Zodiacby Neal Stephenson
“[Stephenson] captures the nuance and the rhythm of the new world so perfectly that one almost thinks that it is already here.” —The Washington Post
The second novel from the “hottest science fiction writer in America” (Details), and New York Times bestselling author of the Baroque Cycle and Snow Crash, now available from Grove Press.
Sangamon Taylor is a New Age Sam Spade who sports a wet suit instead of a trench coat and prefers Jolt from the can to Scotch on the rocks. He knows about chemical sludge the way he knows about evil—all too intimately. And the toxic trail he follows leads to some high and foul places. Before long Taylor’s house is bombed, his every move followed, he’s adopted by reservation Indians, moves onto the FBI’s most wanted list, makes up with his girlfriend, and plays a starring role in the near-assassination of a presidential candidate. Closing the case with the aid of his burnout roommate, his tofu-eating comrades, three major networks, and a range of unconventional weaponry, Sangamon Taylor pulls off the most startling caper in Boston Harbor since the Tea Party. As he navigates this ecological thriller with hardboiled wit and the biggest outboard motor he can get his hands on, Taylor reveals himself as one of the last of the white-hatted good guys in a very toxic world.
“[Stephenson] captures the nuance and the rhythm of the new world so perfectly that one almost thinks that it is already here.” —The Washington Post
“Brilliantly realized . . . Stephenson turns out to be an engaging guide to an onrushing tomorrow.” —The New York Times Book Review on Snow Crash
“Establishes Neal Stephenson as a powerful voice for the cyber age . . . At once whimsical, satirical, and cautionary.” —USA Today on The Diamond Age
“Neal Stephenson is the Quentin Tarantino of post-cyberpunk science fiction . . . Having figured out how to entertain the hell out of a mass audience, Stephenson has likewise upped the form’s ante with rambunctious glee.” —The Village Voice on Cryptonomicon
Roscommon came and laid waste to the garden an hour after dawn, about the time I usually get out of bed and he usually passes out on the shoulder of some freeway. My landlord and I have an arrangement. He charges me and my housemates little rent—by Boston standards, none at all—and in return we let him play fast and loose with our ecosystem. Every year at about this time he destroys my garden. He’s been known to send workmen into the house without warning, knock out walls in the middle of the night, shut off the water while we shower, fill the basement with unidentified fumes, cut down elms and maples for firewood, and redecorate our rooms. Then he claims he’s showing the dump to prospective tenants and we’d better clean it up. Pronto.
This morning I woke to the sound of little green pumpkins exploding under the tires of his station wagon. Then Roscommon stumbled out and tore down our badminton net. After he left, I got up and went out to buy a Globe.
Wade Boggs had just twisted his ankle and some PCB-contaminated waste oil was on fire in Southie.
When I got back, bacon was smoldering on the range, filling the house with gas-phase polycyclic aromatics—my favorite carcinogen by a long shot. Bartholomew was standing in front of the stove. With the level, cross-eyed stare of the involuntarily awake, he was watching a heavy-metal video on the TV. He was clenching an inflated Hefty bag that took up half the kitchen. Once again, my roommate was using nitrous oxide around an open flame; no wonder he didn’t have any eyebrows. When I came in, he raised the bag invitingly. Normally I never do nitrous before breakfast, but I couldn’t refuse Bart a thing in the world, so I took the bag and inhaled as deep as I could. My mouth tasted sweet and five seconds later about half of an orgasm backfired in the middle of my brain.
On the screen, poodle-headed rockers were strapping a cheerleader to a sheet of particle board decorated with a pentagram. Far away, Bartholomew was saying: “Pöyzen Böyzen, man. Very hot.”
It was too early for social criticism. I grabbed the channel selector.
“No Stooges on at this hour,” Bart warned, “I checked.” But I’d already moved us way up into Deep Cable, where a pair of chawmunching geezers were floating on a nontoxic river in Dixie, demonstrating how to push-start a comatose fish.
Tess emerged from the part of the house where women lived and bathrooms were clean. She frowned against the light, scowling at our bubbling animal flesh, our cubic yard of nitrous. She rummaged in the fridge for some homemade yogurt. “Don’t you guys ever lay off that stuff?”
