Book Review: Zodiac

ZodiacZodiac by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You ever have an author who writes in a style you personally can’t put down, but which you can understand other people might not care for nearly as much? That’s Neal Stephenson for me. Not to say that his books aren’t well liked. He’s a very popular author. But each time I come across one of his books I haven’t read, I check out the reviews ahead of time, and often they’re mixed.

People enjoy them well enough. But I don’t really want to read a book I just “enjoy well enough.” Especially not a Neal Stephenson book. His stories can be hard to get into. They’ve got a steep learning curve, as you have to figure out just what his characters are talking about when you start to read. He dives deep into their heads. Not that his sentences are unintelligible, but his characters will use lingo you’ve never encountered. It can be overwhelming.

And yet, despite the mixed reviews, I inevitably read the book anyway, because Neal Stephenson. Zodiac was a book I’d been avoiding, because it didn’t seem to be the typical Stephenson I like so much. I love his science fiction, and this book was about . . . lobsters? And the environment? Maybe it would be best if I avoided it.

Until I couldn’t avoid it. I was ahead on my reading schedule, so I thought it was worth a risk. I’m really glad I took it.

As usual, the book is hard to understand at first. It’s not until 20 or 30 pages in that I started to understand a bit about the life of the main character. How he’s an activist fighting against pollution, and not afraid to get his hands a bit dirty in the process. It’s him and his team vs. big corporations, and he’s made enough of a name for himself that those corporations are worried about him.

He stumbles across something that might (or might not) be a huge environmental disaster. It’s definitely a mystery he wants to unravel. And unravel it he does.

I read the book very quickly. I was squeezing in pages wherever I could. I felt like I learned a lot about pollution and how companies can get away with it. (One of his best lines was on how thrashed communal spaces become. I could relate to this, as when I lived in Germany as a Mormon missionary, the shared apartments had a tendency to get very . . . “well used.” No one had an incentive to keep them up to snuff. When it comes to the oceans and rivers, the same principle is at work. No one has any stake in the game when it comes to defending them. Keeping them clean. And so people abuse them.)

I personally feel like Stephenson’s writing and plotting justify the hard entry into his novels. They can be frustrating at first, but he does such an excellent job of bringing his characters to life, that all that struggle feels worthwhile at the end. If you’ve held back from Stephenson because he does sci-fi more often, then give this one a shot. And if you’ve been holding back from Zodiac because it’s not sci-fi, hold back no longer.

It was a great read.

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