Tuesday, 23 February 2010
‘The Extra’ – Michael Shea (Tor)
Reality television is one of the reasons that I stopped paying for a TV licence; it got to a point where that there was so much of it on television that there just wasn’t room for any of the stuff that I actually wanted to watch. There’s something compelling about it though isn’t there? There’s something about watching a dysfunctional bunch of misfits locked up in a house, and going at each others throats, to make you want them to stop posturing and start throwing the furniture around. I don’t know about you but the best episodes of ‘Big Brother’ that I ever saw were the ones where you found out that the police were called in shortly after filming...
Is this thirst for blood a harkening back to the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome or just a way to make ourselves feel all superior that we weren’t dumb enough to volunteer for yet another televised ‘social experiment’? Probably a bit of both I’d say. Perhaps a more pertinent question is where a slightly jaded looking genre should go next to deliver the thrills that hooked the viewing public in the first place. Michael Shea has a possible answer for us, it couldn’t possibly happen but what if it did...?
The LA of the not too distant future is a place where the only alternative to crushing poverty is the daily struggle to survive it. There is a way to escape this but the stakes have never been higher. Director Val Margolian has hit upon a way whereby the film industry has been given a massive shot in the arm through the peddling of a seemingly impossible dream. Extras in a Margolian film have the opportunity to earn enough money to buy their way out of LA for good; all they have to do is survive to the end of the shoot in order to be able to spend it...
Any Margolian set is a killing field and the set for his latest film, ‘Alien Hunger’, is set to be his most lethal yet. Extras are going to have enough on their hands just surviving, let alone collecting the bonus tags to earn extra cash. Curtis, Japh and Jool are up for the challenge though; will mere courage be enough?
‘The Extra’ treads ground already well covered by films such as ‘The Running Man’ and, to an extent, ‘Battle Royale’ amongst others. I’m clutching at straws looking for examples of the same kind of thing in books but I know I’ve read tales of people fighting for their lives for the entertainment of the viewing public. I’ve got a funny feeling that’s where Peadar O’Guilin’s ‘The Inferior’ is heading (although I might be wrong)... The point is that it’s not a new concept that we’re looking at here... so why did I enjoy this book so much and feel like it was a breath of fresh air?
That is what ‘The Extra’ felt like, a real breath of fresh air although I should probably upgrade that to ‘hurricane’; when ‘The Extra’ gets going you’re swept off your feet and carried along at a rate of knots the likes of which you’ve never seen before. I’m not going to say ‘blink and you’ll miss something’; not only are you carried along too quickly to blink but you wouldn’t want to even if you had the chance. Shea presents his reader with a downtrodden future LA where the vibrancy of the people matches the level of poverty that they face. As you can imagine, they are pretty vibrant; there’s no time to stand still in this city, not if you want to make a living and survive!
Shea doesn’t give you time to settle in though, the book is only two hundred and eighty one pages long and there is a lot more story to tell. The action inside the set is everything that it promised it would be and then a little bit more. It’s almost as if Shea set himself a small number pages to tell his story deliberately so that the impact would be all the more powerful for being crammed into such a tiny space.
Once the camera starts rolling all hell breaks loose and it’s all credit to Shea that he keeps his story on a tight leash, both in the streets and in the sky above the set. There are layers upon layers of plot to be teased out here and they all fit together to tell a story that had me gripped the whole way through.
The extras on set may be the ones being chased by giant mechanical spiders (which were very cool and scary all at the same time…) but their counterparts behind the cameras also face battles that could result in a loss of life. Shea may not be saying anything new about the film industry but what he does do is add a whole new layer of raw energy that lends fresh impetus to what he is saying; that’s what keeps the reader reading. There is more than one way to lose a life and Shea makes it his business to tease these out into the open and see how they relate to the characters on and around the set. No matter what someone’s motivations are (and they’re not always pure), Shea has a way of getting inside his character’s head and laying it all on the line as to how important their aspirations are. Everyone has something that they would do anything for; Shea taps into this in his characters and gives the reader something to connect to. You may not like Margolian but you’ll probably end up understanding him and why he does what he does.
At it’s heart, ‘The Extra’ is one part high octane action and one part commentary on a jaded viewing public that is happy to sit there and swallow up anything in the name of entertainment. It’s here that ‘The Extra’ fell down slightly, for me anyway. I’m all for subtle commentary and the tone of the book meant that this was never going to happen.
‘Even you miss the same point that Val, for all his greatness, has always missed. Disclosures, revelations, make no difference. People don’t give a shit about what they know, or don’t know! As long as it’s new, they’ll watch anything! They’ve got nothing else to do!’
Dialogue like this was a little too heavy handed for me I’m afraid. I’ll either get it or I won’t but I don’t like being spoon fed…
This was a minor niggle though. ‘The Extra’ was a storming read that had me thinking about what I’d read and eager to get back and read some more. If this becomes a film then I’ll be there watching it…
Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten