I began writing for SF site to try and shake up some of my writing and reading choices. I recall this review as one where I felt I found my feet a little, and read an enjoyable book I almost certainly otherwise wouldn’t have read. Michael Shea has since died which I think is the first time this has happened to me (reviewed a book by a then living author who has since died)
I suppose this vision of reality TV gone to an extreme was very topical in 2010, but seems slightly less topical now for some reason.
One of the most abused clichés of reviewing a thriller is to describe it a “ride” — or sometimes a “roller-coaster ride” or “roller-coaster.” One book that merits the tag is Michael Shea’s The Extra, a fun blend of many speculative fiction subgenres — the near future dystopia, the reality TV show satire, the hunt for “the most dangerous game” of them all — man. Added to the mix is a witty send-up of the pomposity and greed of the movie world.
This near future dystopia is an LA in which current social trends have continued, creating a highly stratified society. Some of the story is the first person narrative of Curtis, a black man from gigantic developments called The ‘Rise who, along with his white friend Japh, runs or tries to run a book stand. One of the many amusing sides to The Extra is the description of a near future world where the love of the physical object that is the book persists, and if anything has intensified. The ‘Rise is home to the struggling middle class, and another strength of the book is while that life is much tougher for the underclass in “the Zoo” that surrounds The ‘Rise, life is not that much fun for the middle class either. Curtis and Japh consider “quarter-employment” to be considerably better than the full unemployment their peers endure, and live with relatives in cramped apartments.
Shea also portrays the economy of this world — where contraband from the Zoo filters in to the ‘Rise enough to keep both systems going — convincingly. Curtis has developed a crush on Jool, a tough Zoo-dwelling bookseller, and when an act of vigilante impulsivity brings home to them the crushing nature of ‘Rise life, Curtis and Japh light out for the Zoo territory. There, they manage to inadvertently aggravate the protection racket which, rather half-heartedly, was shaking down Jool.
On the run, Curtis, Japh and Jool notice a call for extras. Not just any call for extras, but for a Val Margolian movie — Alien Hunger. Val Margolian is the creator of Live Action cinema. Two of his assistant directors, the obnoxious Rod who claims to have invented the high concept at the heart of Alien Hunger, and Kate, who actually did, feature as twin embodiments of the moral vision — or lack thereof — of Live Action cinema. Margolian has realised that real death is good box office — and enormous action movies shot in real time with extras battling and being devoured by Anti-Personnel Properties (APPs), as the mechanical killing machines that populate the set are known. In the Zoo (and lesser degree ‘Rise) enough desperate no-hopers will run that risk for the promise of rich rewards for survival that it is almost a public service. The prissy, status conscious Kate is infatuated with Margolian’s artistic vision, while despairing of the crass Rod. She comes to realise that perhaps Rod represents the reality of Live Action more accurately than the lofty egomaniac Margolian would like.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which had a lightness of touch and sense of humour often absent in both dystopian novels and media satires, I felt a little disappointed at how the sparkling set up unfolded. There is a certain sameness to the action scenes that end up comprising most of the story. Mild spoiler alert — not enough is at stake for the main characters. Fairly quickly the APPs turn out to be somewhat more vulnerable than their horrible reputation would suggest (having said that, late on in the story, one character suggests that Alien Hunger may have an unprecedentedly high survival rate of 30 percent, maybe 35 percent) Hardly any of the main characters die, or even seem in all that much peril, which robs the action of real urgency.
It is a cliché that speculative fiction reflects the times it was written in much more than it reflects a possible or potential future. With its plentiful gallows humour, competitive struggling in a world of scarcity, and dark extension of the reality TV concept to a logical extreme, The Extra is an entertaining mirror of our own strange days.