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Monday, February 15, 2010

Extras by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Extras, book 4 of the Uglies Quartet
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Reviewed Format: UK trade paperback
Release Date: February 4, 2008
Pages: 432

Three years after the Diego War and the “mind-rain” that followed, the world has turned upside down: the stratified social order separating and elevating pretties from uglies and crumblies is no longer enforced.  Instead, Tally Youngblood unleashed a new order.  Pretty surgery is no longer mandatory, it’s optional--as is the choice to remain unchanged.  Without the old system, the world struggles to find ways to organize themselves around each other (they must, of course, have some type of order and classification; humans need to label and categorize).  In so short a time, the term Pretty now suggests “whatever got you noticed.” (p. 8).  In Japan this means the reputation economy.

In a world filled with, and navigated through, social media and networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, and thousands of blogs, it’s not surprising that an author as astute as Scott Westerfeld decided this would make a great premise for a SF book.  As an addition to his Uglies series for Young Adults, it’s become my favorite of the four.  It also makes me a little self-conscious about using social media.  The reputation economy works by ranking citizens for doing nothing else but writing short, 10-minute media presentations--pseudo-journalistic style--about what other people are doing (this is called “kicking” a story) and seeing how popular that story (and the kicker) gets.  The more attention a kicker regularly receives, the higher their rank overall.  Higher ranks grant access to top notch apartments, clothing, and other things that bring materialistic comfort.  The idea that people essentially get rewarded for sitting in front of a wall screen (i.e. a computer in our reality) and, to put it in our terms, blogging, texting, or tweeting, is frightening.  Although, who wouldn’t love to get paid, and have a certifiable excuse, for a hobby is beyond me.

With so much emphasis and dependence on fame, it’s no wonder Aya Fuse, and other Extras like her, fear “obscurity in all its horror” (p. 6).  Being invisible in tantamount to being poor.  The stigma is quite negative.  Derived from the pre-Rusty (that’s us) term for the extras that clamor on a movie set in an effort to be noticed for their big break into celebrity, Extras care a lot about being famous.  Aya in particular cares so much about her lack of celebrity it’s everything she can do not to be overwhelmed by her own shame and natural (“ugly”) nose long enough to appreciate being approached by top ranking (and extremely attractive--as much as you go for “manga-heads”) Frizz Mizuno.  His Radical Honesty surge (a brain surgery that makes it impossible for him to lie) conjures up feelings of guilt that conflict with her desire to kick the story she’s been dying to research: revealing the identity of the Sly Girls and in the process disclose her betrayal of the trust they placed in her new friendship.  But Aya gets caught up in more than just kicking a story to catapult herself into the top thousand.  She also discovers the word “Extras” has more than one meaning.

Extras is another fantastic edition to Westerfeld’s Uglies series.  Yet again he manages to broach topics of discussion that are incredibly pertinent to our society, especially areas that are affecting teens and young adults today (younger people frequently pick up new technology and ideas quicker than others).  As with the previous books in the series, Extras deals with global concerns over ecological preservation, overpopulation, and the need to create waste.  The heroes and heroines of the series are, as always, not the people in charge, but often the citizens themselves, and young ones at that--ordinary, everyday folk who aren’t so jaded they can’t see what’s wrong with how things are run.  His books are very empowering.  It’s always encouraging to see it’s possible to resist the rules, something that can be quite scary and intimidating, when it’s clear wrongs are being committed.  Extras brings these topics even closer to home by introducing a society entirely dependent on social media.

It’s clear that Aya and others like her are probably too dependent on kicking the latest story to their feed.  Their concern over fame devolves into invalidating themselves as people if no one sees what they’re promoting, but it’s a crutch that winds up saving Aya--and humanity--in the long run.  Social media can’t always be all that bad if it winds up helping everyone in the end.  The important thing is discretion: knowing what to kick and when.  Aya, thankfully, does learn this.  At first I thought she’d become another Tally: a selfish, hypocritical protagonist who repeats the same mistakes and wonders, when others catch on, why her intentions are suddenly twisted out of proportion.  In Aya’s case, her story becomes a Science Fiction version of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” when she finally relies on her honesty at the most crucial moment and (quite in suspense) no one believes her.  Thankfully, Aya is quicker to catch on and fix her mistakes, but considering everything she’s exposed to and puts herself through, it’s no wonder I have to agree with her when she says, “It still pretty much sucked, being fifteen” (p. 8).  Teenagers still have to learn the hard way, even in the future.

I think the best parts of this book wasn’t so much the mystery behind the Sly Girls and what they discover (although that’s still fascinating enough to drive the narrative forward), but the momentum of Aya’s personal life and her inner struggle with being famous.  How does someone reevaluate how they’ve thought of themselves for so long--how they’ve been taught to think about (and value) themselves?  Her brother, Hiro, touches on some of the difficulties the reputation economy stirs up when he tells Aya that “being a kicker is about making sense of the world” (p. 235).  Aya’s problem is making sense of herself.  After all, she can’t begin to see the world without recognizing who she is and how she fits into it.

Extras is one of those types of books that raises more questions than it those it answers.  We never know if Aya goes back to her old ways or if the new Extras really should be the judge, jury, and executioner for humanity’s problems and solutions.  What if their resolution, like most, turns into an even bigger problem?  It’s interesting that instead of trying to change popular habits or way of thinking, the public is allowed (as if they need permission) to continue doing what they’re wont to do, albeit slower.  The inevitable seems frightening when we realize that it will eventually be our downfall, but is it really surprising that knowledge doesn’t act as a deterrent?

The only disappointing part of the book was the ending.  After all of that work leading to the big reveal, the resolution is wrapped up too quickly.  Everything falls into place a little too easily for my tastes, but like I mentioned before: this book’s all about self-evaluation and growth.

I really adore this series. It’s one of my favorites.  I’ve gone through so many emotions reading each book that I can’t help loving them all for the experience.  If you haven’t already started with Uglies, I recommend it, but Extras is by far, my favorite.  It has unicorns and Moggle.  I want a Moggle.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster UK for my review copy!

How many Jawas recommend this book?



Anonymous said...

I really need to read this series! D:

Erika said...

@TJ: If you can get a good deal on the 4 book set, I'd go for it one of these days. The series is a lot of fun. :)

Lily Child said...

Great review Erika! I really makes me want to finish the series!

Erika said...

@Lily: Thank you! I think you should finish. I haven't wanted dive into the concepts of a book more since I read Harry Potter. They're worth the read once you get through Specials!

Anonymous said...

Amazon has the box set for $5.77/book ($23.09) so I may just have to binge one day...

Erika said...

@TJ: Go for it when you have the chance! I always think it's better to go binge-reading when it comes to books in series. The moment you put one down, you want the next one RIGHT NOW! This series (with the exception of the lapse between the 3rd and 4th book) is like that.

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