Thursday, 23 March 2017

Science Fiction: THE WORLDS OF BOB SHAW



THE METICULOUSLY 
IDIOSYNCRATIC 
WORLDS OF 
BOB SHAW

 Bob Shaw: 
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.


‘I have always suffered from an overactive imagination’ he explains, ‘and thought it was about time I started to make it earn some money’ (from an interview published in ‘Vickers News’ magazine, dated 23 August 1974). But his imagination runs in the groove labeled ‘mainstream’, drawing diverse elements from the SF tradition, into a mix suffused with Cyril Kornbluth’s ethos of a future super-capitalist America. And it works – extremely well, but while the balance is precarious, it’s well worth taking a trip around.

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’.


Yet sometimes the balance gets unbalanced. It could be argued that in ‘Other Days, Other Eyes’ – a 1972 Gollancz/Pan novel expanded from the short story “Light Of Other Days” (‘Analog’, August 1966), that the central theme is little more than an extended gimmick. That of ‘retardite’, a type of glass through which light passes at variable speeds, freezing moving pictures of the past at different time-lags. In much the same way the 1971 short story “What Time Do You Call This?” (‘Amazing SF’, September) is built around the novelty technology of a parallel alternate world reached by a belt device. Martin Amis criticizes ‘Orbitsville’ in ‘The Guardian’ for its over-concentration on the geography of a giant Dyson sphere, a hollow world-shell larger than the orbit of the Earth containing one-hundred-and-fifty-billion square kilometers of exploitable land across its inner surface.

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?


Yes, the visionary quality is undeniable, yet the action takes place well inside the ‘galactic-expansion-colonisation’ SF tradition. Just as the novel’s aliens, the Syccans, follow the early SF pattern of predictable ugliness and cardboard cut-out belligerence. In the same way that his Nessters are comic-strip repulsive and mindlessly baneful – in the story “And The Isles Where Good Men Lie” (in ‘New Worlds’ October 1965, collected into ‘Tomorrow Lies In Ambush’, Gollancz, 1973). Despite the complexity and depth of character motivation and relationships, there’s no attempt at depicting an alien psychology. He deliberately falls back on the ‘Monster-mag’ cliché in another story, “An Uncomic Book Horror Story” (‘Science Fiction Monthly’ vol.2 no.9, September 1975), with the story’s mentally-retarded protagonist devoured by a shapeshifter assuming the guise of a pillar box!


‘The Palace Of Eternity’ is nonetheless a compulsively breathtaking novel. Its ‘theological’ content, the concept of non-evolutionary ‘clouds of energy’ space-life, is as hypnotically complex as the Syccans are superficial. This is Bob Shaw’s ‘balance’ for the novel. The Egons imprint the life-essence of planetary beings following their death, gifting them an eternal after-life. The species and generations of a world thus combine to form a ‘Mother-mass’ that communicates inspiration to artists at moments of psychic contact, and eventually continues to exist as the planet’s soul long after the world itself is dead and its actual life extinct. Yet the idea is decked out with the inevitable ‘nightclub walls of continually distorting mirrors’ (‘changing their shape as solenoids behind them exert pressure in a random sequence dictated by the heat-patterns radiated from the customer’s skins, cigarettes and drinks’), just as his other novels flourish wristwatches tattooed to the skin (‘rearranging pigmentation-molecules in accordance with standard time-signals broadcast’), and invisible chairs (‘sitting down, apparently in empty air but supported by the Queen Vic magnetic chair built into the seat of his hose’). And as for his ‘heels giving off coloured light at the impact of each step’, maybe he should have taken out an early patent!

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).


Once snared by reading his first copy of ‘Astounding SF’ at the age of eleven, escape from that exquisite misery arrived via fantastic fiction. He lists AE Van Vogt as a formative influence, citing the writer’s ability to ‘quite often, in one sentence, threw out more ideas than some modern writers use up in their entire careers.’ The young Bob Shaw contacts fellow enthusiasts Walt Willis and Jim White through the fanzine-pages of ‘Fantastic’, and they together use ‘The Enchanted Duplicator’ to produce their own fifty-page amateur zine ‘Slant’, circulating 150-copies. His involvement with such magazines is important and long-lasting, developing his own writing skills through thriving fan outlets. The debut issue of prozine ‘Nebula’ (no.1, Autumn 1952) advertises ‘Peri’ – a ‘new fanzine run by the junior fanatics’ including work by both EC Tubb… and Bob Shaw. Two years later ‘a delightful piece of humorous writing by that wayward genius Bob Shaw’ appeared in ‘Orion’ (the ‘Electric Fan’ column in ‘Nebula no.10’, October 1954).

