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Steve's The Big U Page

HarperCollins / Amazon.com

As with all my book pages this page is a mish-mash of impressions, bouncing from tense to tense, from relevance to irrelevance and back, created solely to aid my increasingly unreliable memory, but is posted online for the benefit of anyone who might like a little help upon reaching a confusing part of the book, or a searchable scene spotter. HUGE SPOILER ALERT. These notes do preserve plot twists and other surprises, but not once they occur. Meaning, if a character introduced in chapter two gets a big surprise in chapter seven, I'll note that, but not until chapter seven. So again, SPOILER ALERT NOW, READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK. (Pagination is from the 2001 Harper/Perennial paperback, whose cover is shown above.)

The image below is my attempt to visualize the layout of American Megaversity—the "campustructure"—as described on pp21-23. (I can't get a mental image of the Vortex, apart from a tangle of elevated driveways looping above the eastern Access Lot.) (Which is a pretty decent mental image, come to think of it. Maybe I just can't draw it. Maybe I'm just too lazy to try.)

THE GO BIG RED FAN


3       John Wesley Fenrick (whose sound system requires a box fan to keep cool) and his roommate Ephriam Klein trade moral victories in E07Se (viz. after class, whoever returns to the room first gets to claim "air rights;"); Narrator also lives on E07Se [E Tower, floor 07 (the bottom floor of the towers but 7 floors above the sidewalks outside) South wing, eastern corridor] as faculty-in-residence, Assoc. prof. in Remote Sensing); "What you are about to read is not an aberration..."

 

FIRST SEMESTER

September

11       Sarah Jane Johnson (American Megaversity student body president) and Casimir Radon try to visit the dean; Outside, a truck is wedged under a bridge; Crazy ol' Bert Nix hectors students standing in queue at Dean's office; Sarah tries to fix her dorm room assignment, gets little sympathy from Mrs Santucci, but some timely assistance from Casimir; Casimir's issue is the "socioeconomic contexts backgrounding" courses he is told he needs to complete.

20       Casimir gets lost in the Plex; Narrator also gets lost in the Plex; Campustructure layout (see above; loosely based on BU's Warren Towers dormitory); They meet each other after simultaneously exiting the north side fire doors; They give the east side access lot a wide berth enroute to the south side main entrance, where they re-enter; Casimir gets a migraine, and Narrator helps him to his (Casimir's) room in D Tower.

25     Gary and two other newbies want access to a small computer terminal room; Fred Fine appears; Virgil Gabrielsen appears with a master key, dismisses the other four and and logs into FLAT LUX.

30     Virgil tells Narrator about Paul Barnett's nafarious "worm," the reason Virgil is at AM.

33     Sarah has a defacto single room; At an E12S wing meeting, Sarah meets Hyacinth; Mitzi the RA introduces three new members; ""The guys upstairs on E13S call themselves the Wild and Crazy Guys, let's name our wing The Love Boat!" Instead, they call E12S "Castle in the Air," against Hyacinth's objections; When the fire alarm goes off, Sarah and Hyacinth smoke weed in Hyacinth's room, room 103; Sarah discusses her former LSD use.

42     Casimir is miserable, but his visit to Dr. Sharon--the only person at AM smarter than Casimir--will help; Casimir decides to stay as Sharon mentions possibly retiring, and a piano crashes through the ceiling seriously injuring Dr Sharon; Bert Nix appears; Casimir calls Emergency Services who dawdle Catch-22ishly ("We can't leave our posts. What if there was an emergency while we were gone?"); Bert Nix's ode on academe; Casimir scrambles for oxygen for Sharon, Virgil helps; Ambulance takes an hour to get there.

 

October

51     Prof. Embers lectures speaks on grammar; Sarah is in his Freshman English class after all, but balances the SG (Student Government) budget during class up in the back row; When essays are handed back Sarah sees but avoids Dexter Fresser, an old flame.

