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Contraband
George Foy
Bantam Spectra, 439 pages


Art: Peter Gudynas
Contraband
George Foy
George Foy is a writer and journalist. He has published five novels, including Challenge, Asia Rip, and The Shift. He has worked as a commercial fisherman, a vacuum-molding machine operator, and a paralegal in New York City law firms. He has traveled into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan with an arms-smuggling caravan, acted on network television, and participated in the creation of a CD-ROM game. He lives with his wife, children, and cat in New York City and Cape Cod.

ISFDB Bibliography
Review of The Shift

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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Joe Marak is a smuggler. He lives a life of speed and risk, in the moment and on the edge. But smuggling, or the Trade as it's known, has suddenly become much more difficult. A group called BON (Bureau of Nationalizations, an anti-terrorist group that's responsible for all extra-USA law enforcement) has developed new technology that allows them to uncannily anticipate the plans and destinations of smuggling groups, and pick them off one by one. This technology, Marak is told, is run by a mysterious figure known as Bokon Taylay.

When Marak's plane is shot down by BON aircraft, he tries to start over in the Trade, this time with a speedboat. But BON is waiting for him again -- and when he manages to make his way back to his New York City apartment, he finds BON there too. Homeless, deprived of his livelihood, he and two friends decide to try to find Forrest Hawkley Stanhope, the semi-mythical author of the smugglers' all-purpose reference source, The Freetrader's Almanac and Cookbook. Hawkley knows more than anyone about the Trade and the law enforcement outfits that try to regulate it; if anyone can outwit Bokon Taylay, he can. He may, in fact, already have done so: his smuggling groups are the only ones that aren't getting caught. The only problem: no one in the world knows exactly where Hawkley is.

I had a tough time getting into Contraband. The first chapters are all over the place, hopping from location to location and scene to scene in a way that certainly establishes atmosphere, but doesn't add up to an especially focused story. They're written in a sometimes florid literary style, with long, off-putting passages of thrillerish techno-jargon. Foy doesn't use his hero's name, calling Marak "the pilot" throughout, an affectation I found irritating. Perhaps it's intended to convey universality -- Marak isn't just Marak, but Everysmuggler, a composite of all the little guys who struggle for life and freedom under the crushing weight of the giant corporations and government regulators -- but to me it just seemed artificial, and reinforced the sense of distance I got from the first part of the book.

But as many times as I put the book down, I picked it up again -- and I'm glad I did, because around page 100, everything falls into place. The plot acquires momentum, even urgency; the writing loses its digressive quality, becoming taut and focused and at times, quite beautiful. Contraband turns into a road story, or perhaps a quest story, propelling its protagonists from the anarchic decay of New York City, to the mall-bound barrens of an Indiana suburb, to the shabby but hip cafes of Germany, to the strife-wracked mountains of Afghanistan, and at last into a Joseph Conrad-like heart of darkness, where the high-tech world that was the journey's starting point is only a rumor. Along the way the characters (especially the pseudo-nameless pilot) acquire depth and definition, struggling not just with the difficulties of search and flight, but with the dynamics of love, loss, and disillusion. Beneath the quest for Hawkley, each is engaged in a personal quest, which the journey shatters and fulfills in various ways.

Foy uses standard cyberpunk elements -- plague, weird technology, urban decay -- but he combines them in idiosyncratic ways and gives them a sharp edge of satire. Commercials hawk earwax deodorant; graves are equipped with video so the dead don't miss their favorite shows; people suffer from TeleDysFunction, a serotonin imbalance triggered by overexposure to electronic media, which has as its main symptom an obsession with bad TV. I did have a bit of trouble accepting Foy's timeline: in a world so altered from our own, it seems odd that there should be living characters who were active participants in the 60s counterculture. But this is a minor quibble.

I began this book a skeptic, and finished it a convert. Contraband is a fine novel by a talented author, and I definitely plan to read anything else Foy comes up with.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.


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