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The Extra    by Michael Shea order for
by Michael Shea
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, Audio, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Michael Shea's The Extra is a fast-paced SF thriller set in a future Los Angeles, where overpopulation has stratified society to extremes. The poorest of the poor live day to day, scraping by any way they can and constantly alert for violence, in the L.A. flatlands, the Zoo. The middle class (dirt poor by current standards) live in 'Rises, constantly in debt to the Corps.

Much of the tale is narrated by Curtis, who does courier work with his friend Japh in their 'Rise, when they can get it. They also sell books from a pushcart, 'carrying the world to our friends and neighbors.' After a day in which they're attacked by goons in the 'Rise, and later fight off another in the Zoo (while checking out books scavenged by Jool, to whom Curtis is attracted), they spot a holo-board -Extras are being hired for Alien Hunger. It's one of producer Val Margolian's popular live-death films, that use huge casts of extras as cannon fodder. Though the odds for survival are low, the rewards can be substantial, perhaps even enough to move out of poverty and settle in the mountains.

Shea also gives readers the point of view of Kate, an ambitious assistant director working for 'Val Margolian, King of Panoply, and the greatest living vid director.' Kate had come up with the concept for Alien Hunger's terrifying monsters. Unfortunately, she manages to offend Margolian (who sees his work as art, holding up a mirror to the world). He demotes her to flying a payboat during the filming. This is a dangerous job, whose objective is to immediately pay off any extra who succeeds in killing an APP, Anti-Personnel Property. But sometimes the payboats crash, and the monstrous APPs can't tell a pilot from an extra.

The extras (future Roman gladiators) are taken in through a tunnel whose holo-walls reflect a paradise of trees, blue sky, and distant mountains - 'They had us by the heart, and we just walked, and looked around, and longed, all the way to the cattle chutes.' Japh and Jool end up fighting for survival together, followed secretly by Jool's protector Chops. Curtis partners with Cap, whom he met during the briefing, watching for Japh and Jool all the time. Though the odds are against any of them surviving, they have secret supporters, rebel rafters and Defectors viewed by Margolian (who is on their trail and believes that 'In Viewerland, outrage was merely a spice') as saboteurs.

What follows is a whirlwind of violence, chases and narrow escapes, betrayals and rescues. Most of the extras die, but so do a few others who deserve it more. This is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat read that would make an even more exciting, edge-of-your-seat movie - but don't even dream of asking me to be an extra in it.

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