"Zodiac" is Neal Stephenson's second book, written between the unimpressive "The Big U" and the cyberpunk classic "Snow Crash." It was mildly successful and according to Stephenson, "on first coming out in 1988 it quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers and was enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists." Unlike Stephenson's more recent works, it involves only one linear plot line, and is also of a more reasonable size. This may make it his most accessible work, though it isn't his most entertaining.
The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of Sangamon "S.T." Taylor, a Boston chemist employed by the Group of Environmental Extremists (GEE), International - an organization probably inspired by Greenpeace. S.T. works as a professional headache for industrial polluters flaunting the law and endangering their communities. His job is to terrorize the companies into acting in what is really their own best interest (i.e., not destroying the earth for short-term savings). Of course, it should go without saying that S.T. does not actually use terrorism to terrorize these polluters. Rather, he works with a potent mix of trespassing, his classic tactic of plugging up the pipes dumping toxic waste into the water supply, and his ultimate weapon: Bad Publicity.
"Zodiac" starts of with some fun actions of this sort, but the story does not really begin until S.T. unexpectedly finds incredibly large amounts of incredibly toxic PCBs in Boston Harbor. Just as soon as he starts his investigation, however, the poisons disappear - which, if it had happened spontaneously, would be a mind-boggling 'violation' of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Since there's no known way for PCBs to be removed from the water by hand, the only explanation is that S.T. has committed the screw-up of a lifetime. No sooner has S.T. resigned himself to this fate than the PCBs reappear, in even greater quantities. That's when large numbers of people start trying to kill him. To say nothing of the Satanists. Framed as an ecoterrorist, S.T. is forced to flee Boston and join forces with the real environmental extremists in order to unravel the mystery of the PCBs, redeem himself, and, quite possibly, save the world.
So "Zodiac" really is an "Eco-Thriller," and I enjoyed it as much as (if not more than) the more famous "Snow Crash." At the very least, "Zodiac" has aged better. While some parts of "Snow Crash" read like the the wildest fantasies of the .com boom, "Zodiac" could easily be set anytime in the next (or past) twenty years. Many of the book's apparent flaws come from comparison to Stephenson's later work: "Zodiac" lacks both the intricate, awe-inspiring complexity of "Cryptonomicon" and "The Baroque Cycle" as well as much of the indescribable brand of humor that made "Snow Crash" and "Cryptonomicon" so memorable. Another gripe could be characters - except for a few main characters, they remain vague outlines for the most part. We know they're present, but don't really get a clear picture of them.
At any rate, if you're a Stephenson fan, "Zodiac" is well worth a read. Even compared to his later works, it shouldn't disappoint. On the other hand, if you're new to Stephenson, "Zodiac" is as good a place to start as any. Although it's not the experience that "Snow Crash" and "Cryptonomicon" are, it's also more accessible and not nearly as imposing as "Cryptonomicon" and "The Baroque Cycle." I recommend it.