Like Patton Oswalt, I have been reading Michael Shea since high school. That’s when I picked up a copy of the 1985 Grafton edition of A Quest for Simbilis, a novel originally published in 1974 by DAW (years later I would come across a copy of the first edition in a used book store for next to nothing). Shea’s first novel was an authorized sequel in Jack Vance’s Cugel universe, before Vance wrote his own sequel. As soon as I discovered Shea’s other books I bought copies, including the dark fantasy In Yana, The Touch of Undying, the Lovecraftian tale The Color Out of Time, and his uniquely own character, Nifft the Lean. In 1988 I bought the gorgeous Arkham House edition, Poylphemus. I also acquired some novellas published by various small presses, as well as the two Nifft sequels, The Mines of Behemoth and The A’rak. I reviewed the latter in Lawrence Person’s magazine NOVA Express. At one point I was trying to collect all of Shea’s short stories, until Centipede Press published all but two in The Autopsy and Others a few years ago, in a very handsome and expensive limited edition.
The I heard news last year that a new Shea novel was in the works, a hardcover edition called The Extra. Published in February 2010, this novel expands on the original 1987 short story (first collected in Polyphemus), about a futuristic movie set where people actually die as part of the movie concept. The extras are paid to battle deadly animatronic spiders the size of humans.
Expanding a short story into a novel is nothing new among sf writers. Dan Simmons turned a very short story into the massive novel Carrion Comfort in the late 1980s. But taking 20 years between the two forms probably is a little unusual. Would the times have changed too far for the story to work? In this case, even though the dystopian setting is more in tone with an Escape from New York/L.A. scenario, the non-stop action required by the characters is timeless. I read the book in one day, so compelled by the tense action and plot. A chapter into the book I stopped a re-read the short-story, just so see where it held to the original line and where it diverged. There were two major changes, one being the main character’s name, the other being a death that never happened in the novel. The background was a little confusing, with the Zoo and ‘rise people not clearly delineated. Still, the rest of the book was pre enjoyment.
Shea speaks about the novel in a brief interview, stating he is blending genres, from horror to sf, in his current fiction. This is true for many of his stories, such as “The Autopsy,” or “I, Said the Fly” and even “Polyphemus” where humans exploring another world encounter great horror that is merely “nature, red in tooth and claw.” That in itself contains an element of horror.
Shea is currently working on a the sequel to The Extra, called The Siege of Sunrise. He is a master of language and character, and the tense action in this book is perfect for the movie set sketches and background.