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Book Review: Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller (1988)

Before he hit the big three-oh, little Neal Stephenson got a quirky novel published. It bore many of the signatures that would define his later masterworks: a flawed, cuttingly intelligent protagonist; strong feminist overtones; a conflict of epic proportions; oodles of location research; and buckets of science and technology. The recipe for a delicious nerd brownie!

Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller follows Sangamon Taylor, or ST, a Boston-based eco-activist with the Group of Environmental Extremists (GEE). ST is a scruffy chemist whose modus operandi consists of methodically gathering evidence against corporate toxic polluters, plugging up the offending pipes, and then dramatically announcing his findings on the news. His work takes him through raw sewage, an island made of garbage, and the mean streets of Boston’s less savory neighborhoods. A chance encounter with hooligans on a routine investigation winds up pitting ST and his friends against smart and ruthless business types, and the big-shot politician in their pocket.

The list of things I love about Zodiac include, but are not limited to:
  • Descriptions of ST’s manic bicycle riding through Brighton to get to Cambridge
  • Esmeralda, prescient librarian
  • ST explaining covalent bonds using six-packs of beer
  • The Pearl, an eco-activist’s choice of Vietnamese cuisine
  • Jim Grandfather, the wry Native American who owes ST a favor
  • Charcoal enemas—the best way to detoxify!
  • ST going into a drunken rage without being drunk
  • Darth Vader scuba suits
  • Bart, the irrepressible roommate
  • How ST and Bart got out of Roxbury safely
  • …and more!

I already knew that Boston waters were gross before the EPA got sued and had to do a cleanup back before I was born. In Zodiac, Stephenson underlines this fact through pointed descriptions of what goes on in the pipes, sewers, rivers, and the harbor after ordinary people flush their toilets, and when factories decide to dump some chemical byproducts. Yes, chemistry happens! And boy does it stink!

If you’re a Stephenson fan, this is a must-read. Bonus points if you live in Boston and know what he’s writing about. Zodiac is smaller than his other books, but it’s just as dense. Yay!

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