“Meat or gas?”
“You tell me. Which one’s more toxic?”
“Sangamon’s Principle,” I said. “The simpler the molecule, the better the drug. So the best drug is oxygen. Only two atoms. The second-best, nitrous oxide—a mere three atoms. The third-best, ethanol—nine. Past that, you’re talking lots of atoms.”
“Atoms are like people. Get lots of them together, never know what they’ll do. It is my understanding, Tess, that you’ve been referring to me, about town, as a ‘Granola James Bond.’”
Tess didn’t give a fuck. “Who told you about that?”
“You come up with a cute phrase, it gets around.”
“I thought you’d enjoy it.”
“Even a horse’s ass like me can detect sarcasm.”
“So what would you rather be called?”
“Toxic Spiderman. Because he’s broke and he never gets laid.”
Tess squinted at me, implying that there was a reason for both problems. Bart broke the silence. “Shit, man, Spiderman’s got his health. James Bond probably has AIDS.”
I went outside and followed Roscommon’s tire tracks through the backyard. All the pumpkins were destroyed, but I didn’t care about these decoys. What could you do with a pumpkin? Get orange shit all over the house? The important stuff—corn and tomatoes—were planted up against fences or behind piles of rubble, where his station wagon couldn’t reach.
We’d never asked Roscommon if we could plant a garden out here in the Largest Yard in Boston. Which, because it wasn’t supposed to exist, gave him the right to drive over it. Gardens have to be watered, you see, and water bills are included in our nominal rent, so by having a garden we’re actually ripping him off.
There was at least an acre back here, tucked away in kind of a space warp caused by Brighton’s irrational street pattern. Not even weeds knew how to grow in this field of concrete and brick rubble. When we started the garden, Bartholomew and Ike and I spent two days sifting through it, putting the soil into our plot, piling the rest in cairns. Other piles were scattered randomly around the Largest Back Yard in Boston. Every so often Roscommon would dynamite another one of his holdings, show up with a rented dump truck, back across the garden, through the badminton net, and over some lawn furniture, and make a new pile.
I just hoped he didn’t try to stash any toxic waste back there. I hoped that wasn’t the reason for the low rent. Because if he did that, I would be forced to call down a plague upon his house. I would evacuate his bank accounts, burn his villages, rape his horses, sell his children into slavery. The whole Toxic Spiderman bit. And then I’d have to become the penniless alter ego, the Toxic Peter Parker. I’d have to pay real Boston rent, a thousand a month, with no space for badminton.
Peter Parker is the guy who got bit by the radioactive spider, the toxic bug if you will, and became Spiderman. Normally he’s a nebbish. No money, no prestige, no future. But if you try to mug him in a dark alley, you’re meat. The question he keeps asking himself is: “Do those moments of satisfaction I get as Spiderman make up for all the crap I have to take as Peter Parker?” In my case, the answer is yes.
In the dark ages of my life, when I worked at Massachusetts Analytical Chemical Systems, or Mass Anal for short, I owned your basic VW van. But a Peter Parker type can’t afford car insurance in this town, so now I transport myself on a bicycle. So once I’d fueled myself up on coffee and Bart’s baco-cinders—nothing beats an all-black breakfast—and read all the comics, I threw one leg over my battle-scarred all-terrain stump-jumper and rode several miles to work.
Hurricane Alison had blown through the day before yesterday, trailed by hellacious rainfall. Tree branches and lakes of rainwater were in the streets. We call it rainwater; actually it’s raw sewage. The traffic signal at Comm Ave and Charlesgate West was fried. In Boston, this doesn’t lead to heartwarming stories in the tabloids about ordinary citizens who get out of their cars to direct traffic. Instead, it gives us the excuse to drive like the Chadian army. Here we had two lanes of traffic crossing with four, and the two were losing out in a big way. Comm Ave was backed up all the way into B.U. So I rode between the lanes for half a mile to the head of the class.
The problem is, if the two drivers at the front of the line aren’t sufficiently aggressive, it doesn’t matter how tough the people behind them are. The whole avenue will just sit there until it collectively boils over. And horn honking wasn’t helping, though a hundred or so motorists were giving it a try.
