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Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
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Zodiac (1988)

by Neal Stephenson

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Sangamon Taylor is, essentially, a professional asshole. An extreme environmentalist with a passion for wreaking havoc on big corporations that pollute the environment, he is now officially employed to do just that for a non-profit organization in Boston. Sangaman spends his day hunting down toxic waste disposers in the Boston Harbor, and when he finds high concentrations of illegal chemicals in the harbor he finds the source, plugs the pipe first hand, and exposes the crimes of these major corporations to the media - all with little more than an inflatable raft, some scuba gear, and a little bit of ingenuity.

I really loved the book initially, Neal Stephenson commentary on environmentalism is wonderful if not hopelessly pessimistic, and the settings and characters are fantastically drawn. I think where it goes wrong is with the half-assed mystery plot that develops awkwardly throughout the book. Stephenson seems to have wanted to create a thrilling mystery in which Sangamon has to discover who is dumping a particularly scary toxic chemical into the harbor, but it just wasn't successful for me. It stalled out regularly and just didn't unfold in a very smooth manner, and all the suspects were so similar that I didn't really find myself caring who it was specifically anyway. Normally you expect the criminal to be the bad guy and for everyone else to be innocent, but when every suspect is a known toxic waste disposer it kind of deflates your interest in which one did it specifically.

I don't necessarily think it's a bad book, but unfortunately I think it got away from the author in the process of writing it. As a result, it fits firmly in the 'just okay' category. ( )
  Ape | Jul 21, 2014 |
Started alot better than it finished. I never really got to like the narrator and the plots and characters got completely muddled for me. It had some potential but I just lost track of it and finally wanted it to be over.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
Short, smart, and a page-turner, even though I've read it before. I think I may have read it when I was younger and didn't mind not knowing at least as much as the protagonist does. Now I pay better attention to the chemistry, biology, and geography and it makes a bit more sense. I moved to north-eastern Massachusetts not so long ago, so I've been to many of the locations.

Stephenson has quite a lot to say about society in most of his writing and a lot of it is quite critical. His work tends to bring on a bout of soul-searching. It's also educational; it makes you want to look up PCBs and read "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind".

He mythologizes smart people excessively. I got a 1500 on my SATs and I've known many people who got 1600 and I don't know that any of us is so special.

Is Trisha's boyfriend Hiro Protagonist?

I sometimes think "The Big U" was his best. ( )
  themulhern | Jun 15, 2013 |
This was read for ENG 360A Class taken in 2007.

Readings Environmental Novel English Class.

It was not required but I did some extra reading. ( )
  marysneedle | Mar 29, 2013 |
A fun read that takes you into a "what if" scenario in the present where corporations are dumping toxic waste in the waters off Boston.

Like "The Big U" it's set in an a plausible present day environment but while it's not as over-the-top as "The Big U" is, it's just as far out there with crazy but believable characters. The story reads well & the plot develops briskly as the situations get more intense, much as "Snow Crash" does rather than the deep reading of "Cryptonomicon" or intensity of the Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Well worth reading for an enjoyable story. ( )
  Falcon124 | Sep 21, 2012 |
Boston Harbor is under attack by corporations flooding the waterways with toxic waste. Fish are floating belly up, Lobster livers are puddles of PCB infested ooze and several citizens are developing a nasty rash. Sangamon Taylor, eco-warrior and former chemist, utilizes his brilliance to solve eco-crimes and expose the polluting mega-corporations. Zodiac resounds with Neal Stephenson's trademark wit and satirical storytelling ability. The characters are primarily caricatures and the book somehow maintains the reader's interest in spite of several multi-page chemistry lessons. Zodiac is a story that only Neal Stephenson could pull off. Highly recommended. ( )
  JechtShot | Jan 19, 2012 |
Great older Stephenson, before he got so complicated.(Don't get me wrong, I like his latr works, it's just that this harked back to "Snow Crash", whick was the first novel of his that I read & enjoyed) Eco-guerilla takes on the polluters with ingenuity and a sense of humor. Good stuff. ( )
  raypratt | Aug 21, 2011 |
This isn't Neal's best work, and I found the second half a little hard to read -- I think because it meandered, with several theories for who was responsible being interchanged. They were all reasonable theories, but the jump between each of them was jarring and could have been better done. The version of the book I was reading also had heaps of typographical errors -- single character substitutions and stuff like that -- which meant you needed to re-read sentences to make them make sense, which was pretty annoying. Overall not the worst book I've ever read, but certainly the worst Stephenson I've read.

http://www.stillhq.com/book/Neal_Stephenson/Zodiac.html ( )
  mikal | Oct 31, 2010 |
This eco-thriller was one of Stephenson's earlier novels, which is both good and bad from a reader's perspective. Although it lacks some of the intricate storytelling that he eventually grew into, it's also fairly short and to the point, as he no longer is. ( )
1 vote wanack | Oct 3, 2010 |
This is different from the other Stephenson books I've read, but is an enjoyable read nonetheless. I particularly liked the way it blends the tropes of the usual noir-type thriller with environmental 'direct-action' (eco-terrorism to some): an eco-crime is being committed - the question is not just by whom, but also how (don't worry if you are not a science-buff - the chemistry lessons are short and well-explained for the layman).

