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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.)


3       JohnWesley 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] asfaculty-in-residence, Assoc. prof. in Remote Sensing); "What you are about toread is not an aberration..."




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

20       Casimirgets lost in the Plex; Narrator also gets lost in the Plex; Campustructurelayout (see above; loosely based on BU's Warren Towers dormitory); They meet each other after simultaneously exiting thenorth side fire doors; They give the east side access lot a wide berth enrouteto 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     Garyand two other newbies want access to a small computer terminal room; Fred Fineappears; Virgil Gabrielsen appears with a master key, dismisses the other fourand and logs into FLAT LUX.

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

33     Sarahhas a defacto single room; At an E12S wing meeting, Sarah meets Hyacinth; Mitzi the RAintroduces 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 theAir," against Hyacinth's objections; When the fire alarmgoes off, Sarah and Hyacinth smoke weed in Hyacinth's room, room 103; Sarah discussesher former LSD use.

42     Casimiris miserable, but his visit to Dr. Sharon--the only person at AM smarter thanCasimir--will help; Casimir decides to stay as Sharon mentions possiblyretiring, 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 weregone?"); Bert Nix's ode on academe; Casimir scrambles for oxygen for Sharon, Virgilhelps; Ambulance takes an hour to get there.



51     Prof.Embers lectures speaks on grammar; Sarah is in his Freshman Englishclass 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     Agirl argues with Prof. Embers about a B he gave her on the essay; Embersresponds with patronizing edu-bullshit double-speak: "They're allproficient 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     Exterminatorsspray Casimir's room; The illicit kitten; Casimir takes kitten's food bowls toshower to clean off bug spray, where he has bizarre encounters with a loud,incoherent guy and a naked couple.

61     Casimirtakes over the Neutrino (physics) club, wants to build a mass driver and headsto the Science Shop down in the Burrows; Virgil asks if they've caught thepiano tossers; The prime suspect is E13 of course (those Wild and Crazy Guys),possibly having tossed it from E14, the performing arts floor; Casimirbemoans the absence of any real law at AM, Virgil reminds him that "law isjust the opinion of the guy with the biggest gun," and goes on to explainin 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 theentire 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 herroom; Flashing, powdering, penny-locking, and other tactics fail to extractSarah; Narrator [named Bud? re p42] is revealed to be a large African-American who enjoyed exactinganonymous revenge on the Terrorists during intramural football games; Sarah isswirlied 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     Spikesuccumbs to rat poison; Casimir vows to demonstrate how he's"cleverest."

76     Sarahis up and out by 4 AM [Onewonders how, in an Animal House dorm like that, she can manage the 8 or 9pmbedtime that the 4am departure implies.] ; Sarah skips all her classes to paint herroom.

78     Casimirinitiates 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 poisonwith Carbon-14 and then see if any C-14 appears in cafeteria food..." (shades of G. Hevesy v. landlady!)

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



84     Inhis 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 promotesVirgil 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     Asfaculty advisor to SG, Narrator visits Castle in the Air (E12S), experiences theirmurals and other paintings; Mari Meegan v. Fire Marshall.

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

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

101    Casimirshows budget graphs to Sarah at MegaPub, but somehow the graph curves arewritten in vulgar words (Bennett's Worm?) and Casimir is embarrassed; Theyremember meeting in Santucci's office (p17), discuss Krupp, and lightly debatephilosophy (proof v. intuition)...and set a second date.

107    Sarahmeets with Krupp in his office; They spar lightly over budget issues andNeutrino's request; She convinces Krupp that Neutrino's project is worthexamining more closely.

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

114    SUBtries to pie Krupp's face during his autonomy lecture but misses; Three TUGgerscapture the assailant, but Krupp turns on them instead; Krupp hears questionsfrom—and summarily dismisses—Dex Fresser, then a woman with a safety pinthrough her nose (both representing SUB), Ephriam Klein (expounding JulianJaynes' bicameralism), Bert Nix blurting out lines from his poem (p48), andanother SUBbie (tall redhead); Casimir is there and is fairly impressed byKrupp; In the hall after the lecture, Klein and Krupp continue theJaynes/bicameralism debate; Sarah introduces Casimir to Krupp; [on p125 theNarrator 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 caseyet for Neutrino's mass driver, and Krupp agrees to fund it; Bert Nix risesfrom an adjoining booth brandishing a broadsword and is removed by Krupp'saides; Casimir notices a physical resemblance between Nix and a painting of an ancientbenefactor.

128    Sarahcrashes 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.



133    PostThanksgiving break Fenrick moved out but left the room full of smolderingcigars; Klein vows revenge.

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

137    Nightof the Blue Towers: campus-wide, post finals blowouts; As Fenrick showers inhis new hall's bathroom, Klein broadcasts his retaliation on (what seems tobe) 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    TheFlame 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    Casimirdetects rat meat in the Savory meatloaf; Sharon's lab's walls leak; Casimiropens a flooded freight elevator shaft, forgets his radiation equipment isstill 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 andother Terrorists....rescues with extreme prejudice.

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

154    Tinylands outside Bud's window.



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

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

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


178    Sarahhad quit as SG president on Jan 1 [why not mention this is the Jan. chapter?] Terrorists close ranks re thetwo Fantasy Island Nite deaths, and are looking for woman who wore the clowncostume; 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 andjustifiable homicide.

