Cover of Zodiac

Neal Stephenson
308 pages
published in 1988

I tend to think of Neal Stephenson as a science fiction writer, but if you look at his novels, of the seven he has published under his own name, only two (Snowcrash and The Diamond Age, are proper science fiction. Apart from that, there's only Interface, a tehchnothriller he wrote with his uncle under the name of Stephen Bury that is sfnally enough for me to qualify. That's it. Only a third of his novels are science fiction, yet I still think of him as a science fiction writer.

Partly that's just because the first book of his I read was Snow Crash, followed by The Diamond Age, which were both undeniable science fiction. But partially it is also because Stephenson brings a science fiction mindset to all his books. Zodiac is a prime example. The hero here is just as big a geek as Snowcrash's Hiro Protagonist; he's just into environmental action rather than computers. Furthermore, the macguffin around which the plot of Zodiac revolves is still firmly in science fiction territory.

Zodiac is written in the first person, with the hero, Sangamon "S.T." Taylor, being an environmental activist/chemist working for GEE, the Group of Environmental Extremists --as per usual Stephenson uses a fictional equivalent of a real life organisation, in this case Greenpeace. He thinks of himself as a toxic Spider-Man, a friendly neighbourhood chemist on the case of any multinational greedy and dump enough to dump its shit in Boston harbour. S.T. is very much what Hiro Protagonist would later turn out to be: sarky, smart, intelligent, doing something he wants to do rather than following a proper career, looking like a loser but far from being one.

The plot revolves around a suspicous outbreak of chloracne among the lobster fishers of Boston Harbour, a result, S. T. discovers, of a huge spill of toxic PCBs, not a chemical you want in your food chain. But before he can do anything about it, the PCBs disappear, which is impossible. When he starts digging into this mystery, things get bad for him. Suddenly, people not only try to kill him, but he is also acussed of murder and branded an ecoterrorist! The stakes are much higher than he ever experienced before and this may have something to do with the presidential campaign of Alvin Pleshy, the chemical companies' best friend...

As with other Stephenson novels, the plot is not what you should read Zodiac for, as it's a fairly standard thriller plot. What you should read it for is the digressions, the discussions and infodumps about S. T.'s work, chemicals, the environmental damage done by (illegal) chemical dumping and the way these things intersect with business and politics. You will however need a strong stomach at certain points; especially the description of lobster innards damaged by PCBs will stop making you eat seafood for years to come.

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Webpage created 11-04-2004, last updated 06-03-2005
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