When I got to Charlesgate West, where Comm Ave was cut off by the torrent pouring down that one-way four-laner, I found an underpowered station wagon from Maine at the head of one lane, driven by a mom who was trying to look after four children, and a vintage Mercedes in the other, driven by an old lady who looked like she’d just forgotten her own address. And half a dozen bicyclists, standing there waiting for a real asshole to take charge.
What you have to do is take it one lane at a time. I waited for a twenty-foot gap in traffic on the first lane of Charlesgate and just eased out into it.
The approaching BMW made an abortive swerve toward the next lane, causing a ripple to spread across Charlesgate as everyone for ten cars back tried to head east. Then he throbbed to a halt (computerized antilock braking system) and slumped over on his horn button. The next lane was easy: some Camaro-driving freshman from Jersey made the mistake of slowing down and I seized his lane. The asshole in the BMW tried to cut behind me but half the bicyclists, and the biddy in the Benz, had the presence of mind to lurch out and block his path.
Within ten seconds a huge gap showed up in the third lane, and I ate it up before Camaro could swerve over. I ate it up so aggressively that some Clerk Typist II in a Civic slowed down in the fourth lane long enough for me to grab that one. And then the dam broke as the Chadian army mounted a charge and reamed out the intersection. I figured BMW, Camaro, and Civic could shut their engines off and go for a walk.
Pedestrians and winos applauded. A young six-digit lawyer, hardly old enough to shave, cruised up from ten cars back and shouted out his electric sunroof that I really had balls.
I said, “Tell me something I didn’t know, you fucking android from Hell.”
The Mass Ave Bridge took me over the Charles. I stopped halfway across to look it over. The river, that is. The river and the Harbor, they’re my stock in trade. Not much wind today and I took a big whoof of river air in my nostrils, wondering what kind of crap had been dumped into it, upstream, the night before. Which might sound kind of primitive, but the human nose happens to be an exquisitely sensitive analytical device. There are certain compounds for which your schnozz is the best detector ever made. No machine can beat it. For example, I can tell a lot about a car by smelling its exhaust: how well the engine is tuned, whether it’s got a catalytic converter, what kind of gas it burns.
So every so often I smell the Charles, just to see if I’m missing anything. For a river that’s only thirty miles long, it has the width and the toxic burdens of the Ohio or the Cuyahoga.
Then through the MIT campus, through the milling geeks with the fifty-dollar textbooks under their arms. College students look so damn young these days. Not long ago I was going to school on the other side of the river, thinking of these trolls as peers and rivals. Now I just felt sorry for them. They probably felt sorry for me. By visual standards, I’m the scum of the earth. The other week I was at a party full of Boston yuppies, the originals, and they were all complaining about the panhandlers on the Common, how aggressive they’d become. I hadn’t noticed, myself, since they never panhandled me. Then I figured out why: because I looked like one of them. Blue jeans with holes in the knees. Tennis shoes with holes over the big toes, where my uncut toenails rub against the toeclips on my bicycle. Several layers of t-shirts, long underwear tops, and flannel shirts, easily adjustable to regulate my core temperature. Shaggy blond hair, cut maybe once a year. Formless red beard, trimmed or lopped off maybe twice a year. Not exactly fat, but blessed with the mature, convex body typical of those who live on Thunderbird and Ding-Dongs. No briefcase, aimless way of looking around, tendency to sniff the river.
Though I rode through MIT on a nice bike, I’d sprayed it with some cheap gold paint so it wouldn’t look nice. Even the lock looked like a piece of shit: a Kryptonite lock all scarred up by boltcutters. We’d used it to padlock a gate on a toxic site last year and the owners had tried to get through using the wrong tools.
In California I could have passed for a hacker, heading for some high-tech company, but in Massachusetts even the hackers wore shirts with buttons. I pedaled through hacker territory, through the strip of little high-tech shops that feed off MIT, and into the square where my outfit has its regional office.
GEE, the Group of Environmental Extremists. Excuse me: GEE International. They employ me as a professional asshole, an innate talent I’ve enjoyed ever since second grade, when I learned how to give my teacher migraine headaches with a penlight. I could cite other examples, give you a tour down the gallery of the broken and infuriated authority figures who have tried to teach, steer, counsel, reform, or suppress me over the years, but that would sound like boasting. I’m not that proud of being a congenital pain in the ass. But I will take money for it.
