Bob Shaw

Who Goes There?

James Lecky

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Bob Shaw (1931 – 1996) was that rarest of things – an Irish science fiction writer. Although Irish literature has long held a streak of fantastic – from Lord Dunsany though C.S Lewis to modern practitioners such as Paul Kearney or Ian MacDonald – writers of 'pure' science fiction have tended to be few and far between.

Moreover, Shaw's work fell within the broad Anglo-American tradition of science fiction and used many of the tropes associated with it producing work that could – and does – easily sit within the definition of science fiction as 'the literature of ideas'.

Born and raised in Belfast, Shaw's introduction to science fiction was initially via the works of A.E Van Vogt – a writer who's influence can be felt time and time again in Shaw's novels – and in 1950 joined the group Irish Fandom (which included another notable Irish SF writer, James White), which was itself important in the development of fandom as an influence on science fiction, producing the fanzines Hyphen and Slant to which Shaw contributed. Although he published a number of short stories during the 1950s, in the UK-based Nebula Science Fiction and Authentic Science Fiction, Shaw ceased writing until the mid 1960s when he began to publish strong and consistent work in the sf field, in particular the 1966 short story 'The Light of Other Days' which established his reputation as an ingenious and perceptive writer.

'The Light of Other Days' – shortlisted for the prestigious Hugo Award in 1967 – is one of Bob Shaw's best known works, and an excellent example of what could be referred to as 'humanist science fiction'. Built around the concept of 'slow glass' – through which light take years to travel – which acts as a literal window on the past, allowing those who look through it to see the events of years before, 'The Light of Other Days' is about the impact of technological advance on the everyday, taking as its focus the characters rather than the technology:  

The most important effect, in the eyes of the average individual, was that light took a long time to pass through a sheet of slow glass. A new piece was always jet black because nothing had yet come through, but one could stand the glass beside, say, a woodland lake until the scene emerged, perhaps a year later. If the glass was then removed and installed in a dismal city flat, the flat would—for that year—appear to overlook the woodland lake. During the year it wouldn't be merely a very realistic but still picture—the water would ripple in sunlight, silent animals would come to drink, birds would cross the sky, night would follow day, season would follow season. Until one day, a year later, the beauty held in the subatomic pipelines would be exhausted and the familiar gray cityscape would reappear.... 

Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass. 

I had never seen one of the farms before and at first found them slightly eerie—an effect heightened by imagination and circumstance. The car's turbine was pulling smoothly and quietly in the damp air so that we seemed to be carried over the convolutions of the road in a kind of supernatural silence. On our right the mountain sifted down into an incredibly perfect valley of timeless pine, and everywhere stood the great frames of slow glass, drinking light. An occasional flash of afternoon sunlight on their wind bracing created an illusion of movement, but in fact the frames were deserted. The rows of windows had been standing on the hillside for years, staring into the valley, and men only cleaned them in the middle of the night when their human presence would not matter to the thirsty glass....

 "It wasn't my fault," he said steadily. "A hit-and-run driver got them both, down on the Oban road six years ago. My boy was only seven when it happened. I'm entitled to keep something."

  I nodded wordlessly and moved down the path, holding my wife close to me, treasuring the feel of her arms locked around me. At the