Thomas Behe, Phil Elliott, Contraband (SLG, 2008). $12.95, paperback.
by Jared Gardner
Elsewhere in this issue I complain (and quite justifiably, I might add) about the plethora of tired mini-series by folks who don’t have the focus or connections to actually generate a decent screenplay, fantasizing that in the hands of the right artist their doily of a script will become Hollywood gold. Thomas Behe’s Contraband is the exception to this rule. Contraband tells the story of Toby, who like everyone in this five-minutes-into-the-future world, is obsessed with capturing and distributing mobile video. Along the way, he gets himself caught up in a world of graymarket video violence and porn whose stakes grow ever larger as the story unfolds. The whole is an often-challenging mash-up of film noir (complete with double-crosses and a femme fatale), speculative science fiction (which, in the best tradition of Philip K. Dick, paints a world that is painfully plausible), and political blog (which, in the familiar tradition of that genre is at times long-winded and ponderous). But Behe handles the first two elements of this patchwork script so well you forgive him the last: he’s earned it, and if you aren’t convinced for much of the book that he has, I promise that the final pages will give all the earlier pontificating a whole new layer of meaning.
It is fairly obvious from early on that this actually began as a screenplay, and it is equally obvious that it couldn’t really work in that format: it is too talky, too intellectual, and too complex. It is in fact so verbose and complicated that it doesn’t entirely work in a comics format, either, and at times I thought the story would be better served as a 300-page novel, allowing time to develop the complexities of the technology, the ethical issues, the cultural slang, and the central characters. But some of the terrific surprises of the book’s final pages would not have translated well in that format, and neither would the visual energy of the crackling combination of image and text that defines the new media of internet and mobile communications, and of course the older media of comics as well. No, Behe made the right choice for the format for the story he wants to tell here, and if the fit is sometimes ungainly it is only because, in the end, it is a messy story whose ending we probably can’t begin to imagine just yet. Contraband reminds us why it is so important that we begin taking the imagining very seriously.
There are two aspects of the storytelling that make the book a thick read. First, Behe bounces back and forth in time, and in part because the two time zones are only a couple of months apart it is often hard to remember where we are in the development of the characters. Ultimately, this device serves Behe’s ambitions for the larger punch of the story, but it does have the very real effect of preventing the reader from ever fully losing himself in the tale. Phil Elliott’s art is another challenge, at times pushing toward a clean minimalism that makes reading basic facial expressions or following basic action in a physical confrontation almost impossible. But it is refreshing and crisp, and its idiosyncratic energy fits well with Behe’s script: neither are cookie-cutter stuff. More importantly, the anti-realism of the art serves as a kind of subtle alternative to the graphic violence which is being packaged and marketed on the mobile ‘nets that are at the center of Contraband’s plot.
The cause that purportedly motivates the storyline is “violent mobile video abuse,” and if the reader is inclined to take that too literally, she might be a bit baffled as to what Behe is on about here. Where are these roving gangs shooting and distributing snuff films with a single push of the button? But of course, like all good speculative science fiction, Behe is asking you to inhabit a world not so different from our own obsessions and appetites and the media that is finding new ways to feed them, only (as the Bard of Spinal Tap so eloquently put it) turned up to eleven. It is a complex story about the fight for the heart and soul of new media culture. But here it is not big media or the government fighting against the anarchic energies of the internet, as we so often see the battle played out by the talking heads, but rebel forces from within new media culture—a kind of civil war that the “legitimate” powers are powerless to stop. The obsession with mobile culture might seem a bit odd to U.S. readers who lag a few long years behind our European and Asian peers in terms of the sophistication and saturation of our mobile devices. But in truth, the cellphone is a convenient way of concentrating larger issues involved in the internet and new media in general. And as a plot device, it works: the mobile keeps everyone moving. It describes visually the saturation of this new media into every corner of our lives, every corner of the globe.
The book actually takes us into some murky ethical territory, refusing the easy glamorization of the rawest energies of internet culture. Downloading pirated music isn’t ethically suspect here because of the infringement on record company property rights, but because of the off-shore sites that have set up troubling partnerships with mercenary forces and despotic governments. At its most daring, the book even draws some sharp lines between the Blackwaters of W’s “new” wars and the exploitation of violence and spectacle for entertainment and profit. “People,” folk-hero Jarvis declares to a teaming rally, “we can now confirm that a number of these hired guns are directly responsible for the surge in mobile abuse we are seeing today.” Like the best works in the genre of speculative fiction, Contraband is less interested in the “What If” that frames its narrative, than in approaching the present at an acute angle. And whichever side of the new culture wars shaping up in this 21st century you might find yourself, Behe will provide you little comfort.
But Contraband is a book you will keep thinking about, talking about. You will want to read it again when you have come to the surprises of its conclusion. And given how little we have found to think about or to read again in recent weeks, this is high praise indeed.