Nathanael West set his outrageous Hollywood apocalypse, The Day of the Locust, in the Depression; Michael Shea sets his in a depressed near future that West would have recognized and appreciated. The future of The Extra reads as an all-too-likely extrapolation of the present day, with a government run by a coterie of multinational corporations known as the Corps and a highly stratified and static social order that pits the lower classes against the middle classes for the benefit of the upper classes.
Shea focuses on a number of viewpoint characters. Chief among them is Curtis, a smart young black man in his twenties who lives with his aunt in a ’Rise, one of many self-contained living, working, and shopping environments that tower fifty stories and more along the north rim of the L.A. flatlands. The ’Rises are the homes of the middle class, who are more or less indentured servants of the Corps. The lower classes live in the flatlands—an extensive slum better known as the Zoo—in squalor or Road Warrior-like fortresses, eking out a precarious existence that involves smuggling, drugs, and other assorted vices and crimes. The rich live far away, in the Sierra foothills, in protected compounds that might as well be extraplanetary as far as the ’Risers and Zoo-dwellers are concerned.
One of the few routes of upward mobility in this society is to be an extra in the live-action vids that have become Hollywood’s stock-in-trade—vast spectacles that would humble Cecil B. DeMille, in which thousands of walk-ons are subjected to life-threatening scenarios involving animatronic monsters known as APPs, or Anti-Personnel Properties, as well as good old-fashioned special-effects mayhem, such as falling buildings, exploding bombs, etc.—only real. This hybrid of the reality show and the disaster blockbuster is one of those brilliant ideas that seems obvious in retrospect, and Shea has a lot of fun laying it all out, especially when studio reps, in deadpan legalese, blithely inform extras of just how little chance they have to emerge alive from the set of the movie—Alien Hunger—to which they are about to contractually commit themselves.
Nevertheless, despite the poor odds of survival, there is never any shortage of volunteers, mainly because of the payouts that are immediately distributed for each APP killed—in this case, $175,000, which is apparently still quite a lot of money in Shea’s future. I was surprised that inflation wouldn’t have pushed payouts into the millions by then, but this is a mere quibble. A few dead APPs can lift a Zoo-dweller into a ’Rise, and with a little luck and skill, even the Sierras are not out of reach.
Although Curtis and his white friend Japh—race is almost entirely overshadowed by class in Shea’s future—live comparatively privileged existences as ’Risers, they realize that their futures are bleak and that, in fact, they are already on a downward spiral, morally if not economically. To arrest and reverse this slide, more out of impulse than reflection, they decide to enlist as extras.
So does Jool, a fiesty young Zoo-dweller who makes her living selling books—it’s an unexpected but authentic-feeling touch of Shea’s future that books are valuable commodities. Curtis and Japh also sell books—and read them, too—and it’s books that connect the three young people from such disparate backgrounds. Jool tolerates Curtis and Japh; she can’t help seeing them as slumming wannabees, but she will come to respect them in the course of the novel. For his part, Curtis has a major crush on Jool, and this contributes to his decision to become an extra.
Nor does Shea neglect upper management—which in this case is quite literal, as the assistant directors and other muckety-mucks of Panoply Studios film their painstakingly prepared bloodbath from specially designed hover-rafts that, like magic carpets, float safely above the fray. Lord of them all is Val Margolian, the auteur who revolutionized filmmaking with his Social Compassion Action Thrillers, or SCATs, and then cemented his reputation by inventing the live-action genre, which has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths along with stratospheric profits.
When an APP is killed by an extra, and its tag removed, payment is contractually due on the spot; this is provided by payrafts that come swooping in to drop the money and then skedaddle before they can be knocked from the sky—which, readers will not be surprised to learn, does happen on occasion, turning hunters into hunted. Shea gives us three characters here: two of them, Kate Harlow and Rod Richmond, are assistant directors fallen from grace and now assigned to a payraft as punishment; the third is Sandra Devlin, a tough-as-nails lesbian who happens to be the sector chief in charge of supervising Kate and Rod’s raft.
Shea brings these characters to life with skillful economy and invests them with a depth unusual for thrillers—which is what this novel really is beneath its satirical trappings, as becomes crystal clear the moment the cameras start rolling and the spiderlike APPs are unleashed on the ginormous movie set, a detailed recreation of a late–20th century city. From that moment, The Extra is all about survival, violence, and vengeance. It is also impossible to put down. Adroitly handled subplots—the most important having to do with mysterious on-set sabotage that has led to higher-than-normal survival rates for extras in previous Margolian films—raise the stakes for the characters while ineluctably bringing them—high and low—together for a boffo finale in the decimated ruins of the set.
The Extra could have been one of the most savage Hollywood satires since The Day of the Locust, if only Shea didn’t love Hollywood so much. He simultaneously attacks and celebrates the crass commercialism and monstrous egotism that is Tinsel Town, skewering it with broad and bloody strokes while at the same time pitching his highly enjoyable novel as the next scifi blockbuster. His targets are as obvious as they are deserving, and though his attacks are both witty and effective, he doesn’t risk alienating potential readers or, perhaps more importantly, producers; the novel is less a criticism of Hollywood excesses than a paean to them, a high-wire act performed with a net, calculated to offend no one and to leave everyone feeling virtuous. It’s a shrewd and more than slightly cynical piece of entertainment, as slickly made as any of the Hollywood productions it ostensibly satirizes. Trust me, you’re gonna love it.