You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘political thriller’ tag.

The big lie of American capitalism is that corporations work in their own best interests. In fact they’re constantly doing things that will eventually bring them to their knees. Most of these blunders involve toxic chemicals that any competent chemist should know to be dangerous. They pump these things into the environment and don’t event try to protect themselves.

In the opening pages of Zodiac, Sangaman Taylor snorts a bag of nitrous oxide and he describes the effect as being like having “half of an orgasm backfired in the middle of my brain“. The first time I read Neal Stephenson‘s novel Snow Crash, my reaction was comparable to Sanagaman’s druggy delirium. Here was a writer, I thought, who got *it*. Two years ago I was reading an article about Stephenson in Wired magazine, where in his latest publicity photos the author had begun to resemble a benign monk. His novels have broken out of the cyberpunk genre and his latest series the Baroque Cycle a remarkably ambitious fictionalised account of the history of ‘natural philosophy’.

The man is my guru.

Zodiac, as it happens, is a relatively early book of Stephenson’s, although still bearing the stylistic traces of ambition, humour and erudition so common in his writing.

Sangaman Taylor is a genius-level environmental activist working with a group known as GEE in the Boston area. Where other students that graduated from the same colleges as himself wound up working for the major chemical companies, S.T. became convinced that only he could stand in the way of rampant profiteering and the flagrant breaking of environmental protection laws. Not above snorkeling around punctured effluent pipe-lines, traipsing through sewer tunnels, and then holding the press conference with the chemical samples he manages to obtain, there is nothing he enjoys more than beating the corporate P.R. reps at their own game. Part intellectual Robin Hood cum media darling, S.T. enjoys the fruits of his labour, even if he has to whip the tree-hugging suporters of GEE into line every once and a while.

When a member of a family with connections to the number one polluter of Boston Harbour stands for election, S.T. goes on the warpath. Searching for evidence that connects Alvin Pleshy, nicknamed ‘The Groveler’, directly to the dumping of toxic waste by Basco, S.T. discovers a highly virulent polycarbon chemical present in the waters of the harbour. Lobsters that have absorbed the substance have been left with liquified livers. Humans who come into contact with the water themselves are coming down with a deadly infection, one that was previously seen in Vietnam, where Basco has also run factories. Then there is matter of thugs on S.T.’s trail whenever he visits the harbour in his Zodiac motor boat, a gang of murderous Satanists high on P.C.P., an attempted assassination and a corporate headhunter from a Basco subdivision who wants S.T. on their side.

Through it all S.T. makes sure to make time for beer and Vietnamese food, to keep his thinking fluid. Not even being framed as an ecoterrorist can stop his unwavering drive to put his intelligence to a good cause.

At times this book reads like a lecture on chemistry, with long discussions of covalent bonding and the degrees of toxicity we are exposed to in everyday life. Stephenson makes for an entertaining lecturer though and Sangaman is a witty tourguide on this hellish investigation of corporate irresponsibility. The environmentalist message of this book is ultimately a positive one. One man can turn the tide against systematic abuses of the law through an astute application of intelligence and cunning (it also helps to have a gang of South Boston Irish on hand as well).

There is a near-Pynchonian degree of humour and invective on display here. The book itself may well be described as an ecoterrorist tract, yet it makes a sincere appeal for greater transparency for the sake of the public good.

A punchy, complex and winningly intelligent political thriller, with a strong environmental message. Excellent stuff.

‘What kind of books you write?’

‘Autobiographies.’

This obviously baffled him. He suspected mockery, but wasn’t quite sure. ‘Autobiographies, huh? Don’t you have to be famous to do that?’

‘Not any more.’

I have been waiting for the excuse to review this book for some time. Robert Harris’ thinly disguised poison letter directed at Tony Blair’s regime has already been made into a film, powered by the still vibrant anger felt by many Britons towards the Teflon Prime Minister. I was interested in reading the book, but decided to wait until the two men who defined the War on Terror released their own biographies. Tony Blair’s A Journey was a best-seller that inspired an unusual campaign by protesters to move the book to the ‘Crime’, section. Last week George Bush published his memoirs following the American mid-term elections. Apparently the most distressing event in his two terms of office was having Kanye West complain about his reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

I wanted to know if Harris had sketched out a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts years before these two former heads of state returned to the media scrum to defend their actions.

Each chapter of this book opens with a quote from Andrew CroftsGhostwriting, introducing us to the life of a professional ghost writer. British Prime Minister Adam Lang has retreated to Martha’s Vineyard to ‘write his memoirs’. Unfortunately his last ghost writer has been found dead. That man’s replacement has arrived from London with dollar signs in his eyes, eager to please and having won the commission due to his intention to write an autobiography’that has more in common with a celebrity tome than a political memoir. He wants to tell a story with heart, which appeals to both Adam and his wife Ruth. They are eager to regain the love of the British people, as since his stepping down he has become the most hated man in Britain.

Our nameless ghost simply wants to clean up the material his predecessor McAra wrote, take his cheque and maybe get a mention on the acknowledgements page. He finds Adam Lang to be a very willing subject, charming and happy to engage his ghost-writer with personal reflections not common to most political biographies.

The atmosphere at the retreat itself is close and it becomes clear that the marriage of the Langs is under enormous strain. Adam Lang himself seems more like an actor than a statesman, faking sincerity where genuine emotion is needed. Then a rival politican announces that charges are to be brought before International Criminal Court accusing Lang of war crimes. What’s more the ghost-writer begins to suspect that there was more to McAra’s death than suicide due to work strain. He discovers that he is being watched, with electronically saved documents vanishing from his computer and strangers accosting him in public. Could he soon share the same fate as McAra?

What impresses most about this book is the tangible sense of anger. The arguments for and against the invasion of Iraq will continue to be debated, but what remains unusual is the refusal of Tony Blair in particular to acknowledge any responsibility for the colossal tragedy that followed his decision to go to war. Adam Lang’s need to be loved echoes that of Blair’s, the sole consistent aspect of his Prime Ministership being his love of associating with rock stars, whether it was the Gallagher Brothers during the Cool Britannia era, or Bono in the run-up to the G8 summit in Scotland. Therefore if Lang/Blair is to be loved, he cannot be the war criminal the British public see him as.

Harris wraps a gripping thriller plot around the hook of his Blair pastiche. The conspiracy uncovered by the ghost is convincingly established with chilling insight. I also liked the numerous references to ghostly presences in the book, from the phantom presence of McAra to the ambiguously unreal Adam Lang himself. The fame-chasing ghost-writer is also a condemnation of the lax complicity of the public in the actions of our leaders.

Harris’ book is an impressive political thriller, as well as a momentous broadside against the ‘Special Relationship’, between the United States and the United Kingdom. Angry, defiant (there was a possibility Harris would have faced libel charges from the Blairs) and gripping, a very entertaining yarn.

Join me at The Momus Report

Vote For Me!

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share