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Contraband

There’s a danger in creating science fiction for the ideas to overwhelm the story and characters. That doesn’t happen altogether in Contraband, but the book suffers from it.

The story is set in the near future, and attempts to extrapolate the evolution of mobile media technology and the impact of online user-generated video content on society. “Contraband” is an outlaw mobile broadcaster that features sensationalistic video clips, which it pays contributors for based on the clips’ popularity. Generally speaking, if it bleeds, it leads in the viewing stats, which has led to people deliberately setting up acts of violence so their friends can record them and they can cash in.

This is an interesting idea, and could be turned into an interesting character study of someone sinking farther and farther into this race to the bottom. But Contraband doesn’t quite pull it off. Toby, the central character who finds himself pulled into the inner machinations for control of Contraband, doesn’t seem to be spiraling anywhere except in circles, going from one place to another, interacting with one “character”, then another, etc.

Sure, there’s some violence and threats of violence, but none of it seems especially shocking, at least not on the level that one would expect involved in a video channel where a vicious beating in the park is just another evening’s prime time entertainment. Instead there’s a lot of talking and narration, much of it explaining the technology or its social impact or cultural developments or (especially) the workings of Contraband. At times it reads like a stock Warren Ellis character blathering on in “mad futurist” mode but without the aren’t-I-clever attitude, leaving it… a bit dull. It rarely sounds like actual dialog.

Another bit that doesn’t ring true is the legendary status of a particular video as the nearly-unassailable top-ranked clip. In a culture that’s chomping at the bit for lurid sensation, it just doesn’t seem likely that anything would have that much more than 15 minutes of fame. And where exactly does all this money come from… are viewers actually paying for content in the future?

The art suffers from what seems like a lack of command of the drawing medium. It reminds me a bit of the rotoscoped vector animation of films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, in which the features sometimes don’t quite line up right as the figures move around, and the nose is just a little off here, and the eyes are slightly out of alignment there. From the look of it this was drawn (or perhaps just inked) in Illustrator, and the tools just aren’t working right for the artist.

In the creators’ defense, I didn’t read this relatively slim volume in a single sitting, but instead worked my way through it over the course of several days on breaks at work, so maybe it would hold together and build more energetic momentum if read all at once. The frequently-high text density makes it a less-than-quick read, and that’s not a bad thing per se. But in this case I think it distracts from Contraband as a story, by putting too much emphasis on the book as a theoretical description of future tech and society.