My blog design is to alternate from one week to the next, between a book review and something – mmm – different and of interest to me, ergo hopefully of interest to you, my followers. A few weeks ago (https://jackboston.com/termination-shock-by-neal-stephenson/) I reviewed Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock. Then last week I wrote about my friend Nadia Liu Spellman’s just-published book, Dumpling Daughter, a beautiful book, a collection of essays on food and family coupled with her mother’s recipes. So here we are the following week and I’m reviewing a book again – that’s three in a row. Please bear with me. I promise next week will be a very special “My Brain On Grape-Nuts” post.
Finishing the Audible version of Termination Shock, I began thinking about Stephenson’s oeuvre and how many of his books I owned yet haven’t read. I did read Snow Crash around the time it was first published. I loved it and was ready to read it again, but noted another of his early novels, Zodiac, is often overlooked. I owned it and upon closer study of the cover I saw it described as an “eco-thriller” which is a publisher’s way of punching up the two words through abbreviating “eco” (ecological) and combining it with “thriller” – that much is obvious – but it also gave birth to a new branded genre, which in my cursory research and from personal knowledge dates back to the 1960s.
I saw several lists of eco-thrillers on Goodreads which, being without specific attribution, could come from divergent sources (e.g. a sci-fi buff’s personal library). After all, I don’t think there is a New York Times bestseller list for eco-thriller novels. It looks like most of the titles on the Goodreads lists would have originated as speculative fiction, whereas the eco-thriller Wiki page only mentions Michael Crichton novels. So let’s leave its antecedents alone with my sole comment: the first novel I read which I would dub an eco-thriller was Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel, Ecotopia.
The Wikipedia entry says, “Callenbach placed the genesis of Ecotopia with an article he researched and wrote titled “The Scandal of Our Sewage”.
Which brings me all the way back to Stephenson’s Zodiac.
Published in 1988 (You see here my first edition of the mass media paperback with some truly bizarre cover art: a photo of Earth with a stem of leaves hanging beside it, and below a fish wearing a gas mask), it’s definitely set in the decade before. It takes place mostly in Boston, conderning a crew of eco-terrorists out to shut down chemical and pollution-creating industrial plants that are dumping their waste, along with over a constant flow of hundreds of years’ worth of effluvia from Boston and other nearby cities, into Boston Harbor.
At that time, it was ill-advised to swim in Boston Harbor. Since the cleanup began in the ‘80s it’s become a pretty darned clean body of water, but it’s still a work in progress. Wikipedia states, “Since the mid-1970s organizations within the Boston community have battled for a cleaner Boston Harbor.” It also goes on to cite Zodiac and its author: “Neal Stephenson, who attended Boston University from 1977 to 1981, based his second novel, Zodiac, around pollution of the harbor.” I can’t imagine Neal’s novel not having had some influence on the environmental cleanup of this bright, blue, sparkling body of water which adds so much natural beauty to Boston. (The aircraft 10-mile flight approach is usually from the Atlantic Ocean, east to west, over the harbor and its islands to touch down on the water’s edge of Boston. Very scenic.)
Zodiac was a tremendously fun novel to read. Living in Boston throughout this period (as I still do), its craziness was infectious; I reminisced about some of the fun, wild stuff I did (much of it with my “Rhino Farm” buddies, but that’s a story) in those days (relivable by listening to The Cars).
I felt like Zodiac ended too soon, but living and writing it certainly left a profound mark on the author’s consciousness and his ongoing environmental concerns. Those concerns dominate a lot of human thought and action these days, so tautologically identified as “climate change” (like when did the climate not change?). What’s old is new, but with new eyes, ears, feelings, outcomes. Zodiac will give you a deep dive (sic) into one of the origin stories. Perhaps its most salient feature is its perspective – showing how the forces of eco-logical and its alter ego, eco-terrorism, evolved together, each attempting to save the planet. But make no mistake: before, meanwhile, and after, the earth will abide.