on June 18, 2004
"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.
on February 27, 2004
Zodiac is described on the cover blurb as an 'eco-thriller', and for a change the blurb is close to being accurate. The book's main character is an ecological-crime detective, busily hunting down evidence of corporations illegally dumping hazardous waste and using publicity stunts and clogging up discharge pipes with cement as his main weapons against these companies. The book takes on a decided thriller aspect with the introduction of gene-tailored bacteria, designed to 'eat' contaminates, but there is a variety that generates them instead. How these bacteria are tracked down and controlled provides the main thrust for this book.
The plot is the main driver here, characterization outside of the protagonist is definitely skimpy, and in places the ecological warnings (though presented with apparent good scientific backing) become a little too strident, in places reminding me of Philip Wylie's The End of the Dream. Unlike some of his later books, his message is delivered almost directly, with little in the way of satire, irony, or his by-now patented brand of humor. The plot moves rapidly and logically, with enough potential hazard in the situation to easily quality as a 'thriller'. This makes for a quick read, but without his special zing that would make this book stand out.
Definitely an early effort, not in the class of his Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, still quite readable, but probably a must only for Stephenson hard-core fans.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on February 24, 2004
ZODIAC chronicles the adventures of the ecological crusader Sangamon Taylor as he uses his chemical knowledge to topple the seemingly invincible corporations that pollute our environment. Nonviolently but effectively embarrassing these companies into submission, he's naturally made some enemies in high places. S.T.'s latest intended conquest, in an effort to cover up some egregious mistakes, has released something dangerous and untested into Boston's waters. They know S.T. is close to uncovering their secret, and they don't intend to get caught out.
I liked the main character, who was highly motivated in his work but not sentimental about it. He's not a bleeding heart, but someone who is concerned about the big picture. There is no preaching here, only science. While there is a lot of technical information, the conversational, humorous tone keeps it from turning into dull lectures. S.T. would have made a good teacher. Assuming the science is sound, I actually learned a lot in my reading.
The book is fascinating and funny mystery up until the last third or so, when it jumps the contaminated shark, so to speak. A close ally becomes a betrayer without explanation (and later returns as a friend, no questions asked.) A man who has shown no previous signs of erratic behavior goes mad, not without reason, but it seems too sudden. I thought I had somehow missed a large section while reading. The story never quite recovers from this radical shift. Still, it is a very enjoyable and educational book for the most part, and one which should appeal to technothriller fans as well as science fiction readers.
on January 17, 2004
In some ways, this book is wholly unlike the rest of Stephenson's work. It is not a cyberpunk novel, unlike the seminal "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age". But, in may respects, it is exactly like the rest of his work: well-written and superbly detailed.
"Zodiac" is an eco-thriller set in Boston. Through the eyes of ST, an environmentalist who is more than a little bit of a jerk, a mystery unravels as ST tracks down who is responsible for a particular pollution of Boston Harbor.
I have to admit that I was a bit concerned about reading an eco-thriller, since some in the genre are quite heavy-handed with their pro-environmental message. I shouldn't have been worried: Stephenson is a deft writer, and the novel never feels overbearing or preachy.
If you have already read some of Stephenson's other work, you need to be aware that this is not a cyberpunk novel. It is good in its own right, but there isn't a hacker to be found. Hackers may appreciate ST's anti-establishment attitudes, though.
on October 1, 2003
Set in Boston this thriller centres on the exploits of the oddly monikered Sangamon Taylor aka The Toxic Spiderman. He is a chemist working for a group of environmentalists called GEE, and is trying to prevent pollution of the waterways by chemical companies. As a professional pain in the ass he publicly humiliates and embarrasses the major chemical corporations that are polluting the environment.
Sangamon Taylor is a chemist for the Northwestern chapter of GEE International (Group of Environmental Extremists). He is blond shaggy haired and wears tennis shoes and multiple t-shirts. A graduate of Boston University he is looked down upon by those from MIT.
He sees himself as the archnemesis of the chemical company Basco the number two polluter in the table of polluters of Boston Harbour. The Boston population as a whole and the sewage they produce hold the number one spot.
Zodiac is the only hardboiled ecological thriller I know of and it features what has become the trademark Stephenson wit. The book features assassination attempts, genetically engineered bacteria and a cast of characters that ranges from Native Americans to the Executives of chemical companies and their heavy metal loving teenage sons.
A mystery not of the whodunit variety, but more of the what the heck happened and why did it happen. The book also acts as an introduction to environmental issues and the science of pollution.
Even though it doesn't feature any hackers the hacker ethos is present in the book in the form of Sangamon Taylor a cool anti-establishment chemistry nerd.
The return of the psycho nerd Dolmacher in Zodiac has similarities to that of Andrew Loeb in Cryptonomicon. Both of them have survivalist skills and seem to flit between being sane and a bit creepy to being completely psychologically deranged.
The book lacks in characterisation of everyone outside of the central character of S.T., but as the book is told in the first person from his perspective this reflects how he views the world and the people around him.
on August 23, 2002
Stephenson turns his attention to the near future in this fast-paced eco-thriller (although applying fast-pased to Stephenson is virtually redundent).
Sagamon Taylor, a self-styled professional pain in the ass, works for GEE, a small somewhat-radical environmental group based in Boston. He rides the waves like futuristic Lone Ranger looking for bad guys to bring to justice. His steed is a souped-up Zodiac and the bad guys are polluting corporations.
