(Grove Press 1988)
This is one of Stephenson’s early speculative thrillers, though it’s not until a fair way through the book that the future-prediction becomes apparent. Sangamon Taylor lives in a low-rent house in Boston with a few others; he’s a chemist who works for the Group of Environmental Activists, GEE, as “a professional asshole”. He, like many others at GEE spends his life investigating pollution, breaches of environmental legislation and taking affirmative action against persistent polluters, such as “the Swiss bastards” of Blue Kills, New Jersey, or Boston’s own Basco, run by the Pleshy family.
On the day the story starts, S.T. meets his former Boston University classmate Dolmacher, who has left Massachusetts Analytical Service (where Taylor also used to work) and is now working for a company called Biotronics. Sangamon is at first more interested in telling the reader about his work, and about the harbour, and the pollution which empties into it every day:
“Boston Harbor is my baby. There are biologists who know more about its fish and geographers who have statistics on its shipping, but I know more about its dark, carcinogenic side than anyone. In four years of work, I’ve idled my Zodiac down every one of its thousands of inlets, looked at every inch of its fractal coastline and found every single goddamn pipe that empties into it … all of them have told their secrets to my gas chromatograph.”
At length, the plot materialises (though the beginning part is entertaining and packs in a lot of information about contamination and its effects), and involves PCB contamination in the harbour, first noticed when S.T.’s project with the lobster fishermen reveals men showing signs of chloracne and the lobsters they’re presenting for analysis are full of these nasty chemicals.* He goes to investigate the location where the latest batch of lobsters were caught – it’s near an artificial island made entirely of rubbish, dumped in the days before environmental legislation – and his first sample turns up full of PCBs. When he goes back, trying to track where the pollution has come from, he finds some peculiar results.
Then the detective work starts, and his life is threatened, as he discovers what Basco have done, what Biotronics are doing, and what part Dolmacher has been playing.
There’s quite a bit of info-dumping in the first few chapters, but it’s done well, with S.T. writing conversationally about his work, and his dedication to stopping or shaming polluters who discharge contaminants into the rivers and seas. It all ends very thrillingly. You’d definitely know a lot more about industry and contamination after reading this book – Stephenson has certainly done his research – and about the techniques activists use to to stop them (which Stephenson recounts with barely concealed glee).
The characters are engaging and quirky, and even the bad guys are realistic. In my opinion, Sangamon bears a fair degree of similarity to Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash, but I think that’s more due to their attitude to the world: both are fairly diffident when it comes to the outside world, but with anything to do with their own areas of expertise, they are authoritative and not to be trifled with.
I like Stephenson’s work – it’s inventive and readable and very imaginative – though this, along with Cobweb, is probably the only one of his books which is definitely set in the present day or a very near future, with little in the way of outlandish technology. I enjoyed this one very much, liking the fact that the environmental activists are the heroes, and Sangamon is an entertaining narrator. I also like the way so much science is explained and included in the novel – I’d hope that even a non-scientist would understand the concepts he writes about.
* PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls – Stephenson describes them and their effects well and accurately in the book, so I’m not going to repeat it here.