54     A girl argues with Prof. Embers about a B he gave her on the essay; Embers responds with patronizing edu-bullshit double-speak: "They're all proficient in their respective dialects. We have no academic standards, per se." [Nothing ever explicity identifies the complaintant as Sarah, but it is impossible not to conclude this.]

56     Exterminators spray Casimir's room; The illicit kitten; Casimir takes kitten's food bowls to shower to clean off bug spray, where he has bizarre encounters with a loud, incoherent guy and a naked couple.

61     Casimir takes over the Neutrino (physics) club, wants to build a mass driver and heads to the Science Shop down in the Burrows; Virgil asks if they've caught the piano tossers; The prime suspect is E13 of course (those Wild and Crazy Guys), possibly having tossed it from E14, the performing arts floor; Casimir bemoans the absence of any real law at AM, Virgil reminds him that "law is just the opinion of the guy with the biggest gun," and goes on to explain in detail how work actually gets done at AM (bartering, favors, etc); Ubiquitous rat poison, "If you don't want the illicit kitten to get sick, get your room added to the 'no poison' list;" Virgil has memorized the entire AM operator program.

68     Terrorists of E13S (formerly The Wild and Crazy Guys) ceremonially hang Airheads upside down in the shower, then try to force Sarah out of her room; Flashing, powdering, penny-locking, and other tactics fail to extract Sarah; Narrator [named Bud? re p42] is revealed to be a large African-American who enjoyed exacting anonymous revenge on the Terrorists during intramural football games; Sarah is swirlied not by Terrorists but by Airheads, and lashes out at them in response; They see that they've drawn blood and don't screw with her anymore.

74     Spike succumbs to rat poison; Casimir vows to demonstrate how he's "cleverest."

76     Sarah is up and out by 4 AM [One wonders how, in an Animal House dorm like that, she can manage the 8 or 9pm bedtime that the 4am departure implies.] ; Sarah skips all her classes to paint her room.

78     Casimir initiates Project Spike from Sharon's lab, then explains it to Virgil: "These rats can tolerate a lot of rat poison. I'm going to mark the poison with Carbon-14 and then see if any C-14 appears in cafeteria food..." (shades of G. Hevesy v. landlady!)

81     Fenrick and Klein do battle: AC/DC v. JS Bach; Angel the Cuban boxer down the hall takes action; Narrator calls Angel off but uses Angel's potential rage as leverage over Fenrick and Klein.

 

November

84     In his first time competing in a WWII ping-pong-table-based sim, Virgil (playing as the Axis powers) whips Chip Dixon (playing as the Allies); Fred Fine promotes Virgil to Colonel; Fine and Consuela invite Virgil to Sewers and Serpents, MARS's cosplay version of D and D. Shekondar is the program that runs the game.

89     As faculty advisor to SG, Narrator visits Castle in the Air (E12S), experiences their murals and other paintings; Mari Meegan v. Fire Marshall.

93     Sarah leads the SG budget meeting at which: SUB (Stalinist Underground Battalion) inveighs against Krupp, TUG (Temple of Unlimited Godhead) hums/chants, a bat is loose in the auditorium, a TUG representative speaks, Casimir speaks and requests $1500 for Neutrino, Yllas Freedperson speaks eloquently on behalf of SUB but the budget vote goes against them regardless.

99     Post-meeting chill in Narrator's suite (Sarah, Willy, Hillary and one other) Hillary: I've heard the Terrorists are gang-raping with impunity; Best to avoid their Fantasy Island party at end of semester.

101    Casimir shows budget graphs to Sarah at MegaPub, but somehow the graph curves are written in vulgar words (Bennett's Worm?) and Casimir is embarrassed; They remember meeting in Santucci's office (p17), discuss Krupp, and lightly debate philosophy (proof v. intuition)...and set a second date.

107    Sarah meets with Krupp in his office; They spar lightly over budget issues and Neutrino's request; She convinces Krupp that Neutrino's project is worth examining more closely.

