Sunday, 14 March 2010

Book Review: The Extra by Michael Shea

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

"Imagine the Roman Coliseum expanded to encompass the whole of Rome with the Christians replaced by thousands of extras, who volunteer in search of enough wealth to escape their poverty, and with gladiators replaced by animatronic aliens. All the action in this artificial set designed by the head of Panoply Studios, Val Margolian, is filmed continuously and turned into mega-grossing vid entertainment for the masses.

"Attempting to survive the chaos and reap bonuses dropped by payboat pilots for alien kills are L.A. book lovers Japh, Curtis, and Jool. They're aided by a group of pilots, who are secretly sabotaging Margolian's spiderlike machines."


Did someone say giant mechanical spiders?!

That's really all it took to sell me on The Extra. I'm given to understand Michael Shea has written other books in the past; more than ten, including, I see,  a World Fantasy Award-winner by the name of Nift the Lean. That's all very well and good. Did any of those have giant mechanical spiders? I didn't think so.

All kidding aside, there's a great deal more to The Extra than some supersized arachnid monstrosities. As a matter of fact, there's more to Shea's latest novel than meets the eye in just about every respect. What initially seems to be a harmless bit of inside baseball soon becomes a heartfelt, often-poignant tale of some inner-city brothers in arms struggling against impossible odds. What begins as black-hearted, sharp-edged satire a la The Running Man soon rises far beyond that description. Characters which could easily have devolved into flat, one-note caricatures are deftly developed into pointed and memorable portraits of a group of essentially impoverished dreamers whose last-ditch attempt to rise above their social standing in a world where, when it comes right down to it, you're either rich or you're dead.

In the perverse future Hollywood of Shea's fiction, 'live action' filmmaking has taken on deadly new meaning. Pioneered by borderline psychotic director Val Margolian, a new genre of action movie which has class wars played out on-screen and indeed, in life, with consequences more often fatal than not. Val's supposedly visionary films have taken the vid-sucking middle class by storm, and they prey upon the likes of Jool and Curtis, who have a mere 19 clacks between them. They burn every one on a quarter-tank of gas to take them outside of the 'Rises - which is to say, the great tower blocks within which the pair scrape out a meager living selling bootleg books to a market that coudln't care less about literature when they can watch poor people slaughtered by the thousands - where they come across a billboard advertising for extras, human fodder in other words, for Val's next film.

The Extra is a rollicking, high-octane tale of survival from there on out, as Curtis and Jool struggle "tooth and nail to stay alive in [a] giant machine constructed especially to kill" them - hence the giant mechanical spiders. Some will surely dismiss Shea's novel as yet another satire of our reality show society; such short-sightedness will be no-one's loss but their own.

And yet, The Extra is packed to the rafters full of brilliant, cutting insight. The crazed director observes of the latter part of his career that "he was able to turn to sci-fi, because the story scarcely mattered, save for its skill in evoking passion in the viewers... From then on, his story was always the world itself, to which he held up a mirror." In some respects, Val is talking here of the novel itself, of the very genre whose boundaries it falls within, but wherever you look, Shea surprises.

There's a great deal more to this barnstorming, burned-out bullet train of a ride than meets the eye. The characterisation is exemplary, Shea's imagination coughs up new wonders and horrors with startling regularity, and the pacing is spot-on, which means the functional plot whips along at such a breakneck rate there's precious little time to dwell on in its essential simplicity. Tirelessly energetic and frenetic, fun from cover to cover and pumped up as if on some superstrain of steroid from start to finish, the giant mechanical spiders aren't the half of it. Make no mistake: The Extra is brilliant.

Here's to Shea's sequel, The Siege of Sunrise, coming soon. Not soon enough!


The Extra
by Michael Shea
March 2010, Tor Books

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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