Ruritania: The janitorial staff are all immigrants from the People's Free Existence Node of Crotobaltislavonia.
  • This Is My Side: Part of Klein and Fenrick's Escalating War.
  • Science Hero: The protagonists are mostly hard science majors, and end up using their technical skills to combat an alliance of loony leftists and drunken cultist fratboys in a very bizarre example of Romanticism Versus Enlightenment.
  • Strawman U: The novel manages to avoid either extreme version of Strawman U, but the SUB and the unionized professors would fit in well at a Berserkeley, and the administration and Temple of Unlimited Godhead (a fundamentalist Mormon offshoot) are close to a Jim Jonestown.
  • Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: The Terrorists's antics are a surprisingly terrifying example.


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