Science-fiction novel ‘Assault on Sunrise’ depicts a monster movie brought to life

December 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 10, 2014

Assault on Sunrise, a 2013 science fiction novel by Michael Shea, boasts a nifty premise but suffers from indifferent execution.

The novel is set in Sunrise, a small town in mountainous Northern California. Some of its residents have roots in the area that go back generations; others are “ex-extras,” people who once lived in the sprawling Southern California urban-ghetto nightmare that’s known in the book as the Zoo.

The latter group agreed to be bit players in the movies, risking their lives against artificial monsters created by Hollywood studios in return for big payments. (Apparently the extras can get the biggest checks by having the most dramatic and visually striking encounters with hostile creatures.)

As the book starts, every so-called live action movie has been “cammed” in immense controlled environments that only simulated the appearance of being outdoors. That’s about to change, however. Panoply Studios mogul Val Margolian has covertly arranged for every resident of the town of Sunrise to be indicted for murder on trumped-up charges. That enables him to purchase a contract with the state to execute the townspeople by filming their fight against a flotilla of artificial oversized wasps and mantises.

Since this is entirely legal — this future America’s political and judicial system is thoroughly corrupt — the residents of Sunrise are not only allowed but encouraged to arm themselves and fortify their buildings. After all, the better the spectacle, the bigger the box office.

I thought that Assault on Sunrise would make for good or novelistic popcorn — the literary equivalent of an action-adventure movie. And indeed, I zipped through the book over the course of about a day.

Alas, little in the novel really aroused my excitement or engaged my interest. None of the characters came to life as intriguing individuals, and therefore I never became fully invested in their plight. Margolian almost makes for a mildly interesting antagonist, but his ego is so immense that he comes off as a caricature. Similarly, the townsfolk all seem to be more types than people.

There are a few enjoyable fighting scenes, but the climax is a bit of a dud. Curtis, one of the former extras, easily anticipates Margolian’s final gambit, and therefore the sequence just isn’t very dramatic.

Shea, who’s the author of more than a dozen volumes, sets up a sequel in which Sunrise strikes back at Margolian. (Indeed, the list of Shea’s books includes the forthcoming title Fortress Hollywood, invoking a phrase that’s used in Assault’s final chapter.) But just as I can’t really recommend this book to potential readers, I won’t feel particularly compelled to seek out that work.


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