Zodiac: the Eco-thriller by Neal Stephenson
283 pages, 1988, Atlantic Monthly Press. $7.95
Review score: **1/2 out of *****
They have not been told of this diagnosis, for it is felt that as long as the man feels well, is happy at home and at work, and his physical condition remains good, nothing should be said ... The fibrosis of this disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But as long as the man is not disabled, it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and the Company can benefit by his many years of experience. Should the man be told of his condition today, there is a very definite possibility that he would become mentally and physically ill, simply through the knowledge that he has the disease.
Dr. Kennith Smith, Medical director of Johns-Manville, 1948
If she is called in, she will get hysterical, and I am sure you will have a claim on your hands.
Dr. David DuBow, Johns-Manville plant physician, late 1950s
The above quotes are from Ultimate Risk by Adam Raphael. Johns-Manville was the leading manufacturer of asbestos. The disease that the doctors are discussing is asbestosis, a progressive, irreversable, and fatal disease of the lungs caused by long term exposure to asbestos. After knowingly manufacturing a deadly material for many years, Johns-Manville was finally driven into bankruptcy on August 26, 1982, after paying out several hundred million dollars in compensation, damages and legal fees. Insurance companies, principally Lloyds of London, faced huge losses as well. Not one executive of Johns-Manville ever served a day in jail, although they had knowingly caused the premature deaths of many people.
The above is good to keep in mind when reading Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, a tale of corporate bad guys and environmental activist good guys. Although Zodiac is a classic tale of the good guys winning and the hero getting the girl, the type of corporate criminality in the story has its analog in real life.
Stephenson has a talent for creating wild characters and a world with an insane tint, although in this case, the tint has some of the colors of fact. Unlike Stephenson's later books, Snowcrash and Diamond Age, Zodiac is not set in a future world, but in the Boston of the current world. The hero of Zodiac is Sagamon Taylor (known as S.T. to his friends), a member of GEE (Group of Environmental Extremists). S.T. is bright and technologically literate. Rather than accepting a job in the corporate world, he joined GEE to track down and expose corporate criminal behavior. S.T. still lives with roommates, in a house owned by a crazy landlord. As part of his search for covert pollution, S.T. periodically samples the Boston Harbor (after reading what is probably a factually based account of the state of the Boston Harbor, I get queasy thinking about the lobster that I ate at The Noname Bar and Grill, which may have come from these same waters). The intrepid S.T. finds a major source of pollution on an island of garbage in the Boston Harbor. Knowing that the courts will do little to supress the corporate bad guys, S.T. hopes to expose them in the media, making the corporation a pariah. Tracking down the source of the pollution leads him to Basco Corp., bizzare genetically engineered bacteria, and into the path of Bosco's corporate goons.
I read Zodiac because I liked Neal Stephenson's later books, Snowcrash and Diamond Age. Zodiac is an enjoyable book, but Neal Stephenson has definitely gotten better over time. The plot in Zodiac moves at a good pace and is spiced with Stephenson's wit. Sangamon Taylor's world is populated with various strange characters and the occasional hallucinogen. But his characters are all cardboard and I never got the feeling that any of them, including S.T., were more than collections of stereotypes.
Ian Kaplan - 4/96
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