My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Review based upon the Blackstone Audio version of THE EXTRA by Michael Shea, narrated by William Hughes.
Reading (or listening to) a Michael Shea novel is a rare treat for me, because Michael Shea doesn’t exactly crank novels out like a factory. So when they do appear I snap ’em up promptly without much further ado. THE EXTRA caught me by surprise.. I was browsing the audio book section of the U.S. Army’s online library (no kidding!) and there it was, so bang, zip, it was downloading to my Ipad 2.
To say Mr. Shea is “variable” in his style is not entirely accurate, but in the past, he has written in a sort of old pulp pastiche style not unlike a Weird Tales writer from the 50s– almost baroque with his language, florid and very descriptive– my favorite example of this is the outstanding NIFFT THE LEAN series, which I recommend highly. NIFFT is a sort of dark hero/rogue in a humorous, Fritz Leiber vein. There is also THE QUEST FOR SIMBALIS, which is set in Jack Vance‘s DYING EARTH world, and THE COLOUR OUT OF TIME, which is a not-very-subtle homage to Lovecraft. Even with all this hopping about between genre homages, I find Shea’s literary style both instantly recognizable and a joy to read. Shea loves language, that much is obvious, and if he can add in a twelve letter adjective where a five letter one will do, he certainly will do it. This can make his writing a little dense for the newcomer expecting a slam bang adventure novel. Like a good Gene Wolfe or Tim Powers story, Michael Shea’s fiction must be consumed by the sip, not the gulp, like good Tennessee bourbon. You will appreciate them all the more for putting in the effort.
THE EXTRA (2010), wellllll, it pretty much turns everything I just said about Michael Shea on its ear. Gone are the long and thoughtful baroque dialogues, adjectives and pithy asides. Gone is the murky fantasy setting. Gone is the insidious lurking evil… replaced by a modern dystopian setting in a future Los Angeles, where Live Television events have become a billion dollar killing art form, hiring thousands of extras who risk their necks (and many are deliberately slaughtered) in hopes of earning a big cash reward for surviving the movie shoots that employ them. In this future, movie extra work will most probably get you killed, but if by some chance you make it, you will earn enough money to escape the grinding pressures of poverty in future Los Angeles.
Perhaps THE EXTRA was written as a tongue in cheek observation on our societal addiction to increasingly violent forms of entertainment mixed in with Reality Television. It’s hard to say, but the setting was close enough to our own here and now to make a casual reader wonder just how far from reality this story gets. I’ve never been very optimistic about the public taste..
The story is told with multiple points of view: Curtis, a “Riser” who is essentially the lowest rung of the middle class, living in high rise urban arcologies called Risers. Maggie, who is from the lower rent “Zoo” district, poverty ridden and determined to make something of herself for her family’s sake, Kate, an Assistant Director disgraced to a position of “paymaster” on one of the rafts that rewards extras for making Kills against the robotic beasts used in every movie as killers– and Val Margolian, the Supreme architect and director of the movie being shot during the story.
This is a new Michael Shea. No leisurely storytelling pace, no arcane forces at work, just a fast-paced, well written story about Dystopia and what a small group of people had to endure to escape it.
My verdict is easy.. I loved this novel. EXTRA shows great imagination and decent worldbuilding. It will hold up to repeat readings. The Audio Version by Blackstone is quite good. William Hughes does a great job with dialect and voices. A good listen!