Zodiac by Neal Stephenson

Review: Zodiac by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. But unfortunately Zodiac is not one of my favorite books.

Neal StephensonNeal Stephenson

Zodiac is named after the rigid inflatable boat that is popular with environmentalists and some military organizations.  They are light, fast and cheap…an apt analogy that could be used to describe this novel.

The “eco-thriller” that is Zodiac certainly has ecological aspects to it, but Stephenson’s clunky and rambling narrative get in the way of allowing this to be a truly thrilling read. Neal Stephenson has a talent for chewing through mundane narrative and turning it into a wondrous thing. His classic three page ramble on the proper way to eat Cap’N Crunch in his novel Cryptonomicon is testament to this talent. Zodiac was written early in his career before he honed this talent, and it’s clunky execution in this case impedes the telling of the tale instead of accentuating it.

Things are amiss in the harbor and waterways surrounding Boston. Decades of toxic dumping are wreaking havoc on the ecology and Sangamon Taylor, the main protagonist, begins his investigation. S.T., as he’s called, is sort of a pseudo-hippy, stoner, genius, rainbow warrior all rolled into one. He works for G.E.E. (Group of Environmental Extremists) a Greenpeace like organization which battles corporations that dump toxins into the environment.  S.T. is employed as a “professional asshole,” and the work suits him.  He stumbles upon the secret of old industrial transformers that are leaking deadly PCBs into Boston Harbor. Along the way he also discovers the company Biotronics that have developed a PCB eating bug they’ve secretly released into the harbor…but they never fully tested the bug.  Have no fear, nitrous oxide huffing and mushroom eating ST is on the job!!

Zodiac by Neal Stephenson Two centuries after the Boston Tea Party, harbor dumping is still a favorite local sport, only this time it’s major corporations piping toxic wastes into the water. Environmentalist and professional pin the the ass Sangamon Taylor is Boston’s modern-day Paul Revere, spreading the word from a 40-horsepower Zodiac raft. Embarrassing powerful corporations in highly telegenic ways is the perfect method of making enemies, and Taylor has a collection that would do any rabble-rouser proud.

Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
Series:  None
Genre:  (Eco) Thriller
Awards:  None
Media:  Book
Year: 1988
3 out of 5 stars

Sangamon Taylor comes across as a test protagonist for Hiro Protagonist who is the protagonist in Snow Crash. That’s a lot of protagonists!  These characters have similar demeanors, similar attitudes, and similar sarcasms. They are both men of action, but with differing missions.  S.T. comes across as the more likable character between the two, though overall Hiro is the more successful character since Snow Crash is a far superior work than Zodiac.

But the problem with this book isn’t the characters. They’re colorful and entertaining enough, providing quippy dialogue to keep the reader entertained. As previously mentioned the problem with Zodiac is the fundamental narrative and storytelling.  This book moves in fits and starts interjected with slow moving tangents. It’s just not a smooth read.  The narrative interjections are sometimes jarring and distracting.  Stephenson is well known for doing these narrative asides in his novels (see Cap’N Crunch reference), but in Zodiac it’s more distracting than compelling.  The book is too short to waste a lot of time on Stephenson Musings. Furthermore, the subject matter isn’t particularly exciting to the average reader who’s just looking for a good yarn to get lost in.  Toxic waste dumping? I can only assume that this is a subject near and dear to his heart since Neal studied and graduated from Boston University shortly before writing this novel. But for this reader it just didn’t strike a chord.

One thing is certain about Zodiac. You’ll never look at eating lobster the same again . . . or ever eat it again.  Neal Stephenson is one talented speculative fiction beast, but not everyone bats 1.000.  I’m not trying to come off as too disparaging with this review as Zodiac is still an enjoyable and decent read, it’s just not an epic effort like Stephenson’s later works.

Images & Words © 2013-2023, Neal Ulen.
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