Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson

19 June 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverLife is full of little coincidences. I tend to believe that the more coincidences you notice while following a certain path, the better the likelihood that that path is the right one to follow. In other words, the world has a strange way of aligning itself into a coherent, integral whole just when you’re at one with it.

In a mundane way, I will take the following anecdote to mean that I was reading Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac at the right time in my life.

Zodiac is told from the first-person perspective of Sangamon Taylor, an environmental activist who fancies himself a “Toxic Spiderman” while most people, to his chagrin, call him “Granola James Bond.” S.T. likes to spend his time racing around Boston Harbor in an overpowered Zodiac inflatable raft, searching to uncover the latest industrial crime to pollute those already-despoiled waters. As a part of this pursuit, he has enlisted local lobstermen to provide him with any odd or deformed lobsters they catch, along with data on where they were caught. S.T. hopes to use these data to pinpoint toxic spills in the harbor and thereby to take down the large corporations responsible.

Recently my wife went to the latest travesty of Sprawl to inflict itself on the landscape, Costco, and bought a 12-pack of assorted flavours of Jones Soda. If you’re not familiar with Jones Soda, it’s a hip little upstart soda company from Canada with a collection of classic and/or funky flavours including cream soda, grape, and (no joke) blue bubble gum. Their kitschiest gimmick is that their labels sport photographs submitted by anyone and everyone, with subject matter that might be almost anything—I’ve seen landscapes, people on the beach, seals at the zoo, even a bowling alley where the #1 pin has been stood on its head. The labels are always changing, and always give credit to the submitter and their hometown.

One of the flavours in that 12-pack was Green Apple. It’s a frightful shade of neon green that you can really only get by mixing Yellow #5 and Blue #1. That said, it’s a surprisingly tasty soda with all-natural flavouring, a nice tart apple without being too sickly sweet.

Then I looked closely at the label, and discovered that while reading a book about toxic lobsters, I was drinking a toxic-waste-green soda bearing a picture of… cartoonishly caricatured giant stuffed lobsters!

Stephenson wrote Zodiac back in 1988, and in very minor ways the book dates itself. I was surprised that S.T. didn’t use GPS to pinpoint his position in the harbor, until I remembered that the first operational GPS satellite wasn’t launched until February 1989 and it would be several years before handheld receivers would be available to the public. In so many ways, though, this book is as timely now as it was then, and environmental catastrophe probably looms larger on the horizon now than it did then. Which makes it all the more scary.

The main plot of Zodiac has to do with Basco, Inc., a fictitious chemical company that creates, through one of its subsidiaries, a genetically altered bacterium that converts PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, nasty stuff) into harmless saltwater. They use these bacteria to cover up a PCB spill that they dumped years before and which recently began to leak. In a sense, this new “bug” is a helpful thing for the environment.

Now, big chemical companies use PCBs in a lot of their operations, and need to make large quantities of the stuff through a method that requires lots of expensive electrical power. Basco realizes that if it can create a bug that converts PCBs to saltwater, it can engineer one to perform the reverse process, thus allowing them to make PCBs out of readily available seawater, for cheap. Unfortunately, this bug gets loose, apparently through subterfuge, and enters the harbor. And unless S.T. and his compatriots can stop it, the new bug threatens to poison the entire harbor and, in the worst case, the entire world.

Zodiac is exciting and fast-paced, and full of Stephenson’s trademark: long rambling discussions rife with plot-significant technojargon. As a technogeek, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and as it reached a climax, with machine guns cracking and explosions tearing through the water, I found myself thinking, “this book would make a great movie.”

I have several trains of thought about that. One is that the book is awfully predictable. As soon as S.T. begins to talk about a bacterium that can convert PCBs to saltwater, I knew there’d be a bug that does the opposite. That’s why I don’t feel bad about mentioning it previously, because it’s not much of a spoiler. Of course, predictability does not stop most movies from being made.

The idea of a movie version of Zodiac immediately made me think of another author: Michael Crichton. Every Crichton book I’ve read (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Sphere) reads like nothing more than an extended screenplay treatment. (A ‘treatment,’ for those not familiar with film argot, is a short novelistic summary of a screenplay, usually used to sell that screenplay.) This seems to be more and more the case with Crichton from year to year: Sphere, especially, had no character development and I knew, just from reading it, that it would soon be made into a blockbuster movie with really cool special effects—and a piece of crap.

On the other hand, Stephenson has a sharp wit and attacks his subjects with a levity, vicious though it is, that Crichton lacks. After all, in the acknowledgements for Zodiac the author takes pride in the fact that a friend who read the rough draft said the main character is a total asshole; Neal says that’s how he knew he was on the right track.

Then I thought about Jurassic Park. In the book, the mathematician Malcolm (played in the film by Jeff Goldblum) is bitten by a dinosaur early on and spends the rest of the story in a feverish delirium, ranting at length about chaos theory, genetics, and the dangers of human hubris when playing with those things. Malcolm is the conscience of the book, and carries the entire crux of the message Crichton is trying to put forth. In the movie, however, Malcolm’s rant is reduced to perhaps one or two brief lines, and non sequiturs at that. The result: total Spielbergization, a Disney theme park of a movie.

That’s one of the biggest problems with movies today. No dialogue. If S.T.’s diatribes were cut, not only would the message of Zodiac be lost, but much of the necessary exposition and plot development would be lost too. The whole book would be reduced to a cool boat chase involving S.T.’s Zodiac and a high-speed Cigarette boat, and a lot of gunplay at the end.

I’m sure they’d cut out all the casual drug use, as well. For one, S.T.’s a big nitrous oxide user. He has a personal tenet he calls “Sangamon’s Principle” that essentially says simple molecules are better, because you never know what side effects more complicated compounds will have. Hence the affinity for N2O, which he huffs all the time. But then there’s also pot and LSD and ‘shroom use, and PCP (by the bad guys).

And finally, I doubt the city of Boston would want the kind of negative publicity this book engenders by describing Boston Harbor as one gigantic sewer, which like all major metropolitan waterways it is. The city would probably balk at having the movie shot there, even if it were made out to be some generic, unnamed major city, which might be difficult, because Stephenson uses so many well-known locations such as Fenway Park, Spectacle Island, and Harvard Square.

In fact, this brings up another point about Stephenson. His books almost demand accompanying maps because of his integral use of topology to tell his stories. The Diamond Age needs a map of Shanghai and environs in the late 21st Century. Cryptonomicon relies on a knowledge of modern-day Manila and Luzon. And Zodiac is constantly moving about on a real-world map of Boston. In fact, Stephenson’s description of the location of Basco’s main plant in Everett, Massachusetts, is so specific that I’d like to know what corporation really does own the land described. Then again, perhaps he changed the landscape just enough to avoid a potential lawsuit.

Okay, enough rambling. The upshot of Zodiac is this: it’s a quick, predictable, fun read. Good action movie potential, if there are any screenwriters left in Hollywood that are capable of writing dense, complicated, technically inclined dialogue. And enough environmental concerns to make one want to swear off lobsters forever. Except those on a bottle of Jones Soda.

(Zodiac has been nominated for inclusion on the Shut List.)

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