Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Toxic Girl

Zodiac is the last Stephenson book I've read. I mean that in both senses of the word: it's the one I've read most recently, and it's also the only remaining Stephenson book which I hadn't already read.

I hadn't been holding off because I'd heard bad things about it or anything. It's just that I was worried I'd grow depressed in a world where there was no more Neal Stephenson left to read. Kind of like how you save the last piece of chocolate just so you'll know it's there when you need it.

But the time had come; I was ready to read something new, and nothing else at the library grabbed my fancy, so I took Zodiac and ran with it.

I'd classify this work as minor Stephenson. Keep in mind that I consider Dubliners to be minor Joyce. It's still one of the most entertaining books I've read recently. Longtime fans will be delighted to hear that it's classic Stephenson in the way it marries an adreneline-fueled plot, lots of geeky information, a sprawling story structure, a multitude of characters and more than a few digressions.

Personally, I tend to divide Stephenson's works into two sections. The first starts with The Big U and continues up through The Diamond Age. These books tend to feel sort of Science Fiction-y and are incredibly loose. They tend to make interesting narrative decisions and seem like they would be excellent candidates for either a Hollywood blockbuster or a graduate thesis paper. Even if I hadn't known ahead of time when Zodiac was written I would have placed it in between The Big U and Snow Crash; the characters are generally better-written and more believable than the former, but he hasn't yet gained the ability to juggle twenty plotlines simultaneously. The one disappointment is that it pretty much breaks my theory regarding Stephenson obsessing about the bicameral mind; at least on my initial read through this, there doesn't seem to be any treatment of the subject.

(On a side note: the second section of Stephenson starts with Cryptonomicon and continues through The System of the World. His writing here is less frenetic and more refined, still gripping but more in a way that makes you want to re-read paragraphs than a way that keeps you turning pages. He retains and expands on his trademark digressions, creating complex plots far beyond even Snow Crash's sprawl. This is the body of work that will win him the Pulitzer, though the former will continue to attract the most new readers.)

Overall I would strongly recommend this book if you've previously read and enjoyed Stephenson; there's just more to love here, and he covers radically different thematic material here than in his other works. If you haven't yet met Neal, you're probably better off starting with Snow Crash or The Big U, which I personally enjoyed more than this.

Now, let's proceed with some
Mini Spoilers

"Zodiac" isn't the full title, of course; it's "Zodiac: The Eco-thriller." And that's about the most honest title I've ever seen a book given; it is a thriller, and it is about ecology. This was interesting space for Stephenson to explore; right off the top of my head, here's what his other books have been about:
The Big U: Academia, psychology, anthropology
Snow Crash: Computers and networks, anthropology, ancient history, sociology
[Interface]: Political science, clinical psychology, neoroscience, sociology
The Diamond Age: Science, sociology, ethics and morality
Cryptonomicon: Cryptography, history, developmental psychology
The Baroque Cycle: History, currency, science, religion, politics

Of course, Stephenson being Stephenson, there are far more digressions, but those seem to me to be the major themes.
A similar list for Zodiac would read, "Chemistry, ecology, business, media." All that to say that there's almost no overlap between his themes here and the rest of his oeuvre, which is exciting. You always walk away from one of his books knowing a lot more than when you went in, and for what it's worth I learned more about organic chemistry from this book than from living with pre-meds for several years.

Oh, and because this is early Stephenson, he still has a first-person narrator. This one is S.T., who has a far more well-developed identity and presence than the narrator of The Big U. As he says in the Acknowledgements, S.T. is intended to be "a big asshole," but that doesn't stop you from liking him. Well, it didn't stop me. S.T. has several unpleasant personal habits and a fairly arrogant personality, but he's fighting on the right side and incredibly competent, so we forgive him. He's an anti-hero in the vein of Westley from The Princess Bride, fighting to topple a corrupt enemy.

This may be the only Stephenson novel that lends itself to partisan analysis; he comes down squarely on the side of the environmentalists. However, you don't necessarily think about that while reading the book. The scope of the issue is so narrowly defined, only covering toxic waste being dumped along the Northeast coastline, and specifically Boston Harbor. He doesn't get into global warming or species preservation or nonrenewable fuel sources or anything, other than to briefly mention that a lot of the "duck squeezers" care about those other issues as well. The fact that all his targets are clearly in violation of the EPA laws anyways should let everyone but the most extreme libertarians feel like S.T. is working on their side and not "the other party."

