Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Below the Surface

If you've been following the Gulf oil spill you know that, ominous at as it is, the slick, spreading mass on the surface is only a fraction of the problem. Deep below the surface, a giant plume of oil billows through thousands of feet of seawater, representing far more oil and possibly a far greater environmental threat than anything happening on the surface.

It's pure coincidence that the Gulf oil disaster happens to come at the same time as a special re-release from Subterranean press of Neal Stephenson's largely unknown first novel, Zodiac: the Eco Thriller. But the parallels are undeniable. Both the real-life story and this novel involve large corporations guilty of atrocities deep underwater. The name of the novel refers not to any astrological symbols, but to the boat--a small, quick and maneuverable inflatable craft--that its protagonist, Sagamon Taylor uses in his work. Sagamon Taylor, or S.T., a.k.a. the Granola James Bond, a.k.a. Toxic Spiderman, is a detective of sorts, an environmental detective who spends his time collecting and analyzing water samples to pinpoint criminal corporations dumping chemical waste into bodies of water. He then organizes actions, such as blocking up companies drain pipes in order to bring political and media attention to them. His main territory is the Boston Harbor and there seems to be plenty of work for him there.

OK. I understand if you're skeptical about following some hippy/nerd chemist around doing good deeds for the environment. In the wrong hands such a story could be unbearably pedantic. But this story is in hands of Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash, and like his other work, Zodiac is a great read. The title's descriptor, the Eco Thriller, lives up to its name. There is plenty of life or death action here, many more explosions than you might expect, and some brilliant nautical chase scenes.

But what really carries the book is S.T.'s character. Stephenson portrays his protagonist as a kind of post-modern Sam Spade, who, while obsessed with his work and getting to the bottom of the crimes he's uncovered, is also obsessed with women, ski ball and junk food. He has a witty, philosophical tone to his narrative and has plenty of wry insight into life, sex, corporate malfeasance, and drug use, exposing an attitude as dark as any noir private dick. He's a likable, lonely, well-meaning fellow who just happens to know a lot about chemistry, too much to live comfortably in this world without doing something about it. The case he gets messed up in has all the far-reaching consequences of the best plotted thrillers.

Read this book and as a side bonus you'll learn a lot about the eighties, what's on the bottom of Boston harbor and the chemistry of toxicity, maybe more than you wanted to know.

The aforementioned Subterranean re-release is intended as a collector's item, but if you don't happen to have $150.00 for a book, you can pick up a used paperback from Powell's for a more reasonable $5.

This review is based on an advance uncorrected proof provided by the publisher.


david elzey said...

how did i work in a chain bookstore for nearly six years and not know about this book?

summer reading, here i come!

Sarah Stevenson said...

David, go read it!! It's a lot of fun. I think it's Stephenson's first novel, and it's pretty different from his subsequent ones, except in his minute attention to detail and accurate research. :)