Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Now I want to write eco-thrillers

Apparently the Cephalopodiatrist does book reviews now, because I just finished Neal Stephenson's Zodiac and I want to blog about it.

It has probably outranked Diamond Age as my favorite Stephenson novel, although I just finished it half an hour ago, so it may need time to settle into place. (No, I haven't read Anathem yet.)

The thing is, Zodiac is my kind of nerdy. True, I've never been a real environmental activist or worked at a non-profit, but as a marine biologist you get plenty of exposure to conservation ecology and politics. Seminars, workshops, lectures, petitions--all that stuff gets circulated around the eco-evo mailing list. And then some.

A few chapters in, I told my husband, the computer engineer, "I can see how you must feel when you read all his other books." Zodiac's fun facts about organic toxins and bioaccumulation and EPA impotency are all so charmingly familiar to me. And within the first twenty pages, Stephenson take the opportunity to school his reader on logarithmic scales, when our hero discovers that a chemical company's waste is raising the local pH from a legal 8 to an illegal 13:

The difference between pH 13 and pH 8 was five, which meant that pH 13 was ten to the fifth power--a hundred thousand times--more alkaline than pH 8. That kind of thing goes on all the time. But no matter how many diplomas are tacked to your wall, give people a figure like that and they'll pass you off as a flake. You can't get most people to believe how wildly the eco-laws get broken. But if I say, "More than twice the legal limit," they get comfortably outraged.
The whole book is a lesson in outrage, really, and it's kind of depressing. That's the problem with writing a book inspired by ecology instead of engineering. In fact, I might go so for as to suggest that this is the first science fiction by Stephenson that I've read. The Diamond Age, Snow Crash--these are engineering fiction.

What happens if we invent nanotechnology? is an engineering question.

What is happening in the world around us right now? is a science question, and, depending on where you look, the answer can be deeply disturbing.

However, Stephenson made a smart choice in choosing characters who are direct-action environmentalists, not scientists. It would be much harder to write an "eco-thriller" about conservation scientists. I've just come back from visiting conservation scientists in Madagascar. The fact that they are in Madagascar is, of course, quite thrilling, but frankly they spend most of their time there staring at computer screens, analyzing large datasets. They do not engage in hand-to-hand combat on scuba or small boat chases during storms.

On that note, here is my first major gripe about Zodiac: incredibly stupidly unsafe scuba diving and boat operation. And I'm not talking about the hand-to-hand combat or the boat chases, because, hey, when bad guys are after you, that's just the way it is. I'm talking about decisions made in the absence of active pursuit.

When I learned to dive, the buddy system was drilled into my head so effectively (I was twelve and very impressionable) that I think it is always a stupid idea to dive alone, no matter what, end of conversation. I know a number of fairly responsible marine biologists who disagree, and say, "If you're experienced, if you're conservative, as long as someone knows where you are . . . " but I still think diving is dangerous, people can die, it's not okay.

Anyway, we can probably all agree that deciding on the spur of the moment to go out at night and dive alone from a small boat, without telling anyone, even your very most trusted associates, is just dumb.

It could be argued that it's perfectly in character for Sangamon Taylor, but I'm not sure it actually is, because he self-identifies as paranoid on numerous occasions. I guess he's just inconsistently paranoid.

On to gripe the second: the dials for profanity and recreational drug use were turned a little too high for my taste, but that's me. And that's Stephenson.

Finally, gripe the third brings in some actual science (and also spoilers, so stop reading here if you don't want Zodiac spoiled).

It was pretty arbitrary to declare that the toxin-synthesizing bacteria are obligatory anaerobes, just because. This really frustrates me; it's a good plot point and requires only a minor fix. Instead of implying that something about the fact that they synthesize toxins makes them intrinsically anaerobic--which doesn't make any sense--he could just give Dolmacher the credit for engineering it that way on purpose, which I think any genetic engineer worth his salt would do. When you engineer a toxic bug, you engineer it with a built-in control, a critical deficiency of something that only you can supply, so if gets free, it starves.

And you don't make that deficiency an anaerobic environment. Anyone who knows anything about microbiology knows that the world is full of anaerobic environments, and not just at the bottom of Boston Harbor.

Maybe you build in some kind of enzyme deficiency. Then you could have a more compelling argument for the two-strain bacterial symbiosis described in Zodiac. Instead of one strain that consumes oxygen and another than needs an oxygen-free environment--that is silly on so many levels, I mean seriously, basic bacterial respiration consumes oxygen by definition, it's not like you need to engineer that--anyway, instead of that, make it one strain that produces an enzyme the other strain is missing. That's more specialized.

But then of course you have to worry about lateral gene transfer, because bacteria can just trade genes with each other, so maybe the enzyme-limited strain will just acquire the enzyme-producing gene from the other strain, and then you're in trouble . . . see, this is the problem with genetic engineering!

To his credit, Stephenson describes that problem splendidly.

Atoms are like people. Get lots of them together, never know what they'll do . . . This plasmid, it's a huge molecule you're messing around with. You don't know what it's going to do.

All gripes aside, I loved Zodiac. As I got closer and closer to the last page, I got more and more nervous, given my past dissatisfaction with Stephenson's novel endings (a feeling shared by many in my friend group). But, pleasant surprise! I found I was quite satisfied when I finally closed the book and put it down.

And that may be enough to keep it at the top of my list.


  1. Yay! Zodiac is my favorite of his books as well. I read it first before I moved to Boston, and it was kind of cool finding out that a lot of the places in the book really do (or did) exist. His scene about crossing a busy intersection in Boston on a bicycle was spot on. I also thought the profanity and recreational drug use were rather realistic for that town (and I love Sangomon's law about molecule sizes with regard to drug use), but maybe I was just hanging out with the wrong kids in college.

  2. From what I remember of the diving sections of Cryptonomicon, it wouldn't be far-fetched to think someone else had a similar gripe with Zodiac and Stephenson made it up to them in the later book

  3. I never suspected it was unrealistic, just not to my taste. =) I enjoyed Sangamon's law too, although I found it amusing that he took several occasions to harp on heavy metal pollution without ever realizing how simple a molecule of lead or cadmium is. Small things can be toxic too.
    Guh. I just spent a few minutes with Cryptonomicon, trying to find the bits about diving, before I got fed up. Anyway, from what I can remember, it's a sound theory. I like it.

  4. a) Yay! You liked it!
    b) I told you.
    c) How dare you have a blog and not tell me about it. Subscribed now.

  5. Oh and--- good lord don't read Cryptonomicon. It's his worst book. You might like Anathem, although there's more technology than chemistry or biology, so maybe not. Maybe stick with Zodiac.

  6. d) Yay to all of the above! And, er, I kind of thought I did mention it at some point or another. Glad you found it on your own.
    I actually rather enjoyed Cryptonomicon. It's just so long and so choppy that I got frustrated looking for the bit I remembered about diving.

  7. I think the profanity and recreational drug use were rather realistic for that town.Thanks for the post!