112    Fenrick v. Klein on E07Se again, this time with cigar smoke and dirt.

114    SUB tries to pie Krupp's face during his autonomy lecture but misses; Three TUGgers capture the assailant, but Krupp turns on them instead; Krupp hears questions from—and summarily dismisses—Dex Fresser, then a woman with a safety pin through her nose (both representing SUB), Ephriam Klein (expounding Julian Jaynes' bicameralism), Bert Nix blurting out lines from his poem (p48), and another SUBbie (tall redhead); Casimir is there and is fairly impressed by Krupp; In the hall after the lecture, Klein and Krupp continue the Jaynes/bicameralism debate; Sarah introduces Casimir to Krupp; [on p125 the Narrator is confirmed to be named Bud, see p42] At the posh Faculty Pub, Klein and Krupp continue re bicameral mind theory; Klein makes the best case yet for Neutrino's mass driver, and Krupp agrees to fund it; Bert Nix rises from an adjoining booth brandishing a broadsword and is removed by Krupp's aides; Casimir notices a physical resemblance between Nix and a painting of an ancient benefactor.

128    Sarah crashes at Casimir's, He says he loves her, she thinks of him more as a friend; He walks her back to E12S; Water floods out when the elevator opens; Casimir appraises her room painting; She asks him to Fantasy Island night.

 

December

133    Post Thanksgiving break Fenrick moved out but left the room full of smoldering cigars; Klein vows revenge.

134    Displaced by a loud party, Hyacinth jumps into Sarah's bed. Sarah doesn't really mind.

137    Night of the Blue Towers: campus-wide, post finals blowouts; As Fenrick showers in his new hall's bathroom, Klein broadcasts his retaliation on (what seems to be) closed circuit TV; Klein's minions synchro-flush all throughout E Tower, crippling the tower's plumbing and scalding Fenrick, who stumbles out of the shower and falls right in front of the Go Big Red Fan...

140    The Flame Squad Faction of E17S ignites a desiccated Christmas tree in an elevator; Bud douses it with keg spray while Virgil tends to the crippled plumbing.

141    Casimir detects rat meat in the Savory meatloaf; Sharon's lab's walls leak; Casimir opens a flooded freight elevator shaft, forgets his radiation equipment is still running in the lab; Lab walls cave in, creating deluge in lab.

144    At Fantasy Island Nite in the E12S lounge Sarah is dosed with LSD by Terrorists; They drag her to an elevator then to a room [presumably one on E13S] and prepare to do their worst when Hyacinth rescues her from Tiny and other Terrorists....rescues with extreme prejudice.

149    Virgil activates parallel plumbing system. • Fred and Consuela test Sewers and Serpents program; Water floods into the Computer Center nuking some hard drives; Computer folks scramble to save disc drives; Fine notices the parallel plumbing activate.

154    Tiny lands outside Bud's window.


SECOND SEMESTER

January

157    During a massive S and S enactment [Zippy the Dwarf, Lord Flail, White Priest, Klystron the Impaler, and Liason vs. Shekondar,] Flail/Steve is viciously attacked by giant sewer rats; Rats go after White Priest/Virgil, who discovers that his flashing scepter prop wards off rats, then sees heavily armed B-men annihilate a sewer rat and move a large cart-mounted cylinder into room where guys in yellow rain suits (or something similar) are working.

168    SUB steals the library's card catalog while something else (Bennett's Worm?) hits the computer catalog; People take the most desirable books hostage.

171    Casimir wants to rehearse his mass driver demonstration speech, goes to talk to Dex about his loud stereo but Dex is tripping balls, so Casimir does the demo cold; Krupp shows up late with a mystery man and asks a couple knowledgeable questions; Mass driver drives brass mass across lab into wooden momentum absorber; Mystery man Heimlich is on the AM Board of Trustees and asks Casimir if he can build a railgun; Says Krupp: "The money is endless if your research relates to defense/military."


