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on 16 March 2010
Did someone say giant mechanical spiders?!

That's really all it took to sell me on The Extra. I'm given to understand Michael Shea has written other books in the past; more than ten, including, I see, a World Fantasy Award-winner by the name of Nift the Lean. That's all very well and good. Did any of those have giant mechanical spiders? I didn't think so.

All kidding aside, there's a great deal more to The Extra than some supersized arachnid monstrosities. As a matter of fact, there's more to Shea's latest novel than meets the eye in just about every respect. What initially seems to be a harmless bit of inside baseball soon becomes a heartfelt, often-poignant tale of some inner-city brothers in arms struggling against impossible odds. What begins as black-hearted, sharp-edged satire a la The Running Man soon rises far beyond that description. Characters which could easily have devolved into flat, one-note caricatures are deftly developed into pointed and memorable portraits of a group of essentially impoverished dreamers whose last-ditch attempt to rise above their social standing in a world where, when it comes right down to it, you're either rich or you're dead.

In the perverse future Hollywood of Shea's fiction, 'live action' filmmaking has taken on deadly new meaning. Pioneered by borderline psychotic director Val Margolian, a new genre of action movie which has class wars played out on-screen and indeed, in life, with consequences more often fatal than not. Val's supposedly visionary films have taken the vid-sucking middle class by storm, and they prey upon the likes of Jool and Curtis, who have a mere 19 clacks between them. They burn every one on a quarter-tank of gas to take them outside of the 'Rises - which is to say, the great tower blocks within which the pair scrape out a meager living selling bootleg books to a market that coudln't care less about literature when they can watch poor people slaughtered by the thousands - where they come across a billboard advertising for extras, human fodder in other words, for Val's next film.

The Extra is a rollicking, high-octane tale of survival from there on out, as Curtis and Jool struggle "tooth and nail to stay alive in [a] giant machine constructed especially to kill" them - hence the giant mechanical spiders. Some will surely dismiss Shea's novel as yet another satire of our reality show society; such short-sightedness will be no-one's loss but their own.

And yet, The Extra is packed to the rafters full of brilliant, cutting insight. The crazed director observes of the latter part of his career that "he was able to turn to sci-fi, because the story scarcely mattered, save for its skill in evoking passion in the viewers... From then on, his story was always the world itself, to which he held up a mirror." In some respects, Val is talking here of the novel itself, of the very genre whose boundaries it falls within, but wherever you look, Shea surprises.

There's a great deal more to this barnstorming, burned-out bullet train of a ride than meets the eye. The characterisation is exemplary, Shea's imagination coughs up new wonders and horrors with startling regularity, and the pacing is spot-on, which means the functional plot whips along at such a breakneck rate there's precious little time to dwell on in its essential simplicity. Tirelessly energetic and frenetic, fun from cover to cover and pumped up as if on some superstrain of steroid from start to finish, the giant mechanical spiders aren't the half of it. Make no mistake: The Extra is brilliant.

Here's to Shea's sequel, The Siege of Sunrise, coming soon. Not soon enough!
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on 15 May 2010
Michael Shea's The Extra has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it. It's an excellent slice of futuristic thriller with enough action to satisfy the average movie goer but still retaining a deeper undercurrent of dark politics to satisfy the more discerning reader.

The Extra takes us to a futuristic LA where class is everything. 'Zoo Meat' scrape by on the mean city streets, subjected to all manner of gang warfare, crime and abuse. Looking down on them are the 'Risers', barely better off but more secure in the fortress like high rise buildings. Everyone, however, dreams of escaping the city and making it into one of the fabled mountain villages with their clean air and friendly neighbours.

Of course, to escape the city you need money but thanks to film company Panoply there is a way to make lots and lots of money. The company have pioneered the use of live battles in action movies using expendable extras against animatronic enemies. They film these real life fights to the death and survivors are rewarded with payouts. The resulting films are huge blockbusters which tells you all you need to know about society. Its a very high risk strategy but one that our protagonists Jool, Curtis and Japh feel is worth taking. Once on set, however, they find there are more sides than just them and us and the odds are heavily stacked against them.

It's a plot we have met before, see Stephen King's ( or Richard Bachman's) The Running Man but Michael Shea brings enough new material to the table for it to retain a freshness. One of the key ingredients is the social system which is so grim that it forces people down this last chance route. It's also pleasing that one of the last vestiges of society is the trading of books. In this situation it's easy to root for the underdog and the big capitalist businesses (which emerge as slight caricatures) are easy to dislike.

All of which makes it an easy yet satisfying read. One word of warning, the first few pages seem entirely composed of a narrative of futuristic street slang. Its not easy to understand and it could put off a few readers but it's not indicative of the rest of the book so stick with it. The Extra is a fine slice of SF/horror crossover that I think will appeal to lovers of either genre.
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