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The Extra by Michael Shea
Cover Artist: Dorling Kindersersley & Nicholas Monu / Getty Images
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765324351
Date: 02 February 2010 List Price $22.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Welcome to a horrifying vision of the future. In an overpopulated, amoral Las Angeles, life is cheap. Curtis and Japh are middle-class tough guys living in the high rise buildings known as the 'Rise. Jools, Chops, and Cap are streetwise thugs living in the outside slums known as the Zoo. Kate Harlow, Val Margolean and Mark Millar are upper-class executives at Hollywood's Panoply Studios, which is involved in making live action films. The desperate poor from the 'Rise and the Zoo are hired as extras who are herded like cattle into enormous sets built to resemble cities. Today, Panoply is filming Alien Hunger in which giant mechanical spiders are let loose to attack the extras. Like the gladiators of the Roman coliseum, the extras must fight for their lives. Their actual deaths are filmed in what becomes a legalized snuff film where thousands die for large sums of money.

Michael Shea's The Extra is a tightly written, fast paced nightmare that is soon becoming reality. The differences between our modern society and that of the Roman Empire are becoming slimmer each day. At an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), crowds cheer while watching men mercilessly beat and kick each other inside a cage. There are those who attend NASCAR races in hopes of witnessing a crash. Generations of children have been raised on violent video games. Our society has a craving for violence that is becoming increasingly more difficult to satisfy.

Panoply Studios of Hollywood, California is satisfying an addiction for live action violence with its creation of vids. In a world where 60% of the human population is impoverished, Panoply can easily recruit extras willing to risk their lives for a chance at a normal, healthy existence away from the perpetual violence of the Zoo.

The Extra consists of a wide variety of characters from all walks of life who find themselves thrown into a pot-boiler of mayhem. Not only are extras fighting the giant mechanical spiders known as APPs (Anti-Personnel Properties), but they are also fighting other extras who seek vengeance and the tags that must be retrieved from destroyed APPs. Curtis is a heroic extra from the 'Rise. He assists his friend, Japh, and other extras. Much of the novel is told in first person from his point of view.

Kate Harlow is another likeable, heroic character; an assistant director for Panoply Studios, she is copiloting one of many payrafts (hovercrafts) that swoop down from the sky to pay those extras who capture tags. She sympathizes with the plight of the extras. When her payraft crashes, Kate teams up with Curtis and his friends to help them destroy APPs, retrieve tags and survive the shoot. Setting aside their differences of race, gender and social status, they must work as a team in order to survive. The Extra is more than just a science fiction action adventure, it is also a political and social commentary. The Extra kept me spellbound. During the filming of Alien Hunger, the shoot involving the extras lasts for only a few hours. However, all hell breaks loose as thousands of men and women dash through the set, searching for weapons they can use for defending themselves against the hordes of mechanical spiders emerging from the buildings. Chaos and pandemonium reign as they struggle for survival. Automobiles driven by robots careen wildly through the streets. Flaming debris rains down from the sky. Buildings fall, crushing both extras and monsters. Many of the weapons that are found are useless props; only a few are genuine. The entire set is a cruel, inhuman death trap. I was kept in suspense, wondering who would live and who would die.

In a futuristic Las Angeles where novels are a rarity, citizens have become more obsessed with the visual media, especially the live action movies produced by Hollywood. Panoply, along with many other studios, is a doomsday-type device similar to the one depicted in the cult classic Logan's Run. In Logan's Run, Carousel offered its Last Day participants the hope of renewal; however, all of them were being exterminated with lasers. In The Extra, Panoply Studios seduces the extras with enough money to begin new lives in the nearby mountains; unfortunately, most are killed by the APPs. The murderous rampage provides a type of Roman "bread and circuses" that can be enjoyed by the masses. This theme has been explored in such science fiction thrillers as Roller Ball (1975) and Futuresport. These films involve dangerous athletic competitions where many participants risk their lives for huge sums of money.

Michael Shea is the author of the popular science fiction sword-and-sorcery series, Nifft the Lean. Perhaps Shea suffers from arachnophobia. In his latest Nifft novel, The A'Rak, Nifft must battle a spider god. Shea has authored several science fiction short story collections that include Copping Squid and Other Mythos Tales and The Autopsy and Other Tales. The Extra is the first novel in a trilogy and Shea is busy at work on its next installment, The Siege of Sunrise.

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