Zodiac – Neal Stephenson

3 out of 5

Neal Stephenson has become well known for allowing for many pages of off-topic rants in his many novels – about cereal; about furniture – and the reason this device works, and isn’t just solely a random diversion, is because the author has often “earned” that rant: it will make sense for the characters, and for the way the story is told, and so ultimately adds to what makes the book memorable. And there’s a less direct representation of this, found in the way Stephenson plots, in which a story often congeals from many pokes and prods across hundreds of pages, instead of coming to light from a clear thesis statement somewhere towards the beginning. Similarly, while there might be a climax, such peaks can be supported by the reverse of that plot emergence, with the Ah-Ha moments found at the convergence point of everything that’s going on at the same time. In all of these stylistic touches, the characters and the world are often so well realized that it’s just exciting being a part of it, and when that’s applied to the science fiction creations (or historical sci-fi) of his Snow Crash-and-beyond works, our journey is in understanding that world, and those climaxes are like our finalized grasp on the same. It’s a unique thing.

Does it work when applied to a slimmer, more streamlined thriller, such as Zodiac? For a while.

Zodiac has some minor rants, courtesy of badass environmentalist Sangamon Taylor, who will cut away from whatever topical toxic investigations he’s up to to talk to us about drug use, or his girlfriend woes, and these do serve the same purpose of setting the irreverent tone of the character’s narration (and thus the book), but we’re only ever a paragraph or so away from getting back on a relative topic. What’s more telling of the Stephenson style is the plotting: Taylor gets hints of some new lab-crafted bug in the waters of Boston, poisoning the local lobsters, but those hints are not exactly a roadmap. It’s not until about 100 pages in that they add up to enough of a picture to lead Taylor toward suspecting some larger consipiracies of waste-dumping coverups, and even then, he’s got plenty of day-to-day toxic avengering to take us on, preventing investigations from getting into full swing.

This would be annoying if Stephenson wasn’t such a good writer, and didn’t take us through the world of environmental hacking so effectively, at least within context of Taylor’s worldview. We get fun snapshot explanations of chemical reactions, and little MacGyver insights into how operations like “GEE International” – Taylor’s company – DIY fights the waste-belching underwater pipes of the world, and all of the relative oddballs with whom Taylor interacts are treated with that same approach that gives them an entire life outside of Zodiac’s narrative.

But of course, when you’re billing this as a “thriller,” and things don’t get directly thrilling until another 100 pages or so, when hints and investigations finally lead to mega corps sending hits squads after your protag for threatening their coverup, you’re at some point going to be asking why you haven’t uncovered the actual plot yet. You have, though – Neal is just hacking around it in his typical style, which also means that typical “I guess we’ve arrived at the conclusion” moment, but without the satisfaction of the journey to get there having been an adventure the entire way.

Still – the book’s airport-read brevity, the unusual promotion of eco-centric types as badass warriors, with some super smart and capable folks working in their ranks, and Stephenson’s wit, and hand-waiving energy he brings to what’s ultimately a fairly straight-forward story of big business coverups – all of this makes Zodiac a fun read, though definitely more as a footnote to the author’s career, as it feels slightly too unfocused to have been a Snow Crash-type discovery, had anyone had this as their first Stephenson experience.