180    Sarahuneventfully takes care of herself, but another guy, sadly, was unable to takecare of himself...

181    AMARS member analyses Casimir's mass driver work.

182    Klystron'sname in the technological universe is Chris; Ponders the Plex and theoccasional Central Bifucation between the Technical and Magical universes andincipient Breakdowns there-between; Klystron/Chris (alias: Fred Fine) feels hisjob is to minimize "Leakage" between the two universes, hopefully toprevent Breakdowns; Became aware of this "job" on food-fight day whenhe sensed the event moments before it erupted in the cafeteria; He noticed someinstigators running away, but some remained to document the event; Cafeteriastaff responded quickly; KlyFred sliced open a partition to escape,then analyzed the true intentions of the instigators (recon for some futureattack?)

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



195    Massiveneon "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]; Hearersand Terrorist Superstars conference in D24E; Dex Fresser enters carrying Go BigRed 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    AMemployees go on strike

201    Budhosts a strike party; Fine drops by; Bud notes Fred Fine's indifference toSteve/Flail's death, and Klein's indifference to Fenrick's; LOOSE TRANSCRIPT OF BUD'S PARTY: AM goes downhill – someoneshould blow it up – what would it take? – music theory and vibrationalfrequency of E wing; Bud, Ephriam and Hyacinth step out leaving Sarah withFred and Virgil; Fine asks Sarah about her gun, she leaves; Casimir asksHyacinth about Sarah, he's dying inside over her; Ephriam and Bud measurehallway; Virgil asks Casimir about Project Spike; Fred concludes that Casimir'splutonium leak created a race of giant rats; Virgil outlines what is knownand what must be done about it.

211    TheStrike.Picketers work inside the Plex, mostly. Those outside had to deal withTeamsters 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 allstaff; Students in the towers largely ignore Krupp and harass anyone who triesto leave; Bud and Lucy are not surprised to see AM's wheels coming off, anddecide to visit the sewers.

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

222    Budand others continue their well-armed tour of societal decay; Rats attack themon a stairwell from below. They bag the rat for future study; Fred Fine points outreal 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 isreached, beyond which is a hazardous waste disposal dump; Upon dissection: therats have no hearts;At midnight, it's April Fool's Day "Anything could happen now."



230    E13Shosts a Great Partiers party at which Dex drugs out, then announces that theBig Wheel tells us to prepare for war.

233    BertNix hoards trash then incinerates himself.

234    Hazardouswaste area is located at NE corner of Plex; Virgil hides in a large orangecrate at the Hazardous Waste Area, two Crotobaltislavonian B-men hide in aneighboring 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 lowercylinders and men down though the floor; B-men take over subterranean HazardousWaste dump; Virgil emerges from crate, destroys the HW dump's surveillancecameras and microphones; Virgil's Eleven Point Rationale For Filling The Dump'sElevator Shaft With Load After Load Of Concrete.

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

248    Thewar 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 theelevator down; Burrows Guard Army has APPASMU (All Purpose Plex Armed Strife Mobile Unit, the golf-cart-tank Bud saw onp248); KlyFred in the mini-tank, sets out for E Tower to rescue Krupp, andafter being hindered by a massive tetrazzini spill in the kitchen, enters adining bay where he neutralizes a SUB bunker; KlyFred’s tank encounters Bud and Krupp.

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

257    CASIMIR’SPOV: 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?]; Casimirpasses 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 hallby 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 tothe Locksmith Shop, climbs the wall and waits above the shop door; Casimiraccosts the Locksmith to gain entry, but they each quickly determine that theother is a good and honorable man; A Terrorist shoots the Locksmith from the doorwayand is promptly dispatched by Casimir; With his last breath, the Locksmithbequeaths the Plex’s master keys to Casimir.

262    Sarah,Hyacinth and Lucy regroup in Bud's room, then step out of the window and headacross 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 otherwomen; After passing many club offices down in the Student Union bloc, they reachthe Women's Club but Yllas Freedperson won't let them enter, and in factcaptures them and hands them over to SUB, who lock them into racquetball court"cells;" They escape easily through the upper spectators window and letother captives free.

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

268    [continuedfrom p. 255] Bud goes to Emeritus Rowand finds Prof. Forthcoming crying into his desk blotter because he's left hislecture notes in the library; Bud talks him into leaving; It's business largelyas usual in the Burrows, they welcome Bud and Forthcoming into the haven ofthe Science Shop.

271    Thebig 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 smallergroups hold sections of the Plex base; Bats overwhelm the upper floors of ETower; A group of twenty people occupy the Burrows Science Shop; Bennett's Worm surfaced onMarch 31; Virgil, using a slew of computers to split up one program and to foolthe Worm into NOT thinking he's focusing on any one task, proceeds to flushany and all American Megaversity data from its servers, the last thing Bennett expected Virgil—or anyone—todo.

274    Reunionin the Science Shop; Ephriam Klein and Sarah debate agency and personalresponsibility re societal pressures.

277    Prof.Forthcoming pesters Bud for the lecture notes, so Bud leads a detail of eight tofetch them from the library; Encounter with mid-western gang; They are joined by a camera crewin the mailroom; Bud questions the crew (the old "Can't you drop thecamera and help" question that photojournalists always get); They reach Bud'sacademic department where it seems life is good, until Bud reminds them of thebats 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 theway up to Forthcoming's study they meet Embers and two friends warmingthemselves with a book fire. A couple paragraphs of Embers' fatuous fiction later, they get the notes, dumpForthcoming and return to the Science Shop.

284    Casimirgets armored up.

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

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

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



303    On the air Sarah tells all: "The Big Wheel wants you to go visit it! Evacuate now!" Bert and Ephriam sit tight whileFine, Bud and Casimir go forward; Railgun is fired into waste dump spraying chaosand rats; Bert and Ephriam play the organ loud enough to induce sympatheticvibrations in the Tower halls (p208)...and that's it for the Plex. Virgil hasdata 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!