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on 28 February 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.
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on 28 April 2003
An early example of Neal Stephenson's work, this does not have quite the depth of imagination of later offerings (such as Snow Crash or The Diamond Age) but the action is fast, the use of language excellent and the science spot on. In most works of Science Fiction the science is Physics, yet in Zodiac it's Chemistry and Biology that get a chance to shine. The introduction of a character with some scientific training into a situation where those with more knee-jerk views often dominate is a pleasing feature of this novel. The plotting sometimes goes slightly astray (the Satanist Rock band's involvement is sketchy and ill explained) and our main protagonist certainly seems to be more a super-hero of the 50's who can do no wrong than a late 80's drop-out. However these minor points should not detract from this books appeal as a a good action read. I would like to know if it has inspired anyone to partake in some direct action?
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on 1 October 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.
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on 19 June 2001
I like Neal Stephenson, so I was really keen to read Zodiac. And it started off strongly, kicking into the action with his trademark style. As always, his observations on urban dystopia are right on the money and wonderfully wry.
"I just cycle like I'm covered in day-glo and there's a million-dollar bounty on my head," indeed. Heh.
But the story falters as it progresses, and I get the feeling that he got bored with the project about two-thirds of the way into it. Sangamon Taylor's all negatives; he hates pollutors, but he doesn't seem to love what he protects. Ancillary characters like Boone are woefully under-fleshed, where there could have been some great interaction (questioning why activists do what they do, for example - out of love or hate?), there's just movement.
It's a fun book, and if you've got a Greenpeace membership, you'll enjoy it, but it's not a patch on Stephenson's best work.
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VINE VOICEon 10 February 2004
Firstly, I'd just like to point-out that I'm usually a huge fan of Neal Stephenson - 'The Diamond Age' was his first work that I read, and I found the imaginative breadth astounding - 'Snow Crash' remains one of my favourite books, capable of being re-read many times over.
Unfortunately, 'Zodiac' did not live up to my expectations. I found it to be poorly researched (and, although I hesistate to say it, I must consider adding "if at all" to that), and containing some extraordinarily shaky science.
Furthermore, the actions of some of the characters, both main and supporting, are so unbelieveably amateurish as to defeat the reader's suspension of disbelief - a far cry from the usually polished work of the man who almost had me hearing the glossolalia in 'Snow Crash'.
I'd rather not turn this review into a character assassination of this book - some may like it, and I note that other reviews on Amazon have been quite favourable. 'Zodiac' is not Cyberpunk, but also doesn't shine the contemporary thriller category. To be honest I'm not sure what Mr. Stephenson was attempting to achieve with this book, but I'm very very glad that so far he's not repeated what I believe was a mistake.
To be honest - one to avoid. In fact, if you must get this book you can have my copy!
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on 11 November 1999
It would be easy to mistake Zodiac for a crime novel, were it not for the flashy futuristic cover, and that it resides in SCI FI section of bookshops. The plot is set in the present day for instance, and both its hero and the style of the writing are very like Chandler. Actually I'm not even sure it should be called Science Fiction, not least in any conventional sense. There is an element of the genre as I'll explain later, but overall I think this is a crime novel. (That's not to say that SCI FI fans won't like it. Trust me.)
Sagamon is an environmentalist of an organisation moulded on Greenpeace. He works in Boston monitoring the condition of the Boston Harbour which, ever since the tea-party, has been a dumping ground for all kinds of toxic waste. Sagamon is a brilliant chemist who has found a niche in the world of environmental terrorism somewhere between totally legal and occasionally not. His greatest strength is in detecting the source of any discovered toxin in the water, and then publicly drawing the crime to the attention of the public by means of various stunts. Usually he organises the pipe/outlet to be blocked up, then conducts a public slagging match with the company's PR department and gets the press there to film it all. The companies he takes on are huge conglomerates who don't take kindly to his meddling, and are not shy of sending the heavies in. Combine all that with a smart mouth, an eye for the women, toughness and isolation, and the Philip Marlowe profile is complete.
