The Big U and Journalists

I finished reading The Big U (Neal Stephenson's first novel) tonight. Stephenson himself describes this as "a juvenile work," and now that I have finished it, I can see where he's coming from. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, but the story becomes a bit unhinged towards the end. At the beginning of the book, it's obviously a satire, but as the story progresses things begin to slow down a bit and Stephenson starts to take the satire over-the-top in an attempt to compensate. Each chapter in the book corresponds to a month of the school year, starting in September and ending in May. By the time you get to November/December, things slow down a bit, and in March things begin to get a bit more absurd... this leads to a sudden (absurd) explosion of events in April, followed by the conclusion in May. Again, I enjoyed it, but I can see how some people would be turned off by the sudden turn of events. Sure, it's ridiculous, but if you can get past that, there are still a few gems along the same lines as the ones I wrote about a few weeks ago...

Spoilers ahoy, if you care...

So at the beginning of April, an all out war breaks out in the Plex (for those who don't know what the plex is, see my last entry). By "all out war," I mean a literal war, with guns and bombs and plenty of deaths. Various groups of students, administration officials, and the bizzarre Crotobaltislavonians (yet another of Stephenson's fictional nationalities) have fought it out and carved up their own spheres of influence. Things have calmed down a bit, and the narrarator is making a trek towards the library to recover a fellow professor's research notes (this is an absurd motive, but everything is so surreal at this point that I was willing to let it ride). To reach the library, they must cross several "stable academic blocs" including the journalism bloc. The journalists have negotiated several treaties with various other blocs in exchange for safe passage and weapons for their guards. In exchange for an interview and allowing a camera crew to follow them, our narrarator's group is able to make it through the journalism zone. The narrarator has some questions:
"You've got a hell of a lot of firepower. You guys are the most powerful force in the Plex. How are you using it?"

The student shrugged. "What do you mean? We protect our crews and equipment. All the barbarians are afraid of us."

"Right, obviously," I said. "But I noticed recently that a lot of people around here are starving, being raped, murdered -- you know, a lot of bum out stuff. Do those guards try to help out? You can spare a few."

"Well, I don't know," he said uncomfortably. That's kind of network-level policy. It goes against the agreement. We can go anywhere as long as we don't interfere. If we interfere, no agreement."

"But if you've already negotiated one agreement, can't you do more? Get some doctors into the building maybe?"

"No way, man. No fucking way. We journalists have ethics."
Heh. Again, this book was published in 1984. Was that considered over-the-top satire at the time? Seems rather tame by today's standards.

Stephenson has a reputation for bad endings that just sort of happen without warning, but that doesn't really happen here. To be sure, it's not a great ending (like the rest of the book, it's slightly absurd as it hinges off of one of the groups' fanatical religious devotion to a giant neon sign), but it was better than expected. Overall, I'd say the book is worth reading for die-hard Stephenson fans and maybe geeky folks who don't mind that he goes off the deep end about 200 pages in...