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.’


But one of Shaw’s finest early stories is “Barrier To Yesterday” (‘Nebula no.16’, March 1956), illustrated by Arthur Thomson and published just prior to his move to Canada. A tribe of human survivors eternally circle the frozen Earth on ice-sleds pursuing the Sun as the planet’s axial rotation slows. The climax comes when they encounter a crashed alien spaceship that at first seems to threaten their precarious existence, but inadvertently provides their salvation. Editor Peter Hamilton describes it as ‘another of the truly original and off-trail yarns with which he is building himself a formidable reputation as one of our top authors.’ Indeed, it’s an idea that parallels one by another young writer then building a reputation – for Michael Moorcock uses a similar concept in his novel ‘The Ice Schooner’ (1969). The sixth Shaw short – “The Silent Partners”, appears in ‘Nebula no.41’ (June 1959).

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.


‘In my job’ he points out, ‘I work with men who are nowhere near the level of the sort of men who would get into the first spaceships, they are merely competent engineers, but it is a pleasure to watch their minds in action. Trained, efficient, scrupulously careful and working to a system of procedure with built-in checks at every important point’ (a letter to the ‘Guided Missives’ column of ‘Nebula no.13’, September 1955). But since September 1975 he devoted himself to writing fulltime again, with the intention of producing three novels a year.

‘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.


Astutely, Shaw’s novels seem targeted at the American market, and invariably debut there first. A version of ‘The Shadow Of Heaven’ was published through US Avon Books in June 1969, and only through the UK New English Libraries over a year later. This abridged edition was itself replaced by a 1974 reprint – Shaw was never happy with the novel’s original draft, protesting it was written in too much of a hurry and under great pressure. A further revision followed as late as 1991 through Gollancz. But few British writers have so completely subsumed the essence of American fiction as Shaw. His writing proclaims a belief in the American ideas of individuality and free-enterprise – although, of course, this gives his protagonists greater freedom from social restraint, and legitimizes the degree of technological independence that gives his stories their clarity.

‘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.


Shaw’s humour is a constant, if submerged factor, with neat off-hand remarks about ‘Teachers demanding equal pay with Students’, or incisive comments with a sting in their tail about ‘token food gifts from India to the beleaguered West’ (in ‘The Shadow Of Heaven’) which perceptively nails the ‘token’ role of organizations such as Oxfam. Descriptions can be neat similes, ‘like cats who had not only licked the cream but found a few drowned mice in it,’ or spacious metaphors as in a human race ‘all dressed up with spaceships, but nowhere to go’. The humour extends into the most bizarre and involved situations such as the Chinese regulating population by synchronizing all menstruation, then banning sex on the crucial days! An idea made even more idiosyncratic by that operation being carried out by the Kuomintang, the Chiang Kai-Shek administration driven into exile by the Communists in 1949.


But, more than humour, his stylistic virtues include protagonists caught up in readily identifiable emotional tangles. Perhaps it’s just another facet of his particular brand of quirkiness that the well-observed relationship must be as complex, as meticulously charted as his gimmick technological innovations. Or maybe it’s that in a genre notorious for shallow characterization his emotional interactions just seem deeper by comparison? As early as “Barrier To Yesterday” a strong feature of the plot is the marital tension between Chandrill, wife Sinoon, and the rival Minnatose. Elsewhere Shaw speaks of the ‘timeless man-woman relationship’ – always an unsatisfactory and destructive equation. The awkward husband-wife love-hate situation in ‘Other Days, Other Eyes’ is developed through minutely-charted bitchy conversations as the marriage status quo alters in response to Retardite profits. From direct dominance, the wife is forced to adopt emotional blackmail tactics, taking advantage of her husband’s guilt-feelings and sense of responsibility. At the novel’s climax the husband meets his ideal woman – Jane Watson, a cop-out figure unworthy of Shaw’s reputation. Perfection is boring. It’s the compromised relationship that is interesting, a contention adequately borne out by the plot’s first three-quarters build-up.


