Thursday, March 11, 2010

Abandoned Books: The Extra by Michael Shea

It's a dangerous, and usually futile, thing to try to work out a writer's politics from his books. So I can't say whether The Extra features a background out of a right-winger's fever dream on purpose, or if it's merely the background that enabled the story Michael Shea wanted to tell, or even if this grungy dystopia is just another off-the-rack Nasty Future, something stuck in the back of a high shelf somewhere around 1971 and only lightly dusted off for modern consumption.

The world of The Extra -- at least as far as I could figure it out from the first third -- is less a near-future than an alternate present, a 2010 where all of the worst fears of the '60s and '70s came true, a belated companion piece to Stand on Zanzibar and Night of Power and Make Room! Make Room! The closest I found to an explanation of how this world came to be was on p.69:
Once the Corps got full globalization, had bought all the governments and staffed them with Corps, what had to happen? So many poor in the world, all wages sank. That Zoo was a Malthus zone now. It had to be a place many died every day, just like the Ag-worker Zone, miles and miles of it to the east and south. Because to run the world smoothly, the Corps only needed enough people to buy their products, and enough of the desperate to fill their hard and high-risk jobs. Just enough to nourish a seed crop of the poor.
Note well the sinister forces of globalization, and the teeming (dark-skinned) hordes tearing down the comfortable lives of we sad Westerners. Note, also, that the shadowy organization behind this -- not explained as far as I got into The Extra -- is "the Corps." In American culture, that brings to mind two things: the Marines and the Peace Corps...and I don't think these are the Marines. Note, thirdly, the inevitable Hobbesian war of all against all, which means that The Extra is full of people whom government has failed, who have to fight for themselves, start their own capitalistic schemes to make money, and who band together in heavily armed community associations to guard their meager wealth from the vast slavering hordes of proles. And economic activity means that a few very rich people make things that a few very rich people buy, and somehow they all stay very rich, and are protected from the ravening hordes by the requisite army of goons.

(This also is a world in which corporations don't understand simple economic laws, such as the fact that you won't have many customers if no one has any money, and that chaos is universally bad for business. It also runs counter to the actual history of the last four decades, but let that pass for now; I've already called it an alternate present, so it has an excuse.)

But, wait, there's more. Where do these downtrodden deserving poor dream of fleeing to? Why, the golden land of self-sufficiency, of subsistence farming and small-town America:
Inland lay the west foothills of the Sierra, and upland, the Trinities...broad stretches of Oregon and Washington. There were a lot of vital little towns, whole counties of working towns out there. A quarter mil in the municipal account made you a taxpayer in good standing with five years' credit and bought you some decent fire and law enforcement protection; another quarter mil bought you up to twenty acres of plantable soul, water. A hundred grand more would buy your vehicle, tools, and building materials besides whatever stone and lumber you harvested on your acres. (p.56)
Remember, cities are hives of evil and villainy, where no economic activity can take place and violence runs riot. The countryside is the home of upright, libertarian men and women, who will graciously let you buy your way in. (I'm honestly surprised Shea doesn't require gold ingots to do that buying; it otherwise sounds like a goldbug's paradise.)

Along the same lines, note here that, somehow, "vehicle, tools, and building materials" spring from small towns rather than from any industrial activity. Perhaps they grow on that plantable soil?

As usual in a dystopia, there's a huge underclass -- mostly violent and lawless, with a few Good Eggs thrown in for contrast -- a very thin middle class, mostly being shoved into poverty and from whose ranks come our heroes, and the few decadent, nasty, cruel rich (here seen, so far, just in the person of Val Margolian, a James Cameron-esque director of "vids").

So: violence is everywhere. Fleeing to somewhere safer requires great wealth. And the only way to get that wealth is by doing dangerous things -- either the usual illegal ones, or...signing on as an "extra" in "live-action" disaster spectaculars, which have been the dominant genre of audiovisual entertainment for twenty years. In those vids, plot is subordinated to spectacle, and the vids themselves seem to be very little more than a documentary of the violent deaths of those "extras," with the director's job primarily to create a scenario (and the various nasty mechanical killing machines that go with it) and then, afterward, to cut footage from a million cameras together into the most aesthetically pleasing episode of Faces of Death possible.

Shea's first big mistake here is in conflating the appeal of slasher and disaster movies -- the former is far less popular, generally being loved only by the young, while the point of the latter is that the audience identifies with a handful of people who, despite all the odds, survive. His second mistake is in discounting the interest that audiences have in even the vaguest storyline, which these "live-action vids" would seem to disallow -- unless the giant scenes of carnage are cut together with more conventional footage of actual actors involved in something like a plot.

(For a smarter take on very much the same trope, see Matthew Woodring Stover's "Caine" novels -- Stover realizes that audiences are more interested in cheering on the killers than in counting the killed.)

As I was trying to make sense of all of this, I found my interest ebbing lower by the page, and my eyes darting away, desperate to look at anything but more words about how grimy and nasty this society was. I didn't believe a moment of it, and I found myself hoping that Shea didn't believe it. (He lives in San Francisco, after all!) I'm sure The Extra has its virtues, but its shabby, second-hand dystopian setting soured me for whatever those virtues might be. (I haven't even gotten into the fact that The Extra's downtrodden main characters -- the plucky deserving poor -- seem to all be minorities, the few good folks of their color trying to rise through society due to their own pluck and determination, without any government help.)

I was hoping to like The Extras, since I've enjoyed a lot of Shea's previous work. But, in the end, I had to punt. Oh, well -- there are always other books.
Listening to: Beautiful Supermachines - The War Against Cliche
via FoxyTunes

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