I had a very genteel argument with Martin Lewis earlier this week about Bob Shaw’s story “Other Days, Other Eyes”, which Martin had read as part of David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s anthology The Ascent of Wonder. My admiration for the story is already on record, but the thing that struck me as I reread it was how much it feels like Shaw’s work has become forgotten since he died in 1996. So far as I can tell, none of his books are in print on either side of the Atlantic, and his name rarely comes up in discussion of British sf.
There are probably reasons for this, but not ones to do with the quality of his work. He was unashamedly an old-fashioned writer, whose tendency was to create high-concept sf ideas but describe them in straightforward, journalistic prose. After the formal innovations of the New Wave, or even compared with contemporaries like Christopher Priest or Ian Watson, his work must have seemed small-c conservative. As Dave Langford suggests in his eloquent memorial piece, Shaw was as well known in fan circles for his “Serious Scientific Talks” as for his fiction. But there’s a huge amount in his work that’s work celebrating.
Quite apart from Shaw’s ability to imagine huge sf venues such as Orbitsville, there was also a set of obsessions around time and memory. A late short story like “Dark Night in Toyland” is very much about nostalgia and the passing of the years. Slow glass is a wonderful way of literalising these ideas: an image enters the glass and is only visible on the other side months or years later. As Mike Harrison says in the comments to Martin’s post, it’s a way of making storyable the idea of deferring or avoiding the real. It also ties into another Shaw motif, sight. This comes to the fore in his novel Night Walk (1967), whose blinded protagonist has to create a new way to see. It’s also there in A Wreath of Stars (1976), which gradually reveals a neutrino-world visible as a ghostly image inside our own.
If I had to nominate one passage from Shaw to point new readers at, it’d be the central set-piece of The Ragged Astronauts (1986). The set-up (in an alternate universe, so real-world physics objections don’t apply) is that there are two planets, Land and Overland, close enough to each other that they are linked by an hourglass of shared atmosphere. So it’s possible to travel from one to the other by hot-air balloon. The first voyage of this kind is one of the purest sf journeys of exploration I can remember – but described in a way that’s so explicable, so transparent, that it seems the most plausible thing imaginable. But others, I’m sure, will have different favorite Bob Shaw moments….