February

178    Sarah had quit as SG president on Jan 1 [why not mention this is the Jan. chapter?] Terrorists close ranks re the two Fantasy Island Nite deaths, and are looking for woman who wore the clown costume; Bud wants to help; Sarah tells him why he can't.

179    Sarah and Hyacinth recuperate in a wading pool in Sarah's room discussing guns and justifiable homicide.

180    Sarah uneventfully takes care of herself, but another guy, sadly, was unable to take care of himself...

181    A MARS member analyses Casimir's mass driver work.

182    Klystron's name in the technological universe is Chris; Ponders the Plex and the occasional Central Bifucation between the Technical and Magical universes and incipient Breakdowns there-between; Klystron/Chris (alias: Fred Fine) feels his job is to minimize "Leakage" between the two universes, hopefully to prevent Breakdowns; Became aware of this "job" on food-fight day when he sensed the event moments before it erupted in the cafeteria; He noticed some instigators running away, but some remained to document the event; Cafeteria staff responded quickly; KlyFred sliced open a partition to escape, then analyzed the true intentions of the instigators (recon for some future attack?)

188    Sarah dines with ski-mask-wearing Airheads in the cafeteria (Food fight from Sarah's POV in the adjoining partition); Dean Forksplit vents loudly to Sarah (employing Yoda-like grammar and syntax) then sees KlyFred in the next partition slice it open and come through; Mari and Sarah debate assholitude of Terrorists, then Mari outs Sarah as the Clown Woman; Sarah concocts an absurd Mafia/KGB/Elopement story and sells it convincingly for Mari and KlyFred by giving them a glimpse of her pistol.

 

March

195    Massive neon "Big Wheel" sign to the east is turned on each evening [likely inspired by massive Citgo sign 1/3 mi. due east of BU's Warren Towers]; Hearers and Terrorist Superstars conference in D24E; Dex Fresser enters carrying Go Big Red fan (he got it the night it killed Fenrick in the shower, p139.) Says Dex: "It spoke to me, now it speaks to all."

200    AM employees go on strike

201    Bud hosts a strike party; Fine drops by; Bud notes Fred Fine's indifference to Steve/Flail's death, and Klein's indifference to Fenrick's; LOOSE TRANSCRIPT OF BUD'S PARTY: AM goes downhill – someone should blow it up – what would it take? – music theory and vibrational frequency of E wing; Bud, Ephriam and Hyacinth step out leaving Sarah with Fred and Virgil; Fine asks Sarah about her gun, she leaves; Casimir asks Hyacinth about Sarah, he's dying inside over her; Ephriam and Bud measure hallway; Virgil asks Casimir about Project Spike; Fred concludes that Casimir's plutonium leak created a race of giant rats; Virgil outlines what is known and what must be done about it.

211    The Strike. Picketers work inside the Plex, mostly. Those outside had to deal with Teamsters who threatened violence if not allowed to deliver beef cargo; Inside, some younger folks lose it; After a week, Krupp closes the school and fires all staff; Students in the towers largely ignore Krupp and harass anyone who tries to leave; Bud and Lucy are not surprised to see AM's wheels coming off, and decide to visit the sewers.

218    MARS's full membership meets in sewers; Plexor history; "These are dire times...behold!" Parade of mutant rats follows a flapping bat [re p94] past the MARS contingent; Klystron uses giant mutant rats to motivate MARS's Grand Army: "It's time to begin final preparations."

222    Bud and others continue their well-armed tour of societal decay; Rats attack them on a stairwell from below. They bag the rat for future study; Fred Fine points out real and magical landmarks, and the others determine that he's batshit insane; An ultrasonic alarm tone is detected, the rats love it; A barrier of light is reached, beyond which is a hazardous waste disposal dump; Upon dissection: the rats have no hearts; At midnight, it's April Fool's Day "Anything could happen now."