Like most of Stephenson's protagonists, S. T. is incredibly talented at what he does; a chemist by training, he is very skilled at quickly identifying and analyzing toxic substances. Sure, he does a lot of other stuff like plug up pipes, motor around Boston harbor, sleep with attractive reporters, and get into fistfights, but he is most clearly admirable for his brain.

The characters in The Big U were entertaining caricatures: the Wargame Geek, the Brilliant Hacker, the Lesbian Roommate. By Snowcrash, he had characters that started as tweaked stereotypes but became fully three-dimensional over the novel's course. He's in between those two here. Some characters, S. T. in particular but also Bart and Hoa and several others, are simultaneously believable and entertaining. However, many more make no lasting impression. I read the whole book in five sittings (to and from San Francisco twice and one stay in Union Square), and even without an intervening week I found myself asking, "Wait a minute, who is Esmerelda again?" It seems to be yet another Stephenson trademark to invent characters wherever they're convenient, giving them elaborate back stories for just a few lines of action, but at this point in his career he still wasn't making them memorable enough.

Rounding into the home stretch, let's hit the
Mega Spoilers

That Satanism stuff came from out of left field, didn't it? For a few chapters there I was actually wondering whether this would turn into a spiritual thriller. I should've known better; Stephenson is too much in love with science and explanations to go for that.

On the whole, I was impressed by the mixture of personal and corporate menace that filled the book. All good stories need villains, and he got two good ones here: the exciting immediate violent opposition of Laughin/Satanism, and the more realistic and removed crimes of Basco/Groveler. Of course, it's the latter that's far more common in the world today, and I think he tries to put our attention on that; Laughin is a jerk, but he wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the institutional evil of Basco.

Did you know that Stephenson's major in college was geology? He chose it because that department had the best computers. Still, I feel like we're getting a lot of first-hand knowledge in this book; it doesn't directly match up with his major, but I'm sure he's had at least some formal schooling on the consequences of chemical spills. Regardless, I always enjoy a good Stephenson lecture, unafraid to nerd out but also making an arcane topic surprisingly accessible.

I was shocked, shocked, shocked at the ending: it was actually pretty decent. Stephenson has a well-deserved reputation for horrible endings, but this one was merely mediocre. He actually tied up his plot lines, had some sort of resolution, and talked briefly about what the other characters were up to. It wasn't as good as The System of the World, the only actually good ending he's written (in my opinion), but still much better than I was expecting.

I count my lucky stars that I was never reading this book around mealtime. All the toxic sludge stuff was downright disgusting. Not sure whether that was part of his point, but if so, he succeeded admirably.

Oh, and another positive: getting through a whole Stephenson book without a creepy and disturbing sex scene. There's sex, but it's downright wholesome in comparison to scenes in The Big U, or Snow Crash, or The Diamond Age, or Cryptonomicon, or Quicksilver, etc., etc.

Some of me wonders whether this book was more... I'm trying to think of the right word. More carefully edited, or more controlled by the publisher, than his other works. I got the initial feeling from the title, "The Eco-thriller," which is a great way to describe a book but doesn't feel like a natural Stephenson title to me. And on the whole it felt much tighter than any of his other books; virtually every narrative sidetrack ended up being incorporated back into the main plotline at some point, as opposed to normal where at most the digressions sort of comment on the main action, and more often exist to entertain us. Again, I'm not sure whether this is a case of an editor going through and stripping out everything that didn't need to be there, or Neal just trying something different for a change. I confess I am intrigued by the thought that somewhere out there there might be a 700-page-long original manuscript for Zodiac.

In conclusion, um, good book. The English Lit major in me can think of a few ways to criticize it, but my inner nerd and my inner thrillseeker both love it, and whenever they agree on something I'm comfortable pronouncing it awesome.


  1. I'm going to need you to explain to me how Westley is an anti-hero.

  2. Maybe not the best choice of word. I was thinking of Westley in Dread Pirate Roberts / Man In Black mode, breaking the law to achieve his goals. Wikipedia's definition starts with: "In literature and film, an anti-hero is a character that possesses some of the personality traits and weakness traditionally assigned to villains, outlaws and those that either are shunned by society or do not abide by the status quo, but nonetheless have enough heroic qualities and intentions to align them with the heroes in the readers' minds." Both S.T. and Westley would be thought of as criminals for the things they do, each has moments where they seem villainous to the reader or viewer, but ultimately you're on their side because the institutions they oppose are corrupt.