I carried my bike up four flights of stairs, doing my bit for physical fitness. GEE stickers were plastered on the risers of the stairs, so there was always a catch phrase six feet in front of your eyes: SAVE THE WHALES and something about the BABY SEALS. By the time you made it up to the fourth floor, you were out of breath, and fully indoctrinated. Locked my bike to a radiator, because you never knew, and went in.
Tricia was running the front desk. Flaky but nice, has a few strange ideas about phone etiquette, thinks I’m all right. “Oh, shit,” she said.
“You won’t believe it.”
“The other car.”
“We don’t know yet. It’s still sitting out on the shoulder.”
I just assumed it was totaled, and that Wyman would have to be fired, or at least busted down to a position where he couldn’t so much as sit in a GEE car. A mere three days ago he had taken our Subaru out to buy duct tape, and in a parking lot no larger than a tennis court, had managed to ram a concrete light-pole pedestal hard enough to total the vehicle. His fifteen-minute explanation was earnest but impossible to follow; when I asked him to just start from the beginning, he accused me of being too linear.
Now he’d trashed our one remaining shitbox van. The national office would probably hear of it. I almost felt sorry for him.
“He thinks he shifted into reverse on the freeway.”
“Why? It’s got an automatic transmission.”
“He likes to think for himself.”
“Where is he now?”
“Who knows? I think he’s afraid to come in.”
“No. You’d be afraid to come in. I might be afraid. Wyman won’t be afraid. You know what he’ll do? He’ll come in fresh as a daisy and ask for the keys to the Omni.”
Fortunately I’d taken all the keys to the Omni, other than my own, and hammered them into slag. And whenever I parked it, I opened the hood and yanked out the coil wire and put it in my pocket.
You might think that the lack of coil wire or even keys would not stop members of the GEE strike force, Masters of Stealth, Scourge of Industry, from starting a car for very long. Aren’t these the people who staged their own invasion of the Soviet Union? Didn’t they sneak a supposedly disabled, heavily guarded ship out of Amsterdam? Don’t they skim across the oceans in high-powered Zodiacs held together with bubble gum and bobby pins, coming to the rescue of innocent marine mammals?
Well sometimes they do, but only a handful have those kinds of talents, and I’m the only one in the Northeast office. The others, like Wyman, tend to be ex-English majors who affect a hysterical helplessness in the face of things with moving parts. Talk to them about cams or gaskets and they’ll sing you a protest song. To them, yanking out the Omni’s coil wire was black magic.
“And you got three calls from Fotex. They really want to talk to you.”
“The guy wants to know if they should shut their plant down today.”
The day before, talking to some geek at Fotex, I’d mumbled something about closing them down. But in fact I was going to New Jersey tomorrow to close someone else down, so Fotex could keep dumping phenols, acetone, phthalates, various solvents, copper, silver, lead, mercury, and zinc into Boston Harbor to their heart’s content, at least until I got back.
“Tell them I’m in Jersey.” That would keep them guessing; Fotex had some plants down there also.
I went back to my office, cutting across a barnlike room where most of the other GEE people sat among half-completed banners and broken Zodiac parts, drinking herbal teas and talking into phones:
“500 ppm sounds good to me.”
“Don’t put us on the back page of the Food section.”
“Do those breed in estuaries?”
I wasn’t one of those GEE veterans who got his start spraying orange dye on baby seals in Newfie, or getting beat senseless by Frog commandos in the South Pacific. I slipped into it, moonlighting for them while I held down my job at Mass Anal. Partly by luck, I broke a big case for GEE, right before my boss figured out what an enormous pain in the ass I could be. Mass Anal fired, GEE hired. My salary was cut in half and my ulcer vanished: I could eat onion rings at IHOP again, but I couldn’t afford to.
