Book Report: Spiderman: The Octopus Agenda by Diane Duane (1996)

Book coverApparently, in the middle 1990s, Marvel and Byron Preiss/Putnam put out a series of novels based on Marvel properties. In hardback. These books preceded the new movies that revitalized the Marvel house, by the way. These books, it would seem, did not do it.

This book is not the first of the Spider-Man books; it mentions a couple of other adventures in the past, and they seem to be building to something, as elements of those previous books led to elements in this book.

At any rate, the plot: Spider-Man finds out that Doc Ock is plotting something, and it might have something to do with a company he’d investigated previously, including some teaming up with Venom in Miami (in a previous book). Venom (Eddie Brock) is also on the trail of the company, which seems to have supplied Doctor Octopus with nuclear material that the bad doctor is going to use to crash the world’s financial markets and then destroy some cities to purify the human race. So it’s standard super hero fare.

But, unfortunately, a Spider-Man comic (or film) might be hard to transfer over to a novel, and Ms. Duane doesn’t capture the essence and the kinetic energy of Spider-Man. It’s told a bit like a straight thriller (with Spider-Man in the center of it), but the pacing is not as fast as you would expect if you were raised on Spider-Man comics, and there’s a bit too much day-to-day interaction between Peter Parker and Mary Jane (along with their housekeeping and her modeling jobs). So it’s a bit slow.

Additionally, there are some errors and oversights in the book. If I recall, it refers to the place where the license plate attaches to the car as the fender instead of the bumper. It calls the headquarters of the Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four’s Headquarters instead of the Baxter Building. It talks about the sound of Spider-Man’s footfalls as he walks into an abandoned subway station (which sounds loud for what are essentially socks, and walking on the floor seems very un-Spider-Manish). And a couple other things that were jarring.

On the other hand, the book has moments that struck right or fit in with my worldview. When MJ takes a job doing voice work for a Captain Planet and the Planeteers style cartoon, one of the other says, “Please God, twenty years from now when everyone’s reading Tolstoy and Kipling again, all this will seem very silly.” (Spoiler alert: Twenty years later, they’re probably planning a live action Captain Planet and the Planeteers reboot instead of reading Kipling (didn’t they just do a live action Jungle Book reboot? They were rebooting the cartoon no doubt.)) In another, an elderly cell phone hacker calls a grown man Stevie, and this reminded me of an older woman I knew who called a distinguished doctor “Jeffy” and the former state legislator and current County Clerk “Shanie.” So that rang true.

Also, in 1996, we get a 21st century diatribe also from the older hacker woman:

“You’re being circumspect for reasons of your own,” said Doris. “I’m not going to pry. Let’s let it pass. But bring me your wife’s phone, all right? If your problem is solvable, I want to see if I can solve it. For one thing, if her phone has the covert chip in place, we’ll be able to see some other data–time and location information, other things–which the phone company’s own records won’t necessarily reflect. There may even be recordings of some voice material.”

Peter’s eyes opened wide at that. “Recordings? How?”

Doris smiled at him. “Our snoopy government. Peter, there are more intelligence-gathering bureaus running around in this country doing their gathering than most of the government would ever like you to know. They’d quote you ‘national security’ as a reason for it–and to some extent they might be right. But the truth is that governments are just naturally nosy, and big ones are much nosier than others, and we have one of the biggest. A lot of calls are monitored, although everyone denies it. There’s no use in them denying it, really. The technology makes it easy now, especially since our cell phones systems are still almost all analog, which any kid with a scanner can listen in on. And one of the most basic human vices is the desire to look through the keyhole and see what the neighbors are really doing. When things go digital, the monitoring may lessen a little. The signal is harder to break, and consumers are getting more sensitive to the issue. Which is as it should be. But governments will still fight back, doing their best to fight tighht voice-encryption methods. By their own lights, they’re right to do so, they feel they’re protecting their own interests.” Doris sighed a little. “The NSA in particular monitors a lot of calls all over the country. Computers do it for them, taking random samplings of bandwidth and searching for certain keywords in conversations–guns, bombs, drugs, that kind of thing. If something dangerous-sounding turns up, a little bell goes off somewhere, and a live monitor quietly comes into the circuit to determine whether the threat is real. Other countries do much the same. In fact, the NSA learned the technique from the British, a while after the troubles started in Northern Ireland. As far as I know, every call from Britain to Ireland and vice versa is still routinely computer-sampled for suspect content. And I think they do the same, just for general interest–and again, with an eye to Ireland, and their own drug-smuggling problems, and so forth–with everything that comes in from the U.S. and Canada via the transatlantic cable and satellite downlink stations on the south coast of the U.K. GCHQ passes on anything interesting that they ‘hear’ to the NSAm and the NSA returns the favor at its end.”

Peter shook his head in astonishment. “Is that legal?”

Doris gave him an excessively wry smile. “It must be, dear. They’re the government aren’t they?

My goodness, that sounds current, doesn’t it? Except for the analog bit and prediction that the digital will make it harder (spoiler alert: It doesn’t).

At any rate, it’s an okay book, more of a thriller than a Spider-Manesque story, although it has Spider-Man characters. As it deals with cell phones, it’s more current than a lot of the fiction I read and has aged pretty well in that regard. I might pick up some of the others in the line as I come across them.

(As a reminder, Ms. Duane once stopped by the comments section here (well, there on Blogspot, but this blog is here now) and discussed doing Star Trek work-for-hire in the book report for My Enemy, My Ally. Which was cool. I have a lot of respect for the work-for-hire and the dedicated couple-books-a-year people except for the people churning out most of the middle 80s Executioner novels.)

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