The Extra by Michael Shea is a laugh-out-loud satire of the film industry that is full of pulse-pounding action, astute social commentary, and super scary giant mechanical spiders.
Set in a future Los Angeles, the story follows several unlikely heroes as they take roles as extras in Alien Hunger, the newest sci-fi “live action” thriller. “Live action” takes on a different meaning in this novel from our current denotation. Because economic stratification and corporate takeover of government has kept many individuals from having any kind of job, one of the only ways people can get out of the Zoo – where the most destitute live and gangs abound – or the ‘Rise – the self-contained massive skyscraper homes of the middle class – is to sign up to potentially be killed in the name of entertainment. To be an extra on a film set is to sign one’s life away, to enter an environment designed to kill you in a perfectly legal way, while cameras record your every move, for the seemingly innocuous purpose of turning all the collected imagery into a blood-soaked action film. In exchange for putting their lives at risk, a hefty payday is awarded, and bonuses are given for “killing” the Anti-Personnel Properties (APP)/technological monsters. It is Death Race the way it should have been written, and a near future re-envisioning of the Roman amphitheatre.
Jool is from the Zoo, a no nonsense girl of the street who sells books on a street corner. Japh and Curtis are occupants of the ‘Rise, but circumstances keep them from finding any real, steady work. After a close encounter with a tough trying to shake down Jool, the three decide that life in the Zoo and ‘Rise is no less dangerous that being an extra, and so head down to Panoply studios to sign up for Alien Hunger.
The novel progresses rapidly from there. After a rough first chapter, in which we are introduced to the oddities of this future city in a way that assumes we already know the details, the book moves smoothly into an action-packed thriller. After just a few chapters in the reader is brought into sympathetic association with Jool, Curtis, and Japh, and the suspense just builds from the moment they decide to become extras, as Shea introduces one menace after another. Shea has a really wild imagination and an insider’s view of the movie industry that he adroitly mocks. Multiple plots, perspectives, and movie style action sequences are blended together to both prod the thinking of the reader, and at the same time keep them thoroughly entertained.
Curtis is the primary perspective of the novel, the one the reader most identifies with, though Shea does jump around between Curtis and other characters. Kate, an assistant director on the movie shoot, provides a perspective on the directorial process, as does the film’s director, Val Margolian. Margolian is especially skewered by Shea’s satiric wit, becoming the butt of more than one joke about the film industry, and his narcissistic self-delusion is truly repugnant. Kate, on the other hand, provides a sort of bridge between Val’s self-absorption and Curtis’ survival instincts. It is in her point of view that the reader finds most of Shea’s social commentary, not in any overt way, and always with a layer of dark comedy reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Her bridging of personalities gives the reader a layered approach to the story, and as such makes the story much broader in scope than any “horror” or “thriller” moniker would imply.
The contents, depth, and cleverness of the story kept me reading this novel far past my bedtime. I simply could not put it down. Shea’s story is fast, furious, funny, and strangely scary. Part Aliens, part Jaws, and with a George Carlin style humor, The Extra will simultaneously make you laugh and scare you away from ever wanting to step on a movie set again or ever.