The case in this case concerns a mysterious toxin that he discovers whilst experimenting with a new method of sampling the area's water. He convinces the local lobster fishermen to provide him with the dregs of their catch. Since lobster pots are placed in a set pattern across the harbour, Sagamon is able to plot the different concentrates of toxins found inside the lobsters. One such toxin is of great concern to him, a PCB (genetically alter toxin) which appears in such a high concentration he is frightened into releasing an immediate warning via his publicity machine. At that concentration the threat of an ocean wide poisoning in a short space of time suggests the ultimate destruction of the earth we all recycle our glass and newspapers to prevent (and yet know in our hearts is inevitable). 24hours later no trace can be found and Sagamon is left with egg (or PCBs) on his face. The detective work begins in a gritty, racy plot that involves the Mafia, the FBI, a group of Satanists, businessmen and Zodiacs. (Zodiacs are the fast and manoeuvrable inflatable dinghies that are used to zip around the harbour.)
What I especially liked about this book is that the discovery of this toxin becomes a metaphor for the slow environmental destruction we are already aware of. Donaldson cleverly widens the grey areas between environment terrorism and environmental corrupters, and, because the Science Fiction is only evident as the detective work progresses, we are skilfully allowed to believe a world-wide environmental break down is possible, now. Detective fiction is often written to the formula that is: society breaks down as a crime occurs, an outsider (the detective/loner) comes and solves the crime and society is harmonised, the outsider returns to his/her present state. This formula works well in this novel for any number of reasons, not least because the crime itself literally eats away at society.
Beyond that the usual stuff is true: characters well drawn and full of surprises; smart, funny, relevant, and easily written. This is Stephen Donaldson's first novel and whilst it doesn't have the breath and inventiveness of Diamond Age and Snow Crash it's a hugely enjoyable read and very clever too; Zodiac, like its namesake, is fast, sassy and un-deflatable.
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on 20 June 2001
Neal Stephenson has created a new cult figure in Sangamon Taylor - "the Granola James Bond" - a macho environmentalist who's fortunes are reflected in the size of the outboard hitched to his rubber raft - the Zodiac of the title -(hint - it starts at 40hp - is stolen and replaced with a 10hp one at his lowest point and for the climax he steals the baddies 50hp outboard for a dramatic finale).
Having been there and done that I can confirm that Stephenson has caught the spirit and quirks of the "duck squeezers" neatly and I'm sure that there should be many more adventures for ST and his motley band - if Stephenson doesn't follow up on this one someone else surely should!
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on 11 August 1999
You must read "Zodiac" by Stephenson - there is an oblique reference to it in the preface of one of the other 2 where he goes "my first book, which was a cult hit with sewer engineers sunk without a trace ............." . NO!!!! It is unreal. This story, set in the present, is a non-stop elevator-drop of murder / intrigue and machievelian politics backed up by a neat dose of hard science, giving this novel a chillingly believeable Boston ......... the many plot threads wind around you with dazzling timing, keeping you hurtling through the protagonist's bottom feeding lifestyle, with such force you need to consciously come up for air.
A consumate storyteller, the horrifying subject matter gives a new insight to life on the edge of eco-terrorism.
Stephenson rocks !!
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on 19 June 2001
This early work from Neal Stephenson shows many of the features that made Snow Crash and Cryptonomnicon great books to read. He makes the environmentalists human, with human failings instead of idolising them.
The story is simple in concept, Sangamon Taylor discovers that a multi national company has allowed cancer causing PCBs into the bay, and the book covers his battle to find out the truth and prevent more damage being caused to the environment. His story involves run ins with satanists, heavy metal fans, and corporate America - all described in the detailed and colourful way that I loved in Snow Crash.
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on 5 February 2013
Not quite hitting his stride yet, but still a rattling yarn. All the usual things you'd expect from Neal Stephenson - a bit of a science lesson snuck in between the visceral action and snappy backchat, but somewhat dilute in comparison to the genius of Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Anathem and The Baroque Cycle. Kind of puts you off eating fish too.
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