If it has less breadth and a more straightforward premise than Stephenson's later books, Zodiac is more focused, with the plot zipping along at a fair clip (particularly in the second half where it really builds up speed) and holding together well as a story (unlike say The Diamond Age which suffered from some strange narrative transitions). Flashes of Stephenson's trademark wit make the story all the more enjoyable to read. As long as one doesn't go in expecting another epic like Cryptonomicon, or the sci-fi spectacle of Snow Crash, one can enjoy it for what it is - a witty, fast-paced eco-thriller.

As an aside, the edition I have published by Arrow Books (2001) is choc full of typos and spelling mistakes which was rather irritating. It really should have been better proof-read. ( )
  iftyzaidi | Jan 29, 2010 |
Zodiac was my first exposure to Neal Stephenson’s writing. I understand this is an earlier work of his and may not be one of his better efforts. Nonetheless, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, mainly because of Stephenson’s flowing way with words.

The plot is stretched thin at points, very thin indeed, but remember, this is a work of fiction. I would also rank Stephenson’s ability to get his ecological point across above Carl Hiaasen’s stories. I don’t know the ecology is a reoccurring theme in Stephenson’s works, but I like his overall style enough to want to read more of him.

While some of the story is dated, the message and the bad guys are still current. If you are a fan of ecoterrorism, this is a must read. If you like science in your fiction without it being space borne Science Fiction, you will be a fan of this book. Hopefully the rest of the author’s works are even better. ( )
  PghDragonMan | Jan 21, 2010 |
An eco-warrior tries to keep Boston safe from corporate polluters in his zodiac speedboat. [author: Neal Stephenson]'s storytelling does not make as much use of random tangents and diversions as he did in [book:Cryptonomicon] or the Baroque Cycle (what I've read of it) -- and I liked the tangents in those books, for the most part, although I'm sure other readers would view them only as a burden interrupting the true story. The characters of Zodiac are not as memorable. But it was a jaunty story nonetheless, with plenty of graphic descriptions of the science behind pollution and what happens when said pollution hits the body. A little window maybe into what the supporters of GreenPeace or the Sierra Club might be tring to accomplish. NOT based on true events as far as I know. ( )
  annodoom | Oct 7, 2009 |
Though I have liked other books by Neal Stephenson, this one is turning out to be a tough read. The story meanders literally and figuratively through a murky world of pollution. The story could have been "A day in the life of an in-your-face environmental activist" till about halfway through. I had been about to give up on it, but the humor kept me reading.

I'm not a chemist, but the technical depth seems realistic and gently explained. There were enough general principles to hang onto when wading through details of molecules and chemical processes. As in his other books, he stretches the boundaries of existing science and asks some hard "what-if" questions.

I'd recommend it if you have read other Neal Stephenson books and like his style and approach. I wouldn't choose it for a first Stephenson read, however. It's a bit toxic around the edges and might deter a reader from expanding into his later books. ( )
  lbspen | Jul 15, 2009 |
"You've come a long way, baby," is my pithy, surprised response when, having never experienced or heard of N. Stephenson, I read Zodiac followed immediate by Cryptonomicon. Like watching a clip of an NBA future-star as a freshman in college then cutting to one as a rookie in the NBA. The progression of skills writing-wise is stark, and a reader of Zodiac shouldn't expect more than a late 80's thriller with a moderately good story and main character, written by a novice. This book does not stand up to later Stephenson works; it's wonderful to see the writing get better.

All that said, the story is not science fiction, any more than any modern thriller that introduces a technically advanced gun (that is so technically advanced as to not be truly possible with today's technology) is science fiction. The story is set in then-current times and only in the middle and late in the story does it deal with the release by a corporation of an advanced organism/chemical catalyst that is meant to reduce pollution but has some other originally unintended effects and uses. In the context of the story, there is nothing fantastic about it (unless the reader is a very practically minded chemical engineer and could list off the 3 reasons that such a chemical could not be manufacturer) and the name eco-thriller pretty much describes it.

The main character, Sangamon, is quite a piece of work, a self-absorbed, criminal James Bond former engineer-cool-guy rebel, but mostly just a rebel who likes to cause trouble as 'fights the power'. The subtlety of this character, having many layers and being complex and real, is perhaps 'the' redeeming factor in this book that makes it worth sticking with and really a 'good' book. The character I found really unique among many, many novels, which is saying something. In his relationships with women, and his home/rental/living situation definitely is written as pulp fiction, and Stephenson's ability (with Sangamon's help) to write pulpy stuff interspersed with the story, is flavorful. I would not recommend this for anyone other than open-minded Stephenson fans or people employed in the green movement or people from Boston. ( )
  shawnd | Dec 22, 2008 |
Zodiac is one of Neal Stephenson's earlier books, and it shows. A lot of the writing style that went into Snow Crash is there, but it's rougher. It's hard to pick out specific examples, but the whole book didn't feel to me that it flowed as well as it ought to have. On the other hand, the story was a decent one, and had several nice moments of chemistry geekiness that reminded me of the mathematically-geeky side trips in Cryptonomicon.

