In The Extra, a near-future science fiction novel set in a dystopian version of Los Angeles, Val Margolian is the creator and most successful director of a new genre of action movies, in which crowds of real people are cast as extras and have to defend themselves against movie monsters. The action is real, and so are the deaths. Whoever manages to kill one of the monsters, and anyone who survives the shoot, gets a huge cash reward. Naturally, with rampant poverty in LA, the expression “cattle call” takes on a whole new meaning, with thousands of people applying to become cannon fodder for this new blood-thirsty form of entertainment, and only a small percentage surviving with enough cash to move out of the urban jungle and on to a better life.
The Extra combines elements of The Running Man and The Truman Show, switching from the ground floor perspective of some of the extras, who use inventive ways to try and stay alive, to the director and some of his minions who look out over the entire spectacle.
Even though the novel moves at a fast pace, I found it hard to maintain interest in the story, mainly because most of the characters are flat and barely rise above the cliché level. The extras are predictably plucky, inventive, and gutsy, but unfortunately most of them speak in a street slang that started to grate on my nerves right from the start because I found it entirely unconvincing. The studio employees are a slightly more varied lot — one of them siding with the extras, and another one having an epiphany about the cruel nature of the business when she is bumped down from her lofty position of assistant director to get a closer look at the real action. Unfortunately, this interesting character is then balanced out by her colleague and lover who is a stereotypical rich, spoiled villain, and a couple of the movie’s stars who, in a bout of generosity, take it on themselves to distribute additional money to the extras.
I should mention here that the extras actually receive their cash bonuses during the shoot from paymasters who literally toss bags of money from the sky to the lucky few who managed to kill a movie monster. I realize that this was necessary to generate some interesting action scenes for the novel, and possibly meant to be a painfully literal metaphor for trickle-down economics, but it’s such a preposterous and unrealistic idea that I had real trouble taking the novel seriously after I encountered it.
At just under 300 pages, The Extra is thankfully a fast read, filled with battles, action scenes and snappy dialogue. It seems almost tailor-made to be turned into a movie, and as a matter of act, if your taste runs to action movies, The Extra may be right up your alley: it’s just as entertaining as a Michael Bay movie, and has about the same literary value.
FORMAT/INFO: The Extra is 288 pages long divided over twenty titled chapters. Narration is in the first person via Curtis, and in the third person via Jool, assistant director Kate Harlow, sector chief Sandy Devlin, Val Margolian, chief assistant director Mark Millar, Chops, Japh, etc. The Extra comes to a natural stopping point with just a few unresolved issues, but is the first volume in a trilogy. February 2, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Extra via Tor.
ANALYSIS: Expanding on the short story that was first published in 1987, Michael Shea’s The Extra combines Hollywood satire, dystopian societies, and themes on media, social realism and class status for a darkly funny and action-packed futuristic thriller that is kind of like The Running Man, Death Race 2000, Mad Max, and Starship Troopers all rolled into one.
What immediately impressed me about The Extra was Michael Shea’s writing. Specifically, the stylish prose, his wild imagination, slick execution, distinctive narrative voices, and the overall manic energy present throughout the novel. I was particularly blown away by the Alien Hunger “shoot” which follows several different characters and subplots — uncovering sabotage, exacting revenge, power plays, etc — amid killer Anti-Personnel Properties (APPs — basically giant mechanical monsters), explosions in the sky, falling buildings, and dire odds that was just pure adrenalized brilliance.
Negatively, the world-building in The Extra is full of neat ideas like the Zoo (L.A. flatlands), ’Rises, Corps, etc., and Shea does a terrific job of furnishing the society and its inhabitants with their own personalities including slang and manner of dress, but as a whole, I never fully grasped the world that the author had created and felt he could have done more with it. So I’m hoping this is an area that will be addressed in the sequels.
In the end, Michael Shea’s The Extra is an exhilarating thrill-ride full of creativity, insane action, and accomplished writing. Hugely entertaining — I can’t wait for the rest of the trilogy.
The Extra — (2010-2013) Publisher: Books and films have skewered Hollywood’s excesses, but none has ever portrayed one man’s crazy vision of the future of big action/adventure films as The Extra does. As over-the-top as Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, as savagely dark as Robert Altman’s The Player, and more violent than Rollerball, this is the story of the ultimate, so-insane-it-could-only-happen-in-Hollywood formula for success, a brave new way to bring the ultimate in excitement to the silver screen. Producer Val Margolian has found the motherlode of box-office gold with his new “live-death” films whose villains are extremely sophisticated, electronically controlled mechanical monsters. To give these live-action disaster films greater realism, he employs huge casts of extras, in addition to the stars. The large number of extras is important, because very few of them will survive the shoot. It’s all perfectly legal, with training for the extras and long, detailed contracts indemnifying the film company against liability for the extras’ injury or death. But why would anyone be crazy enough to risk his or her life to be an extra in such a potentially deadly situation? The extras do it because if they survive they’ll be paid handsomely, and they can make even more if they destroy any of the animatronic monsters trying to stomp, chew, fry, or otherwise kill them. If they earn enough, they can move out of the Zoo–the vast slum that most of L.A. has become. They’re fighting for a chance at a reasonable life. But first, they have to survive . . .