Written by Thomas J. Behe
Illustrated by Phil Elliott
Contraband isn’t an easy read. It’s part crime story, part hard science fiction, neither of which are painless genres for me. Crime stories usually feature characters I have to kind of struggle to like, while hard sf, frankly, makes my eyes glaze over. I’m just not that into technology to automatically take to stories where the use of tech is their main point.
Oh, I’m all for tech that makes life easier for me, but I’m not an early adapter by any means. I’m not a gambling man and I’d rather let someone else pay the big bucks to test new technology and help get the bugs worked out. So a crime story about state-of-the-art cell phones and people who are abusing video capturing and sharing technology is automatically going to be challenging for me. Especially when it’s full of hyper-contemporary acronyms and buzzwords. But even putting aside that it was written for a subculture I’m not part of, Contraband is still a tough assignment.
The story opens with a couple of mercenaries named Charlotte and Tucker. They’re tasked with stirring up trouble amongst insurgents in Afghanistan so that the various factions spend more time fighting each other than attacking Western troops. On one particular mission, we learn that Tucker’s kind of an asshole and we see Charlotte get clocked from behind and knocked unconscious. End of prologue.
Cut to four months later as a young man named Toby is desperately looking for Charlotte in order to save her life. Someone’s kidnapped her and is broadcasting periodic videos of her on a video-sharing website called Contraband. She’s tied up and her captor is running a poll asking whether people want to see her live or die. We’re told that these videos are the number one feature on Contraband at the moment, but as soon as she falls to number two, Charlotte’s usefulness to her captor is zero. Toby is using clues from the videos to track where the broadcasts are coming from.
Flashback to a month before that (but after Afghanistan) and Toby is caught taking video of Tucker and his buddy Plugger in an Internet café. Tucker doesn’t like it, so he threatens Toby and makes him promise to help Tucker locate Charlotte, who’s now working with an anti-violent video activist named Jarvis. The story continues to jump between the latter two time frames, both of which involve Toby’s looking for Charlotte, but for different reasons. It’s not impossible to follow the jumps, but you have to pay close attention. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just work.
But Contraband also makes you work in ways that are bad. It’s really, really dialogue heavy. In fact, I found myself wondering why Behe didn’t just write it as a novel. Elliott’s a fine, detailed artist with a clean style and a gift for characterization, but his pictures aren’t really necessary to the story. There’s some action, especially towards the end as the story climaxes, but most of the script is full of establishing shots and people talking. There are even times when Elliott interrupts the straightforward presentation of what’s going on to illustrate a metaphor that one of the characters is using. It’s actually kind of a fun gimmick, but it also highlights just how text-laden the script is.
Also, with that much reliance on dialogue, the text should be easier to follow. Most pages are fine, but there are some pages that no matter how many times I reread them I couldn’t figure out the order of some of the balloons.
Life’s not all bad though. There are rewards for those willing to stick with the book. For one thing, Behe has a great voice in all that text. People in Contraband don’t talk the way real people do, but that’s just fine. They talk better than real people do. They tend to go on and on (Tucker especially loves to speechify and given that he’s usually threatening people at the same time, there were several instances when I wondered why someone didn’t just jump him mid-lecture), but they sure are entertaining as they’re doing it.
There are also lots of twists and turns in the plot. Most of the smaller ones along the way I could see coming, but there were some nice surprises at the end, which was thoughtful and appropriate. The biggest reward in the book though is the concept itself. Freed from the work of reading it and allowed to just think back about what I’ve read, it’s a cool thriller with a point to make about the dangers of a society that’s increasingly desensitized to violence and violent images. I’m just not sure that the rewards make the book’s flaws worth pushing through.
– Michael May
There’s a Robby the Robot-like warning sign that comes up rather early on in A People’s History of American Empire, an adaptation of sorts of Howard Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States. It’s on page three to be exact. There, as Zinn talks about the horror of 9/11 we see one of the planes about to hit the towers. And inside the airplane windows we can see the cartoony, bug-eyed faces of the passengers shrieking in horror. On the far left, there’s even a silhouetted window with two circle eyes blinking out at the reader, a la your average Warner Bros. cartoon. Perhaps Yosemite Sam was on one of the planes and we just didn’t know about it.
Inappropriate doesn’t even begin to describe how utterly wrongheaded and downright offensive this image is, especially considering the serious tone Zinn and Buhle are trying to evoke here. “What were they thinking” is an inadequate question. It doesn’t help matters much that next to the image of the plane is an inset of Zinn sitting next to his computer and holding his head in his hands. Howard Zinn cared about 9/11 way more than you man. It really bummed him out.
I don’t think any book, nonfiction or otherwise, could come back strong after an opening like that and, indeed, Empire just sinks deeper into the mire the longer it goes on. This is an awful, awful book. And while there’s plenty of blame to go around here, a large potion of it must be dolloped at artist’s Mike Konopacki’s feet.
Konopacki was the completely wrong choice to try to illustrate this material. In addition to the awkward-looking, overly cartoonish figures, there’s an over reliance on PhotoShop and the insertion of photos, old illustrations and other such material (inspired perhaps by Alice in Sunderland) just accentuates the dissonance between the art and the subject matter even further. That’s not to mention the amazing lack of detail and backgrounds on any given page, so that a prevaling gradient gray dominates the look and feel of the book. Any time Konopacki attempts to portray a harrowing or cataclysmic event, say the massacre at Wounded Knee, he remarkably — and to be honest, laughably — short.
Not that the text is anything to shout about. Framed as a supposed lecture by Zinn, the book recounts a history of atrocities committed by the American government, from Wounded Knee to the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister by the CIA, with little effort made to connect the dots between the events.
There’s little here that would shock anyone who wasn’t a naive clod. We slaughtered the Native Americans. Corporations tried to crush labor unions every chance they got. America was just as imperialistic as Europe during the early 20th century. Rascism is bad. Vietnam was an ugly war.
All of this is presented in the most didactic, condescending manner possible, with dry blocks of text putting astoundingly awkward phrases and sentences in the mouths of people like Eugene Debs.
Perhaps the worst thing about Empire is that there’s absolutely no reason for it to exist. There’s nothing here that I wouldn’t get by reading any of Zinn’s other books — or watching a decent PBS documentary for that matter. It doesn’t aid or enhance the material, nor make it any easier to digest.
I didn’t want to delve into the obvious political nature of the book, but Empire did leave me musing rather cynically on the book’s seeming shock that Americans, of all people, would have said and done some really mean things. I mean, history is just one long variation of the guy on top having his hob-nailed boot on the throat of the guy below him. The crimes committed by our government are horrendous, but are they any more significant that the crimes committed by any other nation in its conquest for power? Perhaps then there’s at least one thing Zinn, Buhle, Konopacki and I can agree upon: People are no goddamn good.
– Chris Mautner