Sangamon Taylor is a professional asshole, he is known as the granola James Bond, and he knows how to use your child’s aquarium to filter PCBs from his body. Zodiac: The Eco Thriller is Neal Stephenson’s second novel as well as a clear blueprint for its successor, the cyberpunk classic, Snow Crash.
Sangamon Taylor works for GEE, an activist group that tries to act as a check against the toxic waste Boston industrialists dump into Boston Harbor. GEE, whose members are often English majors and leftover hippies from the sixties that care about the environment, man, stages media events and organizes non-violent civil disobedience. They are well meaning, but they really rely on Sangamon, their trained chemist and impromptu engineer, to collect and analyze samples of toxic waste. He is also their go-to option when they encounter mile long pipes spewing toxic waste into the ecosystem.
Like many of Stephenson’s protagonists, Sangamon is very capable, independent to a fault, and happy to explain in great detail the many ways he has outsmarted others. He even has a principle of chemistry named after him. What’s not to love?
Well, Zodiac certainly doesn’t stand up well to critics who point out that it’s a barebones version of Stephenson’s later novels, especially Snow Crash. On the surface, an eco thriller should have little to do with a seminal cyberpunk novel, but it is difficult to escape the similarities between Sangamon Taylor, ST for short, and his successors, Hiro Protagonist and YT, short for Yours Truly. ST does not carry a sword, but it would not be much of a stretch to imagine him delivering pizza armed with a samurai sword. And he could certainly grow into Richard Forthrast, the hero of Reamde. Put him into the Baroque Era, and it’s not hard to imagine him becoming the “King of the Vagabonds.” Fortunately, I opened Zodiac expecting a rough draft of Stephenson’s later novels. If anything, I was surprised by how far Stephenson had taken his formula by his second novel.
Zodiac is often funny. Sangamon is an engaging narrator, and he interacts with a group of well meaning people that feel they are saving the planet while they bicker over who gets the keys to GEE’s Omni, a car that Sangamon assures us can beat the traffic in Boston. Of course, he prefers to get around in his boat, which is even faster. I especially enjoyed the infodump summarizing GEE’s complaints when they return to their headquarters from an action in Buffalo:
Who had scrubbed the Teflon off the big frying pan? Since Tess had weeded the garden, how many tomatoes did she get? Whose hair predominated in the shower drain — the women’s, since they had more, or the men’s, since they were losing more? Was it okay to pour bacon grease down the drains if you ran hot water at the same time? Could bottles with metal rings on the necks be put in the recycling box? Should we buy a cord of firewood? Maple or pine? Did we agree that the people next door were abusing their children? Physically or just psychologically? Was boric acid roach powder a bioaccumulative toxin?
I couldn’t help wondering whether Stephenson had ever lived in a commune.
Though funny, “the eco thriller” is not very thrilling. It is often interesting, but I found that I could easily put the novel down and not return to it for a day or two. The villains are forgettable, and Sangamon is too unapologetically selfish to devote much time to his supporting cast and their quirks. Even when he praises them, ST’s assurance that someone is competent is all we need, or at least all we’ll get.
Having said that, I would not hesitate to recommend Zodiac: The Eco Thriller to Stephenson’s fans. At times, it is distracting to constantly compare the novel to Stephenson’s later works, which do overshadow Sangamon’s adventures. Still, this is a Neal Stephenson novel, and so it assembles a series of little details and sequences into a novel that readers will likely remember fondly years later.