Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

Zodiac the Eco-Thriller paperback Zodiac; the eco-thriller (1988)
(not about Astrology!)

Bantam Spectra paperback (left)
cover art by Bruce Jensen
308 pages

Atlantic Monthly Press trade paperback (right)
edition first printing
cover art by Steve Carver
283 pages

Zodiac first edition cover

From the back cover of the paperback:
       Two centuries after the Boston Tea Party, harbor dumping is still a favorite local sport, only this time time it's major corporations piping toxic wastes into the water.  Environmentalist and professional pain in the ass Sangamon Taylor is Boston's modern-day Paul Revere, spreading the word from a 40-horsepower Zodiac raft.  Embarrassing powerful corporations in highly telegenic ways is the perfect method of making enemies, and Taylor has a collection that would do any rabble-rouser proud.
       After his latest exploit, he's wanted by the FBI, possibly the Mafia, and definitely by a group of Satanist angel-dust heads who think he's looking for a PCP factory, not PCB contamination.  Pretty soon dodging bullets is the least of Taylor's problems---because somewhere out there are an unhinged genetic engineer and a lab-concocted bacterium that could destroy all ocean life...and that's just for appetizers.

Read for group discussion on April 28, 1999

Amy's Summary : Neal Stephenson - Zodiac; the eco-thriller

The book Zodiac, which reads more like fiction than science fiction, is set in the 1980s and is told from the point of view of Sangamon Taylor, S. T., a long-haired, environmentalist activist with GEE International, a fictional organization that seems to be based on Greenpeace.

One of his housemates calls Sangamon a Granola James Bond.  But he'd rather be called Toxic Spiderman because, for one, he's broke - unlike former college classmate, Dolmacher, who is on the opposite site of toxic barricades, working for Biotronics.

Sangamon rides around the Boston on his bicycle, and on the water in a Zodiac, an inflatable raft with a outboard motor.  He sniffs out toxic waste, sometimes literally, and follows the trail back to the source.  He hunts down dangerous organic chlorine compounds.  With GEE he plugs a dioxin laden sewer in Buffalo with cement, and in New Jersey plugs a underwater diffuser pipe with contraptions made with salad bowls and toilet gaskets.

When he finds PCB contaminated lobsters near Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor, and sees people suffering from chloracne, he fears a toxic catastrophe. He thinks he'll be able to track the pollution to old transformers dumped by Basco and alert the EPA.  But it isn't quite that simple. There are goons chasing him in a speedboat, weirdoes bugging his phones, threatening heavy metal fans of a band called Pöyzen Bözyen, and strangely disappearing PCB pollution.

With the help Hank Boone - who some consider an eco-terrorist - girlfriend Debbie and Tanya from GEE, Indian Jim Grandfather, and eccentric genius Kelvin, Sangamon seeks to incriminate Basco as the polluter, discredit the environmental record of presidential hopeful Alvin Pleshy, and reaffirm his own credibility.

summary written by

How we each rated this book
Dan 6 Amy 8 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri 7 Barb 6
Aaron 5 Cynthia 4
Lindsey 5 Jackie 6
Kerry 5 Jeanne 6
Gene 6    

Aaron's Commentary   Neal Stephenson - Zodiac

Stephenson's wry humor and entertaining writing style makes this an enjoyable read despite the obvious flaws.  By far the biggest flaw is the lack of characterization.  We don't get to know at all some of the most crucial characters: Debbie (the love interest), Kelvin (who comes out of nowhere to help save the day), and Pleshy (the figurehead villain).  To call the development of S.T.'s relationship with Debbie weak is charitable.  The plotting is also not great, although I find Stephenson's plotting suspect in general, but compensated for by his other strengths as a writer.  The central conflict of the book was resolved much sooner than I expected, leaving the last portion of the novel for assessing blame, which I found hard to care about.  Overall, this is a fun but forgettable early effort by a talented writer.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to

Our book group has also read the following books by Neal Stephenson:
-- Snow Crash  in June 1996
-- The Diamond Age  in April 1997
-- Cryptonomicon   in December 2000

Neal Stephenson (1959-     ) is a US writer.

1996 Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Diamond Age

Science fiction and genre related books
Stephenson's first novel was The Big U (1984). It's set at the fictional American Megaversity where a strike escalates into an off-the-wall campus war. It was very difficult to find, before it was reprinted in 2001.

Zodiac (1988) follows the adventures of an environmental activist based in Boston who tracks down illegal polluters.

Snow Crash (1992), which is becoming a modern classic of science fiction, is a cyberpunk-ish book that features a dangerous computer virus, virtual reality, The Mafia, and pizza delivery.

The Diamond Age; or, A Young Lady's Primer (1995) is a complex novel of nanotechnology, neo-Victorianism, and Eastern vs. Western methodology. It's set in the future near Shanghai China.

Cryptonomicon (1999), which is over 900 pages long, combines World War II stories of code breaking and survival with a modern story about creating a data haven in Southeast Asia.

The Baroque Cycle books, which are loosely connected to Cyptonomicon, doorstopper sized, and more mainstream fiction than genre science fiction are: Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004), and System of the World (2004).

Anathem (2008) is speculative fiction set in on a future world.

Other Books
The thrillers Interface (1994) and The Cobweb (1996) by Stephen Bury are collaborations of Neal Stephenson and his uncle George Jewsbury.

Stephenson also wrote the essay about computers In the Beginning...Was the Command Line.

Our book club's page for Cryptonomicon by Stephenson
Neal Stephenson - Wikipedia
Salon magazine - deep code - an interview with Neal Stephenson (1999)
Dreams & Nightmares of The Digital Age - article by Neal Stephenson (1997)
The complete review - Zodiac
Bjorn and Swen's review of Zodiac (+other Stephenson books) review - Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
The SF Site: A Conversation with Neal Stephenson (1999)
Neal Stephenson's home page
Locus Online: Neal Stephenson interview (1999)
Locus Online: Neal Stephenson interview excerpts (2004)

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