Book Review: “Extras” by Scott Westerfeld

Going to break up the How To Train Your Dragon marathon at the halfway point for a palate cleanser of finishing up the Uglies series reviews.

I really felt like I was okay with leaving the world of Uglies behind in book three Specials, the original final book for the series. The book Extras itself was really jarring because since it was marked as part of the series I assumed it would follow like the rest of the books and deal with Tally Youngblood. Thankfully though, I read the back of the book which stated that it took place 3 years after the Diego war (aka the events of Specials) and followed instead the “cultural Renaissance” of what happened after the Pretty bubble burst and people were no longer ruled in by their unknown brain lesions.

Aya, the 15 year old main character’s city went with a reward system based on popularity. Everyone in the city has a feed with their social media presence and face rank. They can either get things from working to make them more popular and more interesting, or they can work hard and get merits. Most kids get merits for going to school, helping and doing chores, but for adults those tend to be reserved for doctors and necessary people who keep society functioning. For everyone else it’s a fight to be popular.

“Even mocking people helped their face stats. In the reputation economy, the only real way to hurt anyone was to ignore them completely. And it was pretty hard to ignore someone who made your blood boil.”

Aya’s older brother found a new way of becoming famous, and that’s by being a “kicker”. Not a sports person or someone who fights, but essentially a journalist. He follows people around with cameras, studies, interviews them on film and then when he’s done with the story he creates the video and sends it out into the world. And because of that he’s famous. He’s got a nice place, a nice set up and his little sister wants to be on his level. She’s got a hovercam that her brother’s best friend Ren whose smart with tech and math made adjustments to, which has been named Moogle. 

The major problem with this book that made it so jarring is that no where does it state until towards the end of the book that the book isn’t set in the same place. It’s the same world of course, but it’s set in Japan. Until you find out that it’s set in Japan it feels like a very cringy pass at trying to get the attention of 2007 Anime/manga fans. The characters make big-eyed modifications “Manga-eyes” to themselves to look like manga characters “mangaheads “and they’re reviving Japanese cultural things, which makes sense for futuristic Japan. However by not stating anywhere until practically the end of the book that it was set in Japan just made the whole thing feel like New Pretty Town which is set in North America, had discovered their first ancient manga and decided to dive head first into making themselves Japanese/manga-styled. Which is just really awkward to read.

It really truly feels like it’s a book that’s meant to be a stand alone and not a continuation of the series. Rather than being listed everywhere as book 4 of the Uglies series I feel like it should just be it’s own thing. Book series do that. Just take a look at all the Rick Riordan novels. All of those are in the same universe, and sure the characters interact and tie in with each other, but technically you could read book one of any offshoot and not be too lost.

And just like Tally in the first book, and in the second book, Aya starts off her journey by going to a party. Or rather, crashing a party in the land of the pretty. She’s dressed up as a “reputation bomber” which seems to be a person dressed in robes who just says one name over and over again all night. Because the reputation system can work by how many times people say your name. So they can literally send someone up the charts by saying a name a couple thousand times. At the party she meets pretty boy with big eyes who says he likes her nose and it kinda shocks her. Just like David liking Tally for herself as an Ugly person shocked her to her core. But unlike David, Frizz is already super popular and pretty. He also has brain lesions, that he gave himself. He calls it “radical honesty” and it literally makes it painful for him to lie in any form.

She tells Frizz her first name then continues to chase after her story, which is of Sly Girls, a myth, a legend, of this girl gang that does tricks. She sneaks after them, following a girl she suspects to be a part of the gang out into the underground and into darkness. Moggle, her hovercam, tries to sneak ahead of her to get a view of the girls, but it’s no use. She finds she suddenly can’t see anything since she doesn’t have any modifications to her eyes, but can hear people talking. She realizes that they’ve got Moggle and can see her. She lies to them about being a kicker (kicker’s are viewed in the same vein as modern day tabloid or gossip columnists) and following them for a story. She says instead she wants to be a Sly Girl. They give her a choice, join them and loose Moggle at the bottom of the lake or else. She does that and they leave her to find her way out on her own. 

