We’re looking at the cyberpunk era of science fiction history, and this week, two significant novels by Neal Stephenson.
The Big U (1984)
This is Neal Stephenson's first published novel, a satire of campus life.
The story chronicles the disillusionment of a number of young intellectuals as they encounter the realities of the fictitious university 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 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 book was written while Stephenson was at Boston University. The fictional campus' design is based on a BU dormitory, Warren Towers, 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 and the names of his predecessors as Presidents of the big U are taken from the Roman Emperors Commodus to Septimius Severus. The neon Big Wheel sign plays the part of the Boston Citgo sign just east of the BU campus in Kenmore Square.
Snow Crash (1992)
Like many of Stephenson's other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics and philosophy.
Stephenson explained the title of the novel in his 1999 essay "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line" as his term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. Stephenson wrote about the Macintosh that "When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a 'snow crash' ". Stephenson has also mentioned that Julian Jaynes' book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was one of the main influences on Snow Crash.
The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah (a re-interpretation of the ancient Near Eastern story of the Tower of Babel).
Snow Crash was nominated for both the British Science Fiction Award in 1993, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994.
[adapted from Wikipedia and other sources]
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz