Book Nook: ‘Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller’

You know that time in high school when it was cool to be an anarchist? When it was cool to have a cause, but you weren’t apathetic about it yet?
Neal Stephenson’s “Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller” will bring you back to those days, whether you like it or not.

I’ve read and enjoyed some of Stephenson’s later books, and although “Zodiac” represents one of his first efforts, it doesn’t disappoint.

The book is the tale of a radical environmentalist, Sangamon Taylor, who monitors Boston Harbor for toxins emitted by any of the numerous polluters that ring the water.

Although Stephenson’s world is fictional, it’s one we can all recognize. Corporations in the novel are always determined to get the highest profit, unrestricted by laissez-faire, ineffectual government agencies, until the vigilante “Group of Environmental Extremists” tracks the polluters down.

The novel earns its subtitle “Eco-Thriller” when Taylor escapes a high-speed boat chase and gunfight with people he is trying to convict of pollution, and the action only escalates from there. Without giving too much away, let’s say that the stakes are very high if Taylor doesn’t return to face his nemesis—and it’s risky even if he does.

Stephenson’s style is masterful. Readers will appreciate his eloquent and exact vocabulary, as well as the intelligence packed into every sentence.
The book does not lack in content either; it is not for the faint of heart. It combines more than enough thrills to keep fans of action happy, with a great plot and large doses of science that bring to mind the sexier television series about forensics that I’ve seen.

Stephenson writes Taylor as a believable character, the kind that’s fun to read about. Taylor is snarky, smart and socially awkward. What’s great is the way that Stephenson uses Taylor to explain a lot of chemistry to the reader without it feeling the slightest bit “teachy.”

Stephenson must also be taking a page from the scarlet history of real environmental organizations, like Earth First, because Taylor isn’t that devout a protector of himself or the environment, preferring a more comfortable life of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” while he goes after the big deal, toxins. If this seems self-contradictory to you, it shouldn’t: that’s simply a picture of what environmental activists have historically been.

Taylor even tells the audience about his self-made theory, “Sangamon’s Principle,” a variety of Occam’s Razor in which drugs are less harmful, the simpler they are molecularly. According to Taylor, oxygen and nitrous oxide (two and three atoms, respectively) contribute the best high, while the complex structures of drugs like LSD aren’t to be trusted.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to go after “the man,” anyone who enjoys the weird but friendly, or anyone who recognizes the irony implicit in water filters and table salt. Or, if you want to read about people who do.

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