My function at Mass Anal had been to handle whatever walked in the door. Sometimes it was genuine industrial espionage—peeling apart a running shoe to see what kinds of adhesives it used—but usually it amounted to analyzing tap water for the anxious yuppies moving into the center of Boston, closet environmentalists who didn’t want to pour aromatic hydrocarbons into their babies any more than they’d burn 7-Eleven gasoline in their Saabs. But once upon a time, this guy in a running suit walked in and got routed to me; anyone who wasn’t in pinstripes got routed to me. He was brandishing an empty Doritos bag and for a minute I was afraid he wanted me to check it for dioxins or some other granola nightmare. But he read my expression. I probably looked skeptical and irritated. I probably looked like an asshole.
“Sorry about the bag. It was the only container I could find on the trail.”
“What’s in it?”
“I’m not sure.”
Predictable answer. “Approximately what’s in it?”
“Dirt. But really strange dirt.”
I took the Doritos bag and emptied it out all over the comics page of the Globe. I love the comics, laughing out loud when I read them, and everyone thinks I’m a simpleton. The runner let out kind of a little snort, like he couldn’t believe this was how I did chemistry. It looks impressive to pour the sample into a fresh Pyrex beaker, but it’s faster to spread it out over Spiderman and Bloom County. I pulled the toothpick out of my mouth and began to pop the little clods apart.
But that was just for the hell of it, because I already knew what was wrong with this dirt. It was green—and purple and red and blue. The runner knew that, he just didn’t know why. But I had a pretty good idea: heavy-metal contamination, the kind of really nasty stuff that goes into pigments.
“You jogging in hazardous waste dumps, or what?” I asked.
“You’re saying this stuff’s hazardous?”
“Fuck, yes. Heavy metals. See this yellow clump here? Gotta be cadmium. Now, cadmium they tested once as a poison gas, in World War I. It vaporizes at a real low temperature, six or seven hundred degrees. They had some people breathe that vapor.”
“What does it do?”
“Gangrene of the testicles.”
The jogger inhaled and shifted his pair away from my desk. One of the problems, hanging out with me, is that I can turn any topic into a toxic horror story. I’ve lost two girlfriends and a job by reading an ingredients label out loud, with annotations, at the wrong time.
“Sweetvale College. Right on campus. There’s a wooded area there with a pond and a running trail.”
I, a B.U. graduate, was trying to imagine this: a college campus that had trees and ponds on it.
“This is what it looks like,” the guy continued, “the dirt, the pond, everything.”
“Colored like this?”
Despite being a chemist, I refuse psychedelics these days on the grounds that they violate Sangamon’s Principle. But I understood what he was getting at.
So the next day I got on my bike and rode out there and damned if he wasn’t right. At one end of the campus was this weedy patch of forest, sticking out into a triangle formed by some of the Commonwealth’s more expensive suburbs. It wasn’t used much. That was probably just as well because the area around the pond was a heavy-metal sewer, and I ain’t talking about rock and roll. Rainbow-colored, a little like water with gasoline floating on it, but this wasn’t superficial. The colors went all the way down. They matched the dirt. All the colors were different and—forgive me if I repeat myself on this point—they all caused cancer.
From my freshman gut course in physical geography at Boston University, I knew damn well this wasn’t a natural pond. So the only question was: what was here before?
Finding out was my first gig as a toxic detective, and the only thing that made it difficult was my own jerk-ass fumbling in the public library. I threw myself on the mercy of Esmerelda, a black librarian of somewhere between ninety and a hundred who contained within her bionic hairdo all knowledge, or the ability to find it. She got me some old civic documents. Sure enough, a paint factory had flourished there around the turn of the century. When it folded, the owner donated the land to the university. Nice gift: a square mile of poison.
I called GEE and the rest was history. Newspaper articles, video bites on the TV news, which didn’t look that great on my black-and-white; state and federal clean-up efforts, and a web of lawsuits. Two weeks later GEE asked me to analyze some water for them. Within a month I was chained to a drum of toxic waste on the State house steps, and within six, I was Northeast Toxics Coordinator for GEE International.
My office was the size of a piano crate, but mine nonetheless. I wanted a computer on my desk, and none of the other GEE honchos would risk sharing a room with one. Computers need electrical transformers, some of which are made with PCBs that like to vaporize and ooze out of a computer’s ventilation slots, causing miscarriages and other foul omens. The boss gave me his office and moved into the big barnlike room.
