A zodiac is a small, relatively high-powered, ocean-going boat, which entered the popular imagination primarily because Jacques Cousteau used them. They have a hard hull and big, soft, inflatable inner tube like sides. Zodiacs are the kind of relatively simple, fairly inexpensive, highly-effective and versatile tool that occasionally gets made and recognized. They’re fast and maneuverable and useful for getting people around quickly and easily in the ocean over fairly short distances. I rode in one in British Columbia, 17 years ago, to go whale watching; they haven’t changed a lot since then.
For Sangamon Taylor (or just S.T.), protagonist of Zodiac (Neal Stephenson, 1988) and veteran environmental activist, a zodiac is the best way around Boston, a superb tool for harassing toxic chemical producers, and a thrill a minute. In between getting drunk and sucking down large quantities of nitrous oxide, S.T. works against pollution by embarrassing corporations and politicians and, occasionally, by physically plugging industrial waste outflows, thereby at least temporarily shutting down a plant. He is well-known in environmental circles and infamous in the business world. S.T. is young and brash; when he’s working on a job and gets tired enough, he pops a couple tabs of LSD to keep him up. Regardless of his habits, he’s also pretty smart.
Zodiac is about S.T. and his investigation of and fight with one particular pollution problem. It’s told entirely from his perspective and, aside from a few side trips representative of S.T.’s somewhat distractible personality, the story stays focused and moves along well. Written by a young man about a young man, the novel has all the strengths, pleasures, and faults of young men in the U.S. It was a pleasant distraction for me, a break from more thought-provoking reading. In trying to look past the hubris and bravado, I see a lesson about the satisfaction and effectiveness of direct action in politics. What it lacks in profoundness, the book makes up for in fun.