Saturday, March 27, 2021

Contraband (review)

When you set a book five minutes into the future, you might expect the passing of even a few years will make your story outdated and irrelevant. That's certainly not the case with Contraband, which was first published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2008 and is now getting its first British edition from Markosia in May.

The book could not be more relevant. With social media platforms battling for billions in advertising revenue, there is a tendency to pay lip service to protecting younger users while doing nothing concrete to end various forms of abuse. Algorithms can send you down rabbit holes that have radicalized significant numbers of the middle-aged and middle classes around the world. When Facebook became the world's most popular source of news, it also meant that readers became less likely to check sources and less able to distinguish real news from calculated falsehoods. Lies propagate and any hope of quashing them would require a huge paradigm shift from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and all the other platforms that rely on user numbers to attract advertising.

Contraband tackles this explicitly when Toby, discussing porn available on Whisper, says "Seems Whisper's a bit sloppy enforcing a censorship policy." "Not sloppy, crafty," replies Plugger. "Feigning ignorance means avoiding legislation — and that enables Whisper to make more money." Nothing has changed in the past dozen years and hiding responsibility behind the guise of "Free speech" has taken on chilling new meaning since January 6.

The premise of filming violence on mobile phones was not author Thomas Behe's invention. The inaptly named "happy slapping" was a phenomenon in 2005-10, with the filming of random attacks quickly giving way to filming sexual assaults and horrific violence that resulted in death from injuries. In Contraband these films have a dedicated platform—Contraband—where clips that reach the top of the viewing chart can earn tens of thousands.

Toby, a "citizen journalist", has become seduced by the notion of filming popularly acclaimed content, joining the voyeur underground, prowling the city hoping to film something sensational. He becomes embroiled in the vicious battle between Tucker Scott, a mercenary with a fetish for filming violent attacks while working under contract in Afghanistan, and Charlotte, who is working with him when she is knocked unconscious in the opening pages.

The storyline isn't always easy to follow as it jumps between action in London and Belgium, one month apart. Keep your eye on the timestamps at the beginning of each chapter, because it can be confusing when characters you believe dead suddenly reappear. Complexity doesn't make Contraband a bad read but it does mean you need to concentrate across all 144 pages.

In London, we discover cyber cafe worker Toby being blackmailed by Tucker into searching for Charlotte. Contraband is being taken down by various means by Jarvis Stevens, a former intelligence officer with whom Charlotte has been working to recruit supporters.

A month later, Tucker's sidekick Plugger has been killed, Toby is in Belgium looking for Jarvis and Tucker has Charlotte — and if Jarvis doesn't send Tucker a memory chip before Charlotte's live-stream drops into second place on Contraband, she'll be killed.

The plot weaves between these various settings with Toby the thread linking the action as he encounters all the other characters.

The artwork by Phil Elliott is clean and elegant where he dialogue is heavy and perhaps tending towards being over-philosophical. Every character has a back story which they recount in detail, which slows the story down and burdens the reader with too much information. Contraband is a book that is more enjoyable the second time you read it: on second reading you can enjoy the languid pace and diversions and take time to learn more about the various characters without worrying about missing a crucial plot point. (One minor complaint about the original SLG edition: the small paperback format means panels packed with dense dialogue in tiny lettering, which my old eyes struggled with. Hopefully the Markosia edition will be slightly larger.)

Twelve years ago, Contraband could be marketed as science fiction, extrapolating on how mobile phones with cameras and the ability to share high resolution videos might develop into something nasty. Now we're living in that nasty world, it's a present day thriller that still has much to say about the ethics of living with unregulated social media platforms.

Contraband by T. J. Behe & Phil Elliott
Markosia Enterprises ISBN 978-191380260-8, 10 May 2021, 148pp, £14.99. Available via Amazon.

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