the Little Red Reviewer

Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson

Posted on: September 28, 2011

I wrote this review about a year ago for an online ‘zine, figured it couldn’t hurt to repost it here. I’m currently reading Stephenson’s Reamde (posts coming soon! it’s incredible so far!), so  when I eventually say “it was sorta like the pace of Zodiac”, people can know what the heck I’m talking about.  Never read Stephenson because his books are so damn long and weigh a ton? Zodiac is the perfect place to start, as it’s only a few hundred pages long.

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Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson

originally published in 1988, recently reprinted by Subterranean Press.












Imagine if you could be a superhero. Save people’s lives, keep families safe, make sure large corporations aren’t taking advantage of the little people, do your part to help the world. Sangamon Taylor, who goes by ST, does that for a living. He isn’t a caped or masked crusader, his landlord is about to evict him, the newspapers affectionately refer to him as an ecoterrorist, and he’s no stranger to spending the night in jail. So much for saving the world. Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac is ST’s first person version of his exploits and adventures, and he can be as obnoxious and volatile as the chemicals he rails against.

ST spends his days trolling Boston Harbor looking for signs of pollution such as oily water or dead or dying animals. Pipes spitting out sludge is a dead give away too. His evenings are spent exposing the corporations responsible for the pollution, usually by cementing the pipes shut and listening for who complains. The media loves him, local law enforcement doesn’t know what to do with him, and the corporate thugs wish he would just move someplace far away. Technically ST is employed by an anti-pollution nonprofit called GEE, and it’s a life saver, as donations to GEE are what keep him fed, clothed, and in parts for his fleet of Zodiacs, the small one person inflatable crafts that get him around the harbor. Under the auspices of GEE, he’s able to hire university interns, and gain access to the university labs and chemical analysis tools.

The local repeat offender for corporate pollution is a large company called Basco, run by the wealthy Pleshy family. When Pleshy senior enters national politics, ST knows there will never be a better time to take down Basco. All he needs now is proof. But when you’re dealing with an ever changing body of water that’s seen 200 plus years of pollution and dumping, finding proof of who is responsible for what can be next to impossible.

Smart but poor, ST knows a super cheap way to see what’s happening in the harbor waters is to dissect the creatures who live there, see what’s in their stomachs and what chemicals have built up in their systems. Friends with everyone, it’s easy for ST to get a few sickly looking lobsters from the nets of the local lobster men. If the insides look like something a lobsterman would eat, all is good. But when a yellow oily pus filled lobster sends an intern crying from the lab, ST knows he’s hit contamination gold.

Lobsters full of oily residue and strange happenings on the garbage island in the middle of the harbor are just a few of the clues ST uncovers. The pieces are coming together, but he doesn’t know the shape of the puzzle and he’s not the kind of person to realize when things have gone too far. ST is paranoid by nature, but when he starts seeing the same guys following him, gets death threats on his answering machine, and his house gets “sabotaged”, maybe they really are out to get him? What could Basco really be up to that it’s worth killing over? Can he link Basco to the latest harbor dumping before things get too dangerous, and just as important – before the election?

Sangamon Taylor is my favorite kind of protagonist – the sarcastic smart aleck anti-hero. He’s paid his dues and has earned the right to act like a jerk, at least some of the time. His arrogance and offensiveness would be inexcusable, if his talk about carcinogens, chemistry, and chlorinated phenols wasn’t the gospel truth. He’s got much in the way of caffeine, swearing, drugs, and hijinks, but little if any in the way of being capable of or interested in physically harming anyone. ST figures the corporate polluters are hurting enough people, why should he add to it?

Zodiac first hit shelves over 20 years ago, but other than the absence of cell phones, lap tops, and social media, you’d never know it. With the smarts and snark of Stephenson’s later, more ambitious projects, but without the mind numbing detail that dragged novels like The System of The World down, Zodiac is Stephenson’s most accessible work to date. As Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle turned me into a student of history and economics, Zodiac has me going back to the non-fiction section of the library. Not to look up things in the book (it’s infodump free), but simply to learn more about chemistry, pollution, meteorology, and plenty else. After reading half a dozen Stephenson novels, I’ve learned that if he says something, it’s important.

Once I picked this book up I couldn’t put it down, and the first thing I wanted to do after I finished it was read it again. Zodiac is a great book for anyone who enjoys fast paced thrillers filled with characters who don’t do normal. As a stand alone novel, it’s the perfect introduction to Neal Stephenson’s unique style and worldview.

On a personal note, every so often when I style myself a “writer”, and attempt to write a short story, everything I come up with seems to sound like this book.

5 Responses to "Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson"

This sounds like an interesting read!


He was speaking at a local bookstore last Saturday in my city but I didn’t get a chance to see him. Really sorry I didn’t now because he sounds like an author I’d like. I have Cryptonomicon on my shelf but it’s still untouched. Still want to buy the new one too.


I’ve been meaning to get into N. Stephenson for years now. I even have two wonderful gallies on the bookshelf of his works that I’ve acquired over my years in the field. The most recent, of ANATHEM includes a cd of music to listen to while you read–how cool is that? I’ll blog about it once I read/listen. But ZODIAC might be a good place to start…thanks.


Zodiac probably is the best place for Stephenson virgin to start. His earlier stuff like Zodiac and Diamond Age are shorter and much much easier to get into than his new stuff, which is all way crazy long and infodump heavy. but damn does he do infodumps right!


[…] All that in only the first 150 pages.  I feel like I’m reading the incredible end bit of Cryptonomicon (if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about) with the breakneck pace of Zodiac. […]


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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