There’s an essential humanity to the relationships just as apparent in minor incidents. In ‘One Million Tomorrows’ (Ace Books/ Gollancz, 1971) the central character pauses to rescue a stranded frog. The protagonist of ‘Other Days, Other Eyes’ relives his childhood inability to involve himself in bullying. In such a context, Jane Watson with her ‘black evening dress so fine and sheer that her breasts seemed to have no more covering than a film of glossy paint and… a soft triangular bulge of hair below the plummy curve of her belly’ seems an interloper from Stereotype Images Inc. Oddly enough, one-and-a-half-years previous – in ‘One Million Tomorrows’, Shaw’s writing had gone beyond such superficiality and into the sweaty, uncomfortable, glorious ridiculousness of real sexual encounters. The only sour note being the farcical redemption of wife Athene whose adultery – it transpires, is the result of a surreptitiously administered aphrodisiac!

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).


The burden on global overpopulation is conveniently sidestepped beyond polar cities, more rational use of world resources and the like. Faced by a prospect of universal immortality and continued proliferation by ‘Funkies’, these would be finger-in-the-dyke policies. As though Shaw is less concerned with far-reaching social effects, and more with individual personal possibilities. Concentrating more on technological innovation and human relationships than the social structures that would result. For example, with dogged – and often enviable determination, he pursues every possible avenue of merchandising Slow-Glass – from street-lighting to jewelry, from espionage to ‘eyes for the blind’, to the 3D visual preservation of images of the dead, an idea to which he gives morbid necrophiliac overtones. He even touches on its value as a medium for pornography, yet ignores the sound economic monopolies and vested interests that would violently oppose such commercial adventures.


His ‘invisible para-magnetic high heels’ have an exploitable novelty value, but – as in “Dark Icarus” (‘Science Fiction Monthly’ no.4, April 1974) in which counter-gravity belts revolutionise travel, rendering the auto and aero industries obsolete, the mass application of Slow-Glass on the scale envisaged in ‘Other Days, Other Eyes’ would create immense economic disruption. These are problems he never attempts to meet. A photograph can eternalize a single moment, a wedding or a Presidential shooting, yet with Slow-Glass, once the image has gone, once the light has escaped, it cannot be recaptured (except onto another Slow-Glass, and so ad infinitum!). It can record the unspecific, but even with ‘emission control’, Retardite could not indefinitely eternalize the singular, which is the real value of visual recording. So there’s little – beyond miniaturization for espionage purposes and novelty ephemera, that Retardite could poach from the movie-photographic industry.

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.’


This rebellion is skillfully carried out through his novels. He rebels successfully through his development of the immortality ‘fraud’ in ‘One Million Tomorrows’. The passage of time changes personality, he observes. Through the novel’s central character he asks ‘without absolute continuance of the personality can there be such a thing as immortality? Or does it simply mean that one deathless body would be inhabited by a series of strangers, each fading imperceptibly into the next as the biological slates were wiped clean?’ This single observation is worth ten gimmick-inventions. Secondly, he reasons that virtual immortality removes the stimulus to genius provided by death. With time-scales indefinitely extended, and the prospect of death postponed, the spark of human illogic is quenched, along with that hint of paranoia that paradoxically invests us with uniqueness. If the end product of all endeavour is wiped out by death – and only art transcends time and mortality, immortality renders art itself obsolete.

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.


Although Shaw doesn’t follow his reasoning quite this far, the intimations are inescapable. Yet he doesn’t ignore such quirkily human idiosyncrasies as ‘Child-Fixing’, the freezing of infant development into endless babyhood to gratify the over-maternal, or the dissolution of marriage with the loss of male virility, as well as the compensatory development of female communes consisting of time-frozen Mother, Grandmother and Great Grandmother, all living together like so many identical Russian Dolls. The joke ‘going home to Mother’ becomes a bizarre going back to a multitude of proto-Mothers.

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).