Sagamon goes through his usual routine of finding spills and helping GEE focus publicity on them (and often plugging the offensive drainage), and finds himself confronting a mystery that threatens the ecosystem of not only the Boston harbor, but possibly also the world's oceans. As he digs into the changing data and odd symptoms, he becomes a target: eventually his house is blown up, he flees under cover of a fierce storm, and is reported dead. Of course, he's not. He rises from the ashes and with the help of friends and unexpected allies, he makes sure the bad guys get their just desserts and the world is saved, this time.
I admit I didn't always follow the actual biochemistry of the potential disaster, but that isn't necessary to enjoy the book and the explanations don't slow the pace. There is a supporting cast of quirky characters that are entertaining to meet. And seeing GEE and its allies from the inside is often hilarious. Overall, a good read. I'll keep looking for more from this author.
on August 23, 2001
I went to visit Boston about a month prior to reading this book and I must admit, the book is very accurate in its description of how lousy that city really is. The science students squirming all over the place with their giant textbooks, ideals, and giant egos. And then there's the dorky main character who bathes regularly, although not often, who uses computers, but not for hacking, and who likes hardcore science - the simple, inorganic chemistry.
Obviously, since this is a Neal Stephenson novel, the reader is kept in suspence as an improbable plot of conspiracy develops to almost kill the main character on many occasion while he tries, in his chaotic-good manner, to save the world from itself and corporate America. We get the typical Neal Stephenson sarcasm, overblown ego of the main character, super-dorky references, and giant explanations of chemical processes (although some may not be accurate, e.g. not all chemical processes are reversible, really - but it's fiction, so what the heck, no?).
I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves hardcore science - not just computer science. It's perfect for people who do any form of research in chemistry, physics, etc. while utilizing minimal use of computers in their work.
Zodiac is great for the early Stephenson novel that it is. Gold-hearted geeks of all worlds, unite!
on January 19, 2001
I've read the four newest books from Neil Stephenson - this one's neither the best nor the worst, just... different. I've read other people's reviews, and here are my two cents.
True, the supporting roles are far less dense than ST, but that's the case in many novels (and in all of NS's stories) and a writer who gives side characters a deep personality dedicates more time to people descriptions and less to storytelling, at least that's what I've seen many times. And it's fast entertainment we're talking about here.
Anyway, this novel is great. It's funny, breathtaking, and it has a character which is both positively and negatively shown. ST has a pretty materialistic view of the people around him, he teams with them when they help him in what they want to do and leaves them when they are no longer necessary. NS has moved away from this somewhat, but the way he describes Amy in Cryptonomicon is only slightly "better". That's the way these novels work! You can always pay more attention to your SO's! On the other hand ST is a very energetic person, and his idealism is credible.
There's only one thing I found exaggerated: The ending. The showdown with the submarine bombs and the divers is incredible. Too much action, too many improbable incidents. Anyone would be scared as hell, swimming around in these PCB polluting (yes, not polluted, but -ing, if you don't believe me, read it yourself...) waters, but ST just did the right thing at the right time. Too much of a superhero.
But go and read yourself, it's worth the time that you invest, I assure you.
on September 10, 1999
This is a fun, readable book, but it is certainly not a masterpiece. S.T. is a cool character. I like the handling of drug-use in the book. It's pretty realistic in that it's as quotidian as eating breakfast. The problem in this, as in Big U, is the "larval" stage of N.S.'s hipster style dates easily. When S.T. calls a yuppie an "android from Hell" I groaned. Wasn't this already a cliche in 1988? Style aside, the plot is pretty standard, the action is unremarkable, and the supporting characters are, as has been mentioned by a lot of fans, so thin you can read an Evinrude tech manual through them. But I can't deny that I was compelled to finish the book and had a good time with it. (By the way, the tech side of things: chemistry, weapons, cars, etc. was cool as usual. I appreciated the 'condescension' of explaining the workings of molecules using beer cans. I got a C- in Chemistry in 11th grade, which was thankfully the last time I had to grapple with valences and such.) If you're interested in Ecology, hard-boiled fiction, the 80s, or Neal Stephenson's writing, read this book. If you're not, read something else. One other thing: if you read this and Cryptonomicon check out the similarities between Dolmacher (Zodiac) and Loeb (Crypto) -- psycho nerds with survival skills. I guess N.S. puts his money where his pen is when it comes to recycling.
on March 21, 1999
OK, _Snow Crash_ caught my attention. But it suffered (imho) from grandiosity -- the need for a Great Cosmic Plot Resolution. DA was even more interesting but has some of the same disease -- the themes get so big they are unwieldy. Same goes for the voudun stuff in Gibson, if you ask me.
_Zodiac_ is my pick of NS's work. I buy used copies and give them away to people. It's better than his later works because he's on his own turf, writing more tightly and realistically about stuff he really knows. The manuscript glitters with one-liners; I sometimes slowed down and read whole sections out loud to myself to get the full enjoyment out of them.
Sangamon Taylor, ego and all, has become one of the most memorable characters of my long SF-guzzling career. I recommend this book to sci fi and non-sci-fi readers alike. I still don't believe you can punch a hole in a zode with a wired tazer, but I love the book anyway :-)
And yes, it's a cautionary tale. It has a moral message. So has Dickens, most of Shakespeare, and most of Star Trek for that matter. There's nothing wrong with preaching if it's done with wit, style, and real passion. I think NS pulls it off. If I didn't dread sequels so much, I'd love to see a volume of the prior, or continuing, adventures of ST.