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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Neal Stephenson

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To purchase Zodiac

Title: Zodiac
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988
Length: 308 pages
Availability: Zodiac - US
Zodiac - UK
Zodiac - Canada
Zodiac - India
Zodiac - France
Zodiac - Italia
  • An Eco-Thriller

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Our Assessment:

B : an entertaining ride, though it ultimately goes a bit overboard

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Written in a fresh, funny style, Zodiac is an often enjoyable little ecological thriller. Narrator Sangamon Taylor, who works for a Greenpeace-like organization, GEE, in Boston, goes about saving the world, mainly by exposing (and stopping, by any means possible) the illegal dumping of chemicals by industry. It is an amusing premise, and Stephenson is right in finding the slightly wacky, very creative environmental action groups an ideal setting for a novel.
       Taylor lives a laid back, generally carefree life, without much respect for authority. Dealing with big corporations, who show absolutely no respect for the environment or EPA laws, he takes what they do very seriously, without taking them seriously. Sniffing nitrous oxide from huge Hefty bags, living and working with a cast of true characters (though not so far-out as to be truly annoying), Taylor is also very serious about his job, and very good at it.
       GEE is a fairly big operation, working with antiquated computers and donated cars and boats, getting by on idealism and the donations of do-gooders. The Zodiac of the title (not the world's greatest title, by the way) refers to the small boats (with big motors) that GEE uses for many of their anti-pollution actions. Taylor uses it to get around Boston as well -- the most efficient way of getting around the city, he claims.
       The book begins with one fairly standard anti-dumping action that GEE undertakes in New Jersey, and it is a rollicking start. Stephenson has the right tone down for his narrator, and it is a great deal of fun to follow the GEE plan as they outthink the toxic dumpers and show them up (and expose them) in front of the media.
       Taylor is baffled by public reaction (or rather lack thereof) to the outrages constantly being perpetrated by American industry, in gross violation of unenforced EPA regulations, but he is no preachy Green. He shrugs his shoulders and gets on with his job, having a good time (and feeling justifiably good about himself) when he can stop some of the flow of poisons, but realizing that he can't do it all.
       Stephenson sets up the novel very, very well, and the first big action and Taylor's day-to-day life make for an excellent half-novel, fast and very funny. Stephenson pulls no punches, and he doesn't become preachy, and we have the makings of a really good novel here.
       Unfortunately, Stephenson got overly ambitious, and the book then degenerates into a just another wham bang splat thriller, with too much projectile shooting (and vomiting).
       Back in Boston Taylor finds something he really does not like. It seems there is something really, really nasty out there in Boston Harbor -- PCB's, which you really want to avoid at all costs. Nearby he also stumbles across some goons dealing with PCP, a drug that makes you very aggressive, and they think that this environmentalist is out to get them (PCB, PCP, they don't know the difference).
       Then the PCBs disappear, and that turns out to be even more worrisome, because it seems that a nemesis of Taylor has genetically engineered some stuff that eats up the PCBs -- which would be good, if it weren't for the even more devastating effects of this bug. Once Stephenson brings gunfire into the picture, and death and mayhem in the form of boat crashes and exploding houses and bombs, the book deflates like one of those Hefty bags of nitrous oxide and most of the fun goes with it. Yeah, there is still a fair amount of thrill in the thriller, and it continues at the high pace, roaring to the big dramatic finale. It is not a bad read, but it is just a decent thriller like any of dozens of others we have read (whereas the beginning held the promise of a truly fine book, one unlike most we have come across).
       The subject matter is a complex one, but Stephenson manages to slip in a lot of technical information without bogging down the narrative. It is an educational book, but the information is conveyed cleverly and in largely highly entertaining form. One problem is that a lot of the book deals with unpleasant, toxic chemicals, and Stephenson is very good at bringing these and their effects to life -- admirable, of course, but also stomach-turning. The cases of chloracne are the least of it. Let's just say that there is way, way too much vomiting in this book. Way too much.
       We wish that Stephenson had been a bit less ambitious, but the book is entertaining throughout, with only a few scenes somewhat tiresome (one where they check manhole after manhole for poison is not too successful, for example). We felt the violent turn of the book regrettable, but, though disappointing, it does not ruin the book.
       We do recommend it -- with a warning that a strong stomach (and a certain distance from Boston Harbour) is advisable.

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Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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