In Michael Shea's new novel The Extra, down-and-out Los Angelenos sign up as movie extras for Alien Hunger to win a fat paycheck. The catch? In the future, extras are real-life cannon fodder for Anti-Personnel Properties a.k.a. giant mechanical arachnids.
The Extra delves into thematic territory that should be familiar to fans of dystopian fiction. The novel's setting — greater Los Angeles — is partitioned into three zones: the decaying lumpenprole Zoo, the slightly less hellish but comparatively chichi 'Rises, and the plutocratic Hills. Life in the Zoo is a hand-to-mouth, state of nature slog, which explains why so many Zoo dwellers line up to extra for Val Margolian's new science fiction blockbuster Alien Hunger. Extras aren't passive players in the film — in order to score that big payday (and ostensible ticket out of the Zoo), the extras must survive two hours trapped on a cityscape sound stage with murderous Anti-Personnel Properties (APPs), massive spider mechanoids that star as the villains of the flicks.
Shea excels when he's describing the nightmare of Tinseltown gone Thunderdome. Actors' Union representatives have no qualms allowing extras to throw their lives away but demand that this studio-sponsored genocide at least be up to code. There's a marvelously perverse black humor to the filming's pre-show prep talk:
"First, note the following characteristics of the set, which we have examined and found to meet contract specifications. Eighty-five percent of the street doors will open to you. Forty-five percent of these offer a viable form of refuge, though you may be required to secure these refuges."
The shoot of Alien Hunger is the novel's centerpiece. Shea depiction of the extras' mad struggle for survival belongs in the pantheon of Great Fatal Game Show Fiction along with Stephen King's Running Man and the 1990 arcade classic Smash TV. Shea's multitude of extras are eviscerated by APPs, compete for APP kills to win big money, and are lorded over by Val Margolian, the crazed auteur in his anti-gravity editing station. This mad example of world-building sells the novel and seems custom fit for a Hollywood treatment itself. At times, it felt like I was reading a truly enjoyable novelization of the oh-so-fun Left 4 Dead 2...but with massive robot spiders.
The filming sequence is enough to recommend The Extra. This is a good thing, as the characters aren't particularly engaging (the trio of protagonist extras tend to default to a stock "tough with a heart of gold" mode), and a promising subplot with a compassionate studio saboteur goes nowhere fast. The novel also lacks any sort of suitable catharsis at the end, but this may be the point as Shea's writing a sequel and (spoiler alert) the sadistic studio system keeps on chugging. Leaving the novel open-ended is well and good, but the book closes on a fizzle rather than a conflagration of cyber-spider carnage.
(Also, on a totally non-literary note, one of the studio bigwigs is named Mark Millar. It seems rather prescient given news of Mr. Millar's foray into directing.)
The Extra is available now from Tor Books.