Nifft the Lean Critical Essays

Michael Shea


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The major influence on Michael Shea’s work as a whole, and Nifft the Lean in particular, is the work of Jack Vance. In 1974, Shea produced the novel A Quest for Simbilis, a licensed extension of one element of Vance’s “Dying Earth” sequence, begun in 1950. Like Vance, Shea sets his stories in the far future, which allows him to combine elements of fantasy and science fiction, in that the magic his characters use has suggestions about it of a prodigiously developed science. Also like Vance, Shea populates his imagined world with a variety of monstrous creatures, some demoniac, some animal, and others—like the ghuls of “The Vampire Queen”—seemingly human variants or human hybrids, brought into being by some unguessable process of evolution.

A particular characteristic of Shea’s work is his repeated use of the “Descent into Hell” theme, familiar from antiquity. “The Fishing of the Demon-Sea” in particular reads like a revision of Dante’s poem Inferno, part of The Divine Comedy (c. 1320). In this type of story, characters descend deeper and deeper into Hell, or the Underworld, seeing increasingly horrific sights, described with great force. In Shea’s work, unlike Dante’s, the moral element of punishment for sin is absent. Nifft’s eventual guide, Gildmirth the Privateer, has gained his power in the underworld not from divine license but from his own unstated bargains with the demon-kind....

(The entire section is 451 words.)