Through Aya’s undercover filming of the Sly Girls she learns, to her horror that there’s mysterious people moving around the underground train areas and that they’re sneaking something she calls “City-killers” out of the city. Determined to save her city she has to release all her footage about the Sly Girls, who she’s gotten to know and changed her mind on since she’d grown to view them as friends. This vaults her to the top of the ranks, almost the same rank as the only person at #1, who no one had seen in 3 years, who decides to call her.

We get to see Tally through someone else’s eyes. Someone who worships her. She’s beautiful and scary and very buff and Aya instantly trusts her. But then she’s scary and dangerous and ready to leave Fizz and his radical honesty behind after they get captured. It’s so weird to see her through other’s eyes and it’s unsettling because this is the first moment where we learn that this novel, the only one in the series, is set in Japan, so they’re speaking Japanese and all the  -chan, -sama, and -sensei makes sense.

Scott Westerfeld decided to wait until the book was nearly over to explain why the book felt so cringy only to be like “hey it’s not cringy it’s actually set in Japan” which could’ve easily been fixed at the beginning by just saying that it was Japan.

There’s also so many other questions that pop up towards the end that leave me confused. How did Tally get there so fast? How did Tally know what Aya’s broadcast had said? Who translated the story to her? Last the readers knew she had left to live in the wilderness with David as the protector of the wild. So what, we’re suppose to assume she’s got some high speed private plane that she just jumps onto and is paying attention, somehow to every radio/video/and feed in the world? She clearly doesn’t speak Japanese. It didn’t make sense. Or did she find out what happened and used her super human powers to swim across the ocean?

It really felt like a stand alone novel where last minute they decided to tie it into the rest of the series and they had to use Tally to do that, but it wasn’t built that way. And then Tally is making plans and being secretive and Shay is with her and it’s strange because Aya is like “Are they friends? Are they not friends?” (a true question that even I wonder after reading the first three books) And Shay seems to be much more chill and friendly but also seems to be in charge of keeping Tally under control like she’s this wild beast. And Aya is essentially Tally, but Tally before anyone messed with her brain.

I don’t understand why Scott Westerfeld and whoever did the editing decided that name dropping modern day countries at the end of the novel was smart but making it a surprise until that point was a good idea. Because at the end of the novel it’s no longer some mysterious city somewhere in the world that readers reading the series would assume is the same city or at least somewhere else in America since it’s an Americentric series. But then at the end of the novel because Tally is there and can not understand the language and some of Aya’s group can’t understand English, yet miraculously suddenly everyone can understand one another, we know that it’s Japan and then suddenly they’re in Singapore and even though one of Singapore’s main language’s is English they suddenly are struggling to communicate again.

Really I found “Extras” frustrating. On the one hand I get what is trying to be said, they even flat out say it.

“If you see everything through hovercams and feed stories, you wind up blind to what’s right in front of you.”

Which I suppose at the start of the social media boom, (the book came out in 2007, Facebook opened for everyone over the age of 13 in 2006, Twitter had also really started in 2006) it was a gentle warning about the possible future. But at this point in 2020 people getting grumpy that other people are always on their phone or always on social media without any actual solutions or constructiveness to their criticisms is just a bit annoying.

And I think because of how jarring and nonsensical I found part of Extras when I found out that in 2018 Scott Westerfeld decided to return to the world of Uglies with a new series it’s made me a little nervous. Reading the synopsis it does feel like it is its own thing within just the same world, which I think is what Extras was suppose to be, and that might make it better. But having just come off of a huge disappointment that was Extras I’m going to need awhile before I pick up the new series. I’m hoping I’m wrong but I really feel like Uglies was really good and everything has just been slowly sliding down hill since.

Have you read a series where they’ve suddenly swapped countries or settings without explaining it? Did it throw you and ruin the book or did it not bother you?

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