Surprisingly (at least to me), I liked the ending. I haven't really been happy with the endings of Stephenson's more recent books; I prefer something with a sense of closure. All three of his books that I've read (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon) had endings that felt unfinished. (Note that I don't mind endings that deliberately leave things open-ended, but I do like to feel that the main story has been resolved.) Regardless, Zodiac's ending did have closure, and I was happy with that.

So, it's a decent read, especially if you like Neal Stephenson's writing, but not really something I'd recommend going out of your way for.
  asciiphil | Dec 9, 2008 |
This is a good early book for any author. Very eco/green centric- I like this book better than anything Stephenson has written since the diamond age. ( )
  berbels | Oct 1, 2008 |
An eco-warrior tries to keep Boston safe from corporate polluters in his zodiac speedboat. Stephenson's storytelling does not make as much use of random tangents and diversions as he did in Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle (what I've read of it) -- and I liked the tangents in those books, for the most part, although I'm sure other readers would view them only as a burden interrupting the true story. The characters of Zodiac are not as memorable. But it was a jaunty story nonetheless, with plenty of graphic descriptions of the science behind pollution and what happens when said pollution hits the body. A little window maybe into what the supporters of GreenPeace or the Sierra Club might be tring to accomplish. NOT based on true events as far as I know. ( )
  annodoom | Aug 12, 2008 |
Sangamon Taylor is gunning for the companies who dump toxic waste into water supplies. His big (non violent) hit is against a company dumping PCBs into Boston Harbor, he's collecting samples, analysing them and pinning the evidence on the executives with a big target for the media to hit.
My only quibble is that the serious injuries in the book aren't sold emotionally - his organisation is focused on non violent actions, but the enemy has no such compunctions. He repeatedly refers to himself as an asshole so maybe he really is just that detached, but in response, I was detached from him. ( )
  silentq | May 8, 2008 |
Not as thought-provoking or astoundingly creative as a lot of Stephenson's other works, but good, solid, fun, with all the typical Stephenson hallmarks. It was a good book to read out loud - one of the few Stephenson books that isn't too complicated to read out loud. ( )
  Gwendydd | May 6, 2008 |
I can't pinpoint what exactly I didn't like about this book because the premise was interesting and there were bits and pieces of characters and scenes that I found interesting but all in all it did not hold my attention. I hard to start reading it several times before I could even get halfway through. For people looking for more Stephenson books like Snowcrash I would NOT reccomend this one. ( )
  pixieslut | Mar 1, 2008 |
Yawn...very disappointing, given how much I have enjoyed some of Mr. Stephenson's other work.

Eco-terrorists fight back agains corporate bad guys by doing a lot of drugs and blowing stuff up. It probably didn't help that I found the protagonist to be...well...annoying, so I really didn't care if he got shot, or blown up, or whatever.

Inoffensive, just boring. ( )
  PortiaLong | Jul 22, 2007 |
Neal Stephenson is on a roll with this one, a really funny book set in Boston Harbor. The hero combines feats of derring-do in a rubber raft (the Zodiac of the title) with a sharp wit and complete intolerance for his inferiors. In the mix is also some interesting commentary on political campaigns and industrial pollution. A rollicking good read. ( )
  Jawin | Jan 4, 2007 |
It's always interesting to read a near-future book where the near-future is now the recent past. Eco-terrorists in inflatable boats! Evil chemical corporations releasing dioxins! Satan-worshipping heavy metal fans on PCP! A world in which, once you expose corporate or political dumbshittery to the media, the perps are shamed and punished, rather than re-elected! That last made me cry a little bit.

Besides that, it was a pleasantly rollicking read, with a good narrative voice and just enough humor, much of it darkish. Plus the damsel-in-distress bullshit that I worried would overtake the plot was mostly kept at bay, and I learned a thing or two about writing chase scenes that I hope will come in handy.

On the downside, there is one 'Magical Native' character - he is handled unusually well, and used to take the piss out of a lot of "Noble Indian in touch with the Sacred Mother Earth" type stereotypes, but at the end of the day he's still a character of color who's just in the plot to help out the white main character because Whitey's just so fucking cool. And there's one scene of flirting-via-bickering bullshit of the type that pegs my personal annoy-o-meter.

But still, overall, recommended. ( )
1 vote teratologist | Dec 19, 2006 |
I did not finish this book, and I'd advise you not to bother starting it. Stephenson has become a good writer, but he did not start off that way. ( )
  name99 | Nov 13, 2006 |
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