Every once in a while when I open a box from Subterranean Press, I discover a surprise tucked inside. Such was the case with Zodiac; I received a free surplus ARC of their special edition of this novel. I seldom refuse free books, and of course, it’s Neal Stephenson. So off we go.
Even when attached to a name such as Stephenson’s, a novel that bills itself as an “eco-thriller” does not earn eager anticipation from me. My opinion of thrillers is low in general, and when combined with ecological motifs, the result isn’t always pretty. True, I also have a marked preference for physics over biology, preferring those thrillers set in deep space, orbiting wormholes or derelict spacecraft and deploying nanotechnology. As much as topics like genetic engineering and environmental responsibility are important to our society, it takes a really skilled writer to pull off a story that I will enjoy.
So in Zodiac, our protagonist, Sangamon Taylor, cruises around in an inflatable motor boat. He is a modern-day crusader against corporate abuse of the environment, stepping in where the EPA cannot or will not go. Eventually, he stumbles on a secret that would make an upcoming presidential candidate look bad, and for that he must be eliminated. The bad guys frame Sangamon (or ST, as he calls himself) as a terrorist. That’s when the thriller part of this eco-thriller kicks into high gear; prior to Sangamon’s fugitive status, the book is a somewhat enjoyable but frustrating mystery. Once ST is on the run from … well, everyone, the plot suddenly picks up the pace.
Pacing was probably my biggest issue with Zodiac. Stephenson’s exposition runs to a tendency to rhapsodize as it explains science. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m reading in 2011 a book written for a 1980s audience, but some of it is old hat, and much of it seems superfluous. This is another issue I take with many thrillers: they don’t realize that, with exposition, less is more. The more detailed a scientific explanation in a thriller, the less realistic it sounds. There is a fine line between plausible explanations and unrealistic technobabble, and that’s the line most thriller authors walk. To Stephenson’s credit, he doesn’t so much cross the line as make furtive forays over it in the dead of night, only to steal back across the border before I can train my search lights on him.
Oh, he’s crafty. But when I start talking about interacting with the author in this way, often it’s because I spent more time thinking about how the book was written than about the book itself. Zodiac has a satisfactory story, plenty of action, and a nice science-fiction premise involving some scary PCB-eating bacteria. But with the intermittent motor boat chase sequences and ST’s smarmy observations about various other characters, I could never shake the feeling I was in some kind of pulp thriller. Don’t get me wrong: I understand that, for some people, this works, that this feeling is desirable. If you are one of those people, check out Zodiac.
Zodiac also bears its age well. You don’t see that too often with science fiction set in a contemporary period. It would be very easy to take the events in Zodiac and transpose them to 2011 without changing many of the details. The lack of constant cell phone communication was the most conspicuous incongruity—so pervasive are mobile phones these days that we take them for granted, even in our thrillers and action movies. Indeed, the absence of cell phones was constantly on my mind. I began to analyze what would have to change if the characters had access to cheap mobile phones, and that in turn reveals a lot about how our society has changed now that we use mobile devices constantly. Zodiac is that rare novel that remains relevant in the present even as it presents a useful study in history.
As a Stephenson novel, Zodiac shows its colours both in style and in its place in his oeuvre. It’s obviously an early novel. But it’s Stephenson through and through. The characters aren’t the greatest, but he somehow manages to use them and some fascinating science-fiction ideas to create a genuine thriller. I’m just not that big a fan of thrillers.