The same people barely noticed when Gomez, our “office manager,” started painting the walls of that office. By doing so he exposed them to toxic fumes millions of times more concentrated than what I was getting from my computer. But they didn’t notice because they’re used to paint. They paint things all the time. Same deal with the stuff they spray on their underarms and put into their gas tanks. Gomez wanted to paint my office now, but I wouldn’t let him.
Esmerelda, ever vigilant, had shot me a bunch of greasy xeroxes from the microfilm archives. They were articles from the Lighthouse-Republican of Blue Kills, N.J., a small city halfway down the Jersey Shore which was shortly to feel my wrath. It was the kind of newspaper that was still running Dennis the Menace in the largest available size. A Gasoline Alley, Apartment 3-G, and Nancy kind of paper.
The articles were all from the sports section. Sports, as in hunting and fishing, which take place outdoors, which is where the environment is. That’s why environmental news is in the sports section.
Esmerelda had found me four different articles, all written by different reporters (no specialist on the staff; not considered an important issue) on vaguely environmental subjects. A local dump leaching crap into an estuary; a freeway project that would trash some swamp land; mysterious films of gunk on the river; and concerns about toxic waste that could be coming from a plant just outside of town, operated by a large corporation we shall refer to as the Swiss Bastards. Along with the Boston Bastards, the Napalm Droids, the Plutonium Lords, the Hindu Killers, the Lung Assassins, the Ones in Buffalo, and the Rhine-Rapers, they were among the largest chemical corporations of a certain planet, third one out from a certain mediocre star in an average spiral galaxy named after a candy bar.
Each of the articles was 2500 words long and written in the same style. Clearly, the editor of the Lighthouse-Republican ruled with an iron hand. Local residents were referred to as Blukers. Compound sentences were discouraged and the inverted-pyramid structure rigorously followed. The PR flacks who worked for the Swiss Bastards were referred to by the old-fashioned term “authorities,” rather than the newer and sexier “sources.”
My only worry was that maybe this editor was so fucking old and decrepit that he was already dead, or even retired. On the other hand, it seemed he was a dyed-in-the-wool “sportsman,” a type traditionally long-lived, unless he’d spent too much time sloshing around in a particular toxic swamp. Esmerelda, accustomed to my ways, had sent a xerox of the most recent masthead, which didn’t show any changes. The senior sports editor was Everett “Red” Grooten and the sports-page editor was Alvin Goldberg.
Raucous laughter probably sounded from my office. Tricia hung up on Fotex’s PR director and shouted “S.T., what are you doing in there?” Called the florist and had them send the usual to Esmerelda. Cranked up my old PCB-spitter and searched my files. “Fish, marine, sport, Mid-Atlantic, effects of organic solvents on.” “Estuaries, waterfowl populations of, effects of organic solvents on.” These were old boilerplate paragraphs I’d written long ago. Mostly they referred to EPA studies or recent research. Every so often they quoted a “source” at GEE International, the well-known environmental group, usually me. I directed the word processor to do a search-and-replace to change “source” to “authority.”
Then I pulled up my press release about what the Swiss Bastards were pumping into the waters off Blue Kills, which my gas chromatograph and I had discovered during my last trip down there. Threw it into the center of the piece and then composed a hard-hitting topic sentence in basic Dick-and-Jane dialect, no compound sentences, announcing that Bluker sportsmen might be the first ones to feel the effects of the “growing toxic waste problems” centered on the Swiss Bastards’ illegal dumping. Hacked it all into an inverted-pyramid shape, and ended up with 2350 words. Put on a final paragraph, the lowly capstone of the pyramid, mentioning that some people from GEE International, the well-known environmental group, might be dropping by Blue Kills any day now.
Opened up my printer and put in a daisy wheel that produced a typeface that went out of style in the Thirties. Printed the article up on some unpretentious paper, stuck it in an envelope along with some standard GEE photos of dead flounder and two-headed ducks, suitable for the Lighthouse-Republican’s column width. Federal Expressed it to one Red Grooten at his home address, because I had this idea that maybe he didn’t stop by the office all that often.