 

April

230    E13S hosts a Great Partiers party at which Dex drugs out, then announces that the Big Wheel tells us to prepare for war.

233    Bert Nix hoards trash then incinerates himself.

234    Hazardous waste area is located at NE corner of Plex; Virgil hides in a large orange crate at the Hazardous Waste Area, two Crotobaltislavonian B-men hide in a neighboring fake nuclear waste cylinder; [Narrator Bud's last name is revealed to be Redfield, if one wades through Magrov's thick accent;] Virgil watches elevator platform lower cylinders and men down though the floor; B-men take over subterranean Hazardous Waste dump; Virgil emerges from crate, destroys the HW dump's surveillance cameras and microphones; Virgil's Eleven Point Rationale For Filling The Dump's Elevator Shaft With Load After Load Of Concrete.

241    Bud leads Krupp and two other administrators on a tour of E Tower; This group of four is ambushed in an elevator; Krupp and Bud climb through the elevator car's ceiling and emerge on the 13th floor where a machine gunner attacks them; Krupp caps him with his .44 and takes the guy's AK-47; While Bud and Krupp weigh tactical and strategic options they are fired upon by a Terrorist; Bud and Krupp escape down a stairwell where they pass Casimir on his way up to see Sarah; At floor 5 Bud and Krupp leave the stairwell as a grenade dropped down the stairwell detonates though the open 5th floor door, taking out three armed B-men in the floor 5 lobby; Bud sees a small tank approach from the cafeteria.

248    The war began in the cafeteria, SUBs vs. TUGs; Both groups target the kitchen; Klystron/Fred is in the café when war breaks out, readies for battle, takes the elevator down; Burrows Guard Army has APPASMU (All Purpose Plex Armed Strife Mobile Unit, the golf-cart-tank Bud saw on p248); KlyFred in the mini-tank, sets out for E Tower to rescue Krupp, and after being hindered by a massive tetrazzini spill in the kitchen, enters a dining bay where he neutralizes a SUB bunker; KlyFred’s tank encounters Bud and Krupp.

255    Terrorists fling a corpse through Sarah’s window to flush her into the hall, but she doesn’t bite, instead summoning Hyacinth, who arrives well-armed; The two women repel the Terrorist ambush and hop in an elevator to escape.

257    CASIMIR’S POV: Casimir has blind spots now (and what sounds like a nascent brain tumor) perhaps triggered by the radiation he’s been working with [ya think?]; Casimir passes Krupp and Bud in the stairwell, and when he reaches E12S sees Sarah and Hyacinth with guns, being chased by Terrorists; He goes to Sarah’s vacated room, learns about Sarah’s relationship with Hyacinth, is pulled back into the hall by Terrorists and is about to be tortured with a friggin' hammer when he experiences a tingly acquisition of super powers and repels his would-be torturer; Casimir then goes to the Locksmith Shop, climbs the wall and waits above the shop door; Casimir accosts the Locksmith to gain entry, but they each quickly determine that the other is a good and honorable man; A Terrorist shoots the Locksmith from the doorway and is promptly dispatched by Casimir; With his last breath, the Locksmith bequeaths the Plex’s master keys to Casimir.

262    Sarah, Hyacinth and Lucy regroup in Bud's room, then step out of the window and head across the Tar City roof toward the Women's Center; They get to the kitchen, encounter some TUGgies, squeeze past the Tetrazzini blob and enlist four other women; After passing many club offices down in the Student Union bloc, they reach the Women's Club but Yllas Freedperson won't let them enter, and in fact captures them and hands them over to SUB, who lock them into racquetball court "cells;" They escape easily through the upper spectators window and let other captives free.

265    Sarah and Hyacinth's group encounters KlyFred on 4; Shekondar tells KlyFred "She's the one!" launching KlyFred into a hilarious fantasy narrative!; KlyFred assigns a platoon of GASF soldiers to help Sarah's group get to the Burrows.

268    [continued from p. 255] Bud goes to Emeritus Row and finds Prof. Forthcoming crying into his desk blotter because he's left his lecture notes in the library; Bud talks him into leaving; It's business largely as usual in the Burrows, they welcome Bud and Forthcoming into the haven of the Science Shop.

271    The big players hold the Towers (SUB Axis has E and F, GASF has D, Admin. has B and C and TUG has A, H and G) while smaller groups hold sections of the Plex base; Bats overwhelm the upper floors of E Tower; A group of twenty people occupy the Burrows Science Shop; Bennett's Worm surfaced on March 31; Virgil, using a slew of computers to split up one program and to fool the Worm into NOT thinking he's focusing on any one task, proceeds to flush any and all American Megaversity data from its servers, the last thing Bennett expected Virgil—or anyone—to do.

274    Reunion in the Science Shop; Ephriam Klein and Sarah debate agency and personal responsibility re societal pressures.

277    Prof. Forthcoming pesters Bud for the lecture notes, so Bud leads a detail of eight to fetch them from the library; Encounter with mid-western gang; They are joined by a camera crew in the mailroom; Bud questions the crew (the old "Can't you drop the camera and help" question that photojournalists always get); They reach Bud's academic department where it seems life is good, until Bud reminds them of the bats and rats; Professors bicker so Bud slips out. His detail gets to the Pre-med center, the medical library, then sees a relief effort guarding the library proper. On the way up to Forthcoming's study they meet Embers and two friends warming themselves with a book fire. A couple paragraphs of Embers' fatuous fiction later, they get the notes, dump Forthcoming and return to the Science Shop.

284    Casimir gets armored up.

285    Casimir crashes through the admin lounge window where a trustees meeting is in progress; Casimir demands answers; Heimlich explains why AM has a nuclear waste dump; Krupp: "We have to mask our massive profits"; Bert Nix was trustee Pertinax Rushforth; Casimir lays out his terms to Krupp: 1) We need control of the campus radio station, and 2) get ready to flip the Big Wheel sign on and off when we say. We'll get rid of the Terrorists, stay out of our way.

292    Synchronized flashing Tower lights freak out Terrorists in E and F Towers; Big Wheel is dark! Sarah on the radio manipulates Fresser and Terrorists to obey, and scares journalists with threat of rat plague; Rats attack journalists; All are now conditioned to evacuate the Plex when necessary; Railgun is bolted into sewer floor; Ephriam Klein drags Bud to the chapel where Bert Nix (yes, Bert Nix) is playing the organ maniacally.

300    Railgun is tested and prepped; Worm/Bennett fruitlessly taunts Virgil; Virgil runs his program, explosives are placed; All that's left to do is wait for Sarah's radio program to start.

 

May

303    On the air Sarah tells all: "The Big Wheel wants you to go visit it! Evacuate now!" Bert and Ephriam sit tight while Fine, Bud and Casimir go forward; Railgun is fired into waste dump spraying chaos and rats; Bert and Ephriam play the organ loud enough to induce sympathetic vibrations in the Tower halls (p208)...and that's it for the Plex. Virgil has data on disks. The fan spins on.


A few post-reading thoughts:
Casimir's "cleverest" sympathetic vibrations phenomenon shows up again—in a fascinating variation, I might add—toward the end of Stephenson's 2004 Baroque Cycle novel The Confusion. (In the Japan, May 1700 chapter, p686 in my hardcover edition.)

Neal Stephenson has said publicly he is not proud of The Big U, his first published book, and that the only reason it was reissued in 2001 is because used copies of early editions were selling for what he deemed insane prices on eBay; He did not like that people were making so much money off what he considers an inferior product. I've said it before and I'll say it again: just because he wouldn't write a book like this today, doesn't mean he shouldn't have written it when he was younger. Sure the book has some issues (email me and we'll talk), but holy crap it was a rocking good read!
Email me with questions or comments!
Steve
11DEC10