by Neal Stephenson

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 1988
Printing: July 1995
ISBN: 0-553-57386-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 308

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Despite now being reissued by a science fiction imprint following Stephenson's subsequent success with Snow Crash, Zodiac is (as advertised in the subtitle) a thriller. There's little science fiction speculation or world-building here, only a small bit of plausible near-future biology to serve as a plot hook. The focus of Zodiac is on action and investigation, chases, fights, and the enjoyably obnoxious protagonist. That being said, Stephenson's tone is the same here as it is in his better-known later work, and Zodiac displays a delight in knowing how things work, figuring science out, and using science to solve problems that will appeal to science fiction fans.

The hero, Sangamon Taylor or S.T. (Stephenson has a thing for characters who go by initials), is a maverick environmentalist whose job and calling in life is to track down toxic polluters, engage in some creative sabotage and property damage, and expose them in the news media. He walks a thin line between mainstream environmental groups and eco-terrorism, willing to break property law but not hurt people. The stunts that he and his organization pull over the course of the book tend towards the intentionally absurd, such as blocking the outflow of a toxic chemical dump with jury-rigged devices built around salad bowls and toilet seals, or hanging a nylon banner of a giant neon arrow to point at a concealed outflow pipe in a waterfall. The best part of the book are the creative exposures of arrogant corporate polluters in the public and the press, partly through a genius for timing and public relations and partly (to be honest) via mild authorial cheating. The greed and disregard for the law on the part of the corporations and the worthlessness of the government are realistic; the success of a small maverick environmentalist organization (with enough of an office and nationwide presence that they could be sued) with a habit of property damage isn't as much.

Still, it's a lot of fun. There is an overall plot, build around a bit of corporate genetic engineering that goes spectacularly wrong and a major corporate polluter who is running for president, but it takes a while to develop and really the best part of the book is just watching S.T. do his thing. The tone of the narration is consistently sarcastic and flippant, featuring some excellent gallows humor and frequent good turns of phrase. There aren't as many of Stephenson's trademark digressions on interesting bits of trivia, but they are here and are as delightful as always.

When the story heats up, the book is a bit less fun. The plot of who is trying to do what to whom is complex and tangled, and Stephenson spends a lot of time lining up pieces of it and diluting the flippant tone that's the book's best feature. Cat and mouse games through a forest or the cabins of a ship just aren't as interesting as making corporations look like dangerous idiots in the news. S.T. also has a few convenient and highly capable friends who border on a deus ex machina, and I really didn't buy the explanation of why the Basco corporation set off a possible environmental catastrophe. The bad guys are a bit too uniformly evil and stupid.

Still, Stephenson writes a solid ending that wraps up the plot in a satisfactory closing set piece, and I enjoyed the narrative style all the way through. This isn't as good as his later work, but if you've already read all of that and are looking for more, I enjoyed Zodiac. It's certainly an improvement on The Big U.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-11-25

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