31 December 1931-11 February 1996
HIGHER THAN ORBITSVILLE
In attempting experimentalism Science Fiction breathes the heady avant-gardism of pseudo-William Burroughs. Conversely it dissolves into the sword and sorcery escapism of neo-Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is proclaimed to be the only indigenous literature of the twentieth century, accused of being art, and analysed as a sociological phenomenon by Structuralist critics. In the meantime, Bob Shaw is caught up in a time-warp of Asimovian fifties fiction. He delights in a very unvoguish love of contextually unnecessary technological gimmicks across thirty-plus books, including ‘Nightwalk’ (1967), ‘The Two-Timers’ (1968), ‘Ground Zero’ (1971) and ‘Orbitsville’ (1975), and across a plethora of short stories.
He offsets his ‘spray-on wigs’ (‘organic base painted over the scalp, black silky fuzz air-blasted onto it’), with concise visual description that at its best can encroach on Mervyn Peake territory. A running man is depicted as ‘more like the shadow of an aircraft than a man, pike-mouth agape, scooping in air.’ For every ‘pearlised skin’ cosmetic and ‘cloud of visi-perfume’, there’s a graphically rewarding ‘clouds were seahorses of frozen grey steel’, or a windy night that is ‘rain-seeded’.
His ‘The Palace Of Eternity’ (1969, Ace Books/Gollancz) seems to be a shot at vindicating him from such charges of particularism. Indeed, by populating space with ‘sprit’ life-forms – the Egons, he invites comparison with the CS Lewis’ theological ‘Silent Planet’ trilogy, as well as Reich’s ideas of ‘orgone-energy’. Just as the apocalyptical transformation of the human race at the climax of ‘The Palace Of Eternity’ with its Nietzschean ‘ubermensch’ overtones echoes Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’ (1953). Surely there’s enough ‘meaning’ here to keep those Structuralist critics contentedly intrigued?
As if to defend these bizarre ‘inventions’ Shaw told ‘Vickers News’ ‘I am working in an area with a high-technology interest. The things that people are doing today would have been looked on as Science Fiction a few years ago.’ He spoke from the experience of a diverse and trans-Atlantic history, some twenty years of which had been preoccupied with SF. He’d been brought up in Ireland, recalling ‘I lived in Belfast, which has never been a great place to live in, and just after World War II when there was still rationing, it was a form of exquisite misery to be an imaginative teenager in that city’ (in an interview with John Brosnan in ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ vol.2 no.9).
In the meantime, he worked as a structural draughtsman, and became a journalist for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’. Later he moved to Canada for three years. But before his emigration he’d graduated to selling his own stories through modest pro titles. ‘I had six short stories published in a row – the first six that I wrote. Then my seventh story was rejected so I gave up for ten years…’
ASPECTS OF HIS JOURNEY ALONE
That cache of early tales opens with “Aspect” in ‘Nebula no.9’ (August 1954), followed by “The Trespassers” in ‘Nebula no.11’ (December 1954) billed as ‘a repeat performance by our popular discovery’. Next came “The Journey Alone” in no.12 (April 1955), which was voted third most popular story in its issue. Switching to ‘Authentic SF’ for “Departure” (no.62, October 1955) there’s an obvious striving for effect – ‘she was only a pale, impersonal blur in the aureate glow of the moon that was beginning to rise against the whiter, colder light of the galaxy’, and ‘the impartial firelight erasing the deep handwriting of time on his brown cheeks’. There’s even some confusion between ‘galaxy’ and universe’. Occasionally clumsy, and obviously the work of a writer in the process of learning his craft, these tales nevertheless introduce inventive twists on regular plot-devices. He returned to ‘Nebula’ as ‘one of our most talented new authors’ in time for “Sounds In The Dawn”, the lead novelette in no.15 (January 1956). A sequel to “Aspect”, it’s blurbed ‘mysteriously stranded on a strange planet, their ship under constant observation, three Earthmen strive to interpret obscure instructions received from outside.’
After this prestige-building run of sales Bob Shaw maintained contact with the genre through the continuing literary anchor of his humorous ‘The Glass Bushel’ column in ‘Hyphen’, and in the BSFA magazine ‘Vector’ (no.3, Winter 1958). Indeed, a brief 1971 return trip to North America sponsored by SF fan-groups came in recognition of twenty years of fanzine-writing. But when he took up fiction again, it would be in novel-form. ‘My books have fairly complicated plots’ he explained. ‘They run to seventy or eighty-thousand words. The fastest I have written took seven weeks, and the slowest a year. Some of course, are easier to write than others. When a book is going well I work very hard for a couple of months and then I take a break and do nothing.’ The approach pays off. With a four-novel Ace Books contract he initially gave up the day-job in favour of writing full-time. But – complaining that he ‘missed the stimulus of meeting people and getting out and about,’ he resumed employment, as PR officer for Shorts – the Belfast Aircraft Company for three years! And Publicity Officer for Vickers Shipbuilding Group at Barrow-in-Furness for two-and-a-half years.
‘The Palace Of Eternity’ is Shaw’s most ‘British’ novel. Most of his work shares little of the evolutionary characteristics of the HG Wells, Olaf Stapledon, John Wyndham, AC Clarke sub-genre, but slots seamlessly into the American pantheon of counterparts. This extends beyond the story locations – invariably the USA, into the very spirit of the work. Asimov developing his ‘Laws of Robotics’ is analogous to Shaw detailing the internal logic of tachyonic physics, ‘a branch of science which held a mirror to Einsteinian physics, dealing with particles which could not go slower than light’. The Tachyonic Star-Drive is based on ‘the technique of creating micro-continuums within a spaceship composed of normal matter so that it could display some of the attributes of tachyons and thus travel at huge multiples of the speed of light.’ To be sure, Shaw and Asimov’s approaches differ. The British writer bases his idea within a hard-technology background while the American requisitions a ‘Detective Story’ format. Yet the meticulous concern with precise detail and the minutiae of future sciences is identical. In ‘Nightwalk’, Shaw develops a similarly complex branch of theoretic physics, pivoting around the Null-space concept. It also predates ‘slow glass’ by dealing with ‘types of seeing’, featuring a blinded hero, Tallon, whose special aids enable him to ‘map’ null-space.
‘The American way of life’ he tells John Brosnan, ‘hasn’t been in existence long enough for it to have become rigid and formalized, and the idea of a sudden change occurring within American society, such as a radical new invention, seems quite feasible – whereas it doesn’t fit too well with either Ireland or England.’ In “Repeat Performance” (‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, February 1971) he has a character enquire ‘if I was one of those people who think deeply about causes and effects,’ and we get the distinct impression he feels he’s not such a person. “The Happiest Days Of Your Life” (‘Analog SF’, October 1970) and “Call Me Dumbo” (‘If’, December 1966) similarly show human simplicity and lack of sophistication as virtues against the dehumanising face of technology. Yet despite this apparent bias in favour of the ‘common man’, Shaw’s political philosophy is ill-defined. “(Harold Wilson At) The Cosmic Cocktail Party” – a 1970 story anthologized into ‘Tomorrow Lies In Ambush’, satirises the entire political set-up. In an induced fantasy situation a reincarnated robot Harold Wilson – complete with stock clichés about Tory misrule, is dispatched to Earth as a representative of the Galactic Socialist Congress to combat the planet’s right-wing backlash, in which African States are reverting to voluntary colonialism.
The relationship in the novella “Pilot Plant” (‘New Worlds’ no.162, May 1966) centres around the problems of living with a media hero. ‘The Palace Of Eternity’ presents an even more complex situation, again involving the destructive nature of media exploitation. Tavernor is an emotional cripple. With his parents killed in a Syccan raid, he’s subsequently crucified by the media as a result of his own escape. He dedicates his life to revenge, then eventually retires to find peace of mind on the ‘poet’s planet’. His relationships are unsatisfactory, but he fathers a child before being killed, only to be reincarnated through the intervention of the Egons – as his own son! Adding a new twist to the Oedipus Complex. Freud is again in evidence in ‘The Shadow Of Heaven’, lurking behind the ambiguous and unresolved relationship between half-brothers. The dénouement, of guilt at not ‘defending’ a widowed Mother from the half-brother’s father, works itself out in a scene of apocalyptical destruction.
A MILLION MORE TOMORROWS
‘One Million Tomorrows’ gives more twists to a similarly archetypal theme. The quest for immortality has been recurrent since alchemist’s first sought the Philosopher’s Stone. A problem even tackled by the other Shaw – George Bernard, in his play ‘Back To Methuselah’ (1922). And predictably, the subject has been equally well-mapped in Science Fiction. Yet Shaw’s novel gives only the occasional sense of déjà vu, and the issues are worked out to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. The immortality drug arrests further growth or decay at the stage it is administered, but applies the brake of male sterility to preserve the biological balance. Hence immortality’s two-fold psychological impact. The effective castration of overly masculine characteristics (testicles atrophy in accordance with Wogan’s hypothesis), in all but the ‘funkies’ – functional pre-immortal males. And the subjective problems of eternity itself remain.
Shaw recognises that an overnight racial transformation – even when faced with something as awe-inspiring as immortality, is unlikely. His image of the immortal tending his garden while indulging in petty gossip, entirely forgetting his earlier centuries, is believably mundane. Yet while remaining superficially unchanged, he’s able to manipulate the mass psychological shift and integrate it into the same society. When life potential is infinite, the statistical likelihood of accidental death over a span of time measured in centuries rather than decades, is statistically multiplied, so the risk factor in daily life must be reduced. Which results in the ‘bitch’ or safe stable society. David Duncan had already made the idea of an obsessively safety-conscious immortal society pivotal to his novelette “The Immortals” (‘Galaxy’, October 1960).
Similarly, the Egon concept of ‘The Palace Of Eternity’ is fascinating, fusing elements of the Bergson-Shavian élan vital idea with Jung’s ‘racial subconscious’. It also recalls the final page of Eric Frank Russell’s ‘Sentinals From Space’ (1953) which refers to a ‘Homo in Excelsis’ very similar to Shaw’s spirit-forms. Yet the idea of a post-death non-corporeal existence is debatable. Black Room experiments that achieve total sensory deprivation, severing mind-personality from the physical stimuli of the senses, result in the decay of reason and eventual insanity. It seems the mind can’t exist without the body, unless the death-metamorphosis changes the mind-structure too, in which case essential humanity can hardly be said to survive.
Bob Shaw is fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of his literary inventions. On this level alone he explores more effectively than any other writer within the possible-technologies sub-genre. Yet emphasis on the particular can work counter to the visionary value of SF. The minute betraying detail is never understated, whether it’s simple visual observations – such as ‘meticulously folded bills’ or ‘ring-marks’ on a finger in “Communication” (‘Fantastic’, June 1970, collected into ‘Tomorrow Lies In Ambush’), or such cause-and-effect as that ‘left-handed people replace the telephone receiver the other way round.’ In the same way – as in the tradition of Asimov’s robot stories, Retardite crimes are worked out to an ingenious degree, incorporating the concept-on-concept factor of Slow-Glass also being used in Crime Detection. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that the complex game of possibilities – if temporarily diverting, is limiting. The traditional Crime Detection novel suggests an ordered universe. It advances a ‘place for everything’ philosophy. Its premise is that, if dedicated people look for long enough, they’ll deduce the key clue that makes everything fit. The value of SF is that it knows better. It can see beyond the trivia. Even at its most crude Space Opera level, by its very hardware, it suggests an eternity of space and an infinity of time. Detail can reinforce the credibility of an idea, but once it obscures or loses sight of the idea it must become suspect.
Similarly, over-indulgence in whims of minutiae can lead to awkward literary traps. Bob Shaw’s novels make intelligent use of current technology, introducing Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Bubbles, for example. But on the other hand his ‘invention’ of a transport system based on private capsules in an air-pressure tube leads to such grotesque remarks as ‘Go on, you are in the tube – now let it bullet’ (for ‘spit it out’). This kind of future usage, while common to earlier SF decades, is now sensibly avoided.
Yet such excesses are rare. In his article “Bicycles To Betelguese” (in the 1974 ‘Newcastle Tynecon SF Conference’ Booklet) he compares the traditional SF hardware against the New Wave ‘software’. He cites population explosion, pollution, the drug culture, abuse of organ transplant, urban barbarism, mass psychosis and computer-domination as characteristic New Wave clichés. These memes, he says, prevent new writers from being expansive in the way that the genre-writers it supersedes were ‘outward-looking’. As early as 1955 he criticized EC Tubb for a similar negative approach, accusing him ‘of the one mistake that should never be made by a writer who worships at the shrine of the progress of science – namely, underestimating the power of the scientific mind’ (a letter to the ‘Guided Missives’ column of ‘Nebula no.13’). The New Wave clichés he lists are convergent – ‘they work together to impose a direction on the mind, guiding it down a narrowing and darkening path towards a single, cut-and-dried future. I have to rebel.’
It’s illogical to suppose that a man of genius, given endless life would fill eternity with works of genius. Nietzsche, the German philosopher who Bob Shaw mentions – and misspells in “And The Isles Where Good Men Lie”, comments that genius is finite. Humans ‘merely write their own autobiographies’. Genius is the interpretation of life through one pair of eyes, and the number of permutations is limited. An intellectual tradition is built up by the superimposition of generations of ‘pairs of eyes’. Giving one thinker the same time-span as generations would not produce the same end result.
Longevity is viewed from a different tack in “The Cosmic Cocktail Party” where electronically-duplicated brains are maintained in a ‘tank’ for consultation after death. While – in ‘The Palace Of Eternity’, tachyonic space-travel is unwittingly lacerating the Egons energy, and hence destroying its race-mind in the process. The only world where this is not true is Mnemosyne – taking its name from ‘mnemonic’, the ‘good memory’ of the Greek mythology Mother of the Muses. The planet, also known as Cerulea – ‘sky-blue’, has an asteroidal moon-shell within which the ‘Butterfly’ ships are unable to function, hence the race-mind remains intact. Shaw reinforces its subsequent role as a Poet’s Planet with quotes from, or mentions of Shelly, Eliot, Milton, Gaugin, and “The Lady Of Shalot”. As well as an ‘I think, therefore I’m alive’ sideswipe at Descartes. There are also literary references within the eleven tales collected into ‘Tomorrow Lies In Ambush’, including to Frazer’s occult treatise ‘The Golden Bough’ (1890). Yet name-dropping is never allowed to become pedantic. Humorously there’s a character whose genesis maybe stems from a less noble source, called (Spiro?) Agnew, while for aficionados of SF tie-ins there’s the short story “The Weapons Of Isher II” (‘Amazing SF’ May 1971) that borrows from AE Van Vogt’s 1951 classic ‘The Weapon Shops Of Isher’. Shaw acknowledges further influences in his ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ interview, including an aborted shot at writing an Alastair Maclean-type thriller. While his ‘Ground Zero Man’ (Avon, September 1971), about a scientist using a fictional device to prevent World War II, had at that time to find a British outlet because ‘it was a sort of Lawrence Durrell type of novel with a lot of characterisation’ and ‘the publisher didn’t think it was Science Fiction’ (it appeared through Corgi as late as October 1976, revised as ‘The Peace Machine’ for Gollancz, 1985).
‘The Shadow Of Heaven’ shows his writing at its best, despite the names Victor Stirling and Johnny Considine, which seem to match the mood of a ‘Dan Dare’ strip or a pulp Gangster novel. The location is the US Eastern seaboard in the year 2092, following the erosion of arable land in insidious and unexplained warfare. Populations are compressed into dystopian shore-side cities that recall ‘Stand On Zanzibar’ (John Brunner, 1968) or ‘Make Room, Make Room’ (Harry Harrison, 1966). Women wear ‘roast beef perfume’, while national administration is centralized in ‘Government Mile’. Giant anti-gravity discs – International Land Extensions (Ile’s), float three miles high above the ocean providing food for populations living in minute Fam-Apts (Family Apartments, a usage that Shaw uses in other stories) who regard the sky-borne shadows as Heaven. A character ‘looked out of the apartment’s single window and down through the clouds drifting in the street canyons below, his eyes were like those of a sniper.’ The hero takes the road to the Ile’s in search of his missing half-brother. There’s a battle for ILE-US-23 which is occupied by squatters, a conflict that provides the setting for the antagonism between the two half-brothers. The situation is resolved, leaving only the unanswered question that if this has happened on one Ile, hasn’t it also happened on the others? The Western Seaboard alone has eighteen.
In his own words ‘a damn good set of clichés one must admit’ (“Bicycles To Betelguese”).
‘Clichés play a vital role in maintaining the economic health of any brand of literature’ he contends. ‘They are the identification marks which enable the Average Reader to classify different forms of literature, to decide whether or not he likes any particular one, and to locate it in the shops when he decides to make a purchase. I am using clichés here in its broadest sense… a stock image, a well-worked theme, or a very familiar treatment.’ If such an approach reduces literature to the level of neatly-labeled consumer products, Bob Shaw’s fiction is rescued by its human elements.
The iconoclastic late-sixties New Wave exploded all around him, throwing up reputations and destroying others. Science Fiction breathes the heady avant-gardism of pseudo-William Burroughs, as it dissolves into the sword and sorcery escapism of neo-Edgar Rice Burroughs. While Shaw continued to work firmly within the SF tradition, using its established hardware and conventions, yet viewing them through his own meticulously idiosyncratic perception. He juxtaposes his clichés in ways that make them come out refurbished and vital. There’s no trendy decadence or surrealist… although he comes close to attaining both – though functionally so, in the ‘One Million Tomorrows’ drug-sequence. ‘The world is pear-shaped and the tip will meet us rotationally – your eyes, the non-Einsteinian simultaneity of blinking.’ In “Call Me Dumbo” he was writing about hallucinogenic drugs and sex-change operations in 1966, before the large-scale media exploitation of both subjects by Timothy Leary or Jan Morris (‘Conundrum’ 1974, Faber).
But what characterizes Bob Shaw’s work at its best are ideas logically and doggedly worked out within a framework that’s at once recognizably human, speculative, and perhaps most important of all – immensely readable.
With thanks to Bob Shaw and Ian Watson
for their kind indulgence and assistance
in preparing this feature
THE EARLY BOB SHAW
“Aspect” (‘Nebula SF no.9’, August 1954) with art by Tony Steele. Editor Peter Hamilton writes ‘Bob Shaw makes his very first appearance in print in this edition. I think you will agree with me that I have another really promising ‘discovery’ in Bob and both he and I will look forward to your comments in his ‘Aspect’’. As the ‘Panther’ is astrographing an airless planet they discover a free-standing twenty-foot glasshouse, with chairs but no way inside. It’s a room in a multidimensional house for viewing a volcanic mountain – ‘a stalactite in reverse’, which they inadvertently destroy with mercury bombs to facilitate lift-off home
“The Journey Alone” (‘Nebula SF no.12’, April 1955) with art by John J Greengrass. Following a flier explosion on Thor – ‘duplicate of Mars’, Given wakes in a strange ‘Starfinder’ Sick Bay where stars are lights on the corridor walls. Is he insane or has he slipped into a parallel universe? Neither, to combat monstrous telepathic Gorvans the crew’s memories have been replaced
“Sounds In The Dawn” (‘Nebula SF no.15’, January 1956) with art by Harry Turner. Novelette sequel to ‘Aspect’ requested by editor Peter Hamilton, with Jennings, Davies and the religious Keene of the ‘Panther’ fleeing the consequences of when ‘we were forced to blow up a mountain which we later deduced to be pretty important to members of another civilization’. Trapped in a vast hanger they are subject to tests – ‘REACT’, by what they first assume to be the five-pointed black-furred aliens, only to realise that they’re just the pet-starfish of the REAL aliens!
“Dissolute Diplomat” (‘If’, January 1960) as by Bob Shaw and Walt Willis
“The Light Of Other Days” (‘Analog ‘ August 1966) takes its title from the poem by Thomas Moore, which explains its later use for an entirely unconnected 2000 novel by Arthur C Clarke & Stephen Baxter
“Waltz Of The Bodysnatchers” (‘Andromeda 1’ edited by Peter Weston, Orbit 1976), vague and insubstantial thriller about wife Sadie’s attempts to remove an inconvenient husband when law compels victims to be ‘reborn’ into the killer’s body. Collected into his ‘Cosmic Kaleidosope’ Gollancz 1976. His “Crossing The Line” is in ‘Andromeda 2’ 1977
“The Cottage Of Eternity” (‘Twenty Houses Of The Zodiac’ edited by Maxim Jakubowki, August 1979, reprinted in ‘Quasar 2’), humorous and ingenious with a scientific explanation for ghosts. Collected into his ‘A Better Mantrap’ Gollancz 1982
(UK – November 1976)