‘I think I was born with an interest in Science Fiction’ Shaw explains to ‘Vickers News’. ‘As a child I always read the Science Fiction strips in my comics before anything else.’ But Bob Shaw is no mere word-weaver. His writing is economical, his descriptions concise and functional, yet capable of sudden flights of vividly visual images – ‘seen from almost directly overhead the pedestrian has no identity, it was barely possible to separate men from women – and he found it difficult to accept that each one of the creeping dots regarded itself as the centre of the universe’ (‘Other Days, Other Eyes’). He uses well-chosen perfectly-matched adjectives, as in ‘voice-stilling silence’. Robots in ‘The Shadow Of Heaven’ are seen ‘patiently grazing’. Watch-hands represent ‘the blind present tapping its way into eternity’. Adrenalin ‘performs its ancient duties’, while grain-fields ‘rolled down to the river like unleashed bolts of yellow satin’.

‘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.


Despite some thirty-two books, including collections, Bob Shaw never received the recognition that is his due. A most singular writer who, if not quite altering the course of his chosen genre, filled it out and given depth to its neglected terra incognita. As this fly-over of – largely, the earlier years of his work has attempted to prove, there’s no pretence of mystical or philosophical messages, no grand gestures or sterile stylistic experiments. He embraces SF mythology. There is Synthajuice and Blotch Guns, while TV-glasses are featured in two stories, cofftea is drunk in a number of tales, there are one-thousand kph London-to-Liverpool monorails, and even a ‘white-uniformed Food Technology Authority’. His writing betrays affection for the traditional Mad Scientist theme, with its implicit belief in eccentric individuality (as in “And The Islands Where Good Men Lie”, “Communication” and “What Time Do You Call This?”). All combined with the hero’s struggle against police and blind bureaucracy to help the mad scientist save the world.

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 Traspassers” (‘Nebula SF no.11’, December 1954) with art by Bob Clothier. A pyramid-shaped Martian spaceship risks landing on a hostile Earth ‘after a hundred years of war’. ‘They came for that which is more precious than life itself’, flowers. And return with the clumsy symbolism of their dead bodies, laden with flowers, ‘the combined heady perfume of a million blossoms made the smell of death almost unnoticeable’

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


Departure” (‘Authentic SF no.62’, October 1955). Sellers is a fugitive from a Universe-ship on pastoral retrogressed Alcord, a post ‘Century Twenty-Five’ galactic-empire rim-world, where his lover Moree urges him to destroy his ancient robot Samel. But he is a ‘product of his world’ too, and flees back to catch his ship before it blasts off for ‘the big jump to another galaxy. That gigantic leap into space from which there could be no return’

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!


Barrier To Yesterday” (‘Nebula no.16’, March 1956) with art by Arthur Thomson. In a frozen far-future ‘world whose spin had almost stopped, stretching the days and night into years’ the tribe endlessly circle the globe in a fleet of ice-sleds chasing the sun, until a vital pass is blocked by a projectile from space. Chandrill escapes with wife Sinoon pursued by vengeful cousin Minnatose, to discover the dying alien in the wrecked space-egg, with energy-reserves that will allow the tribe to settle within its radiating warmth. A finely-imagined tale with strong human content


The Silent Partners” (‘Nebula SF no.41’, June 1959) with art by John J Greengrass. Low-life hoodlum Purvey is snatched by plant-like Lurr – allowing Shaw to fully indulge his love of weird alien monsters. Ironic in that it’s only when he’s killed Lurr that Purvey realises the ship’s air-conditioning is wrecked, and the two of them together were performing the carbon-dioxide into oxygen cycle, thereby keeping each other alive

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


Invasion Of Privacy” (‘Amazing SF’, July 1970, collected into ‘Tales Of Terror From Outer Space’ edited by R Chetwynd-Hayes, Fontana, 1975). A perfect short Stephen King-style horror story described by Chetwynd-Hayes as ‘no-one is safe once those creatures from beyond the skies decide to invade. Not even the dead’. The cast includes caring father George, his ill child Sammy who saw his dead ‘Granny Cummins’ in the old derelict Guthrie house, and the small-town cracker-barrel Doctor Pitman. George leaves the house-door unlocked ‘with a quasi-religious irrationality, that we might be robbed and thus appease the Fates, diverting their attention from Sammy’. His wife ‘May sat beside me and gazed out from the windows with the air of a child reluctantly returning from a long vacation’. George accidentally burns the old house down, and its alien replicant occupants, leaving George haunted by the fear that a recovered Sammy, ‘growing up tall and straight’, is an alien

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

Published in:
‘GLIMPSE no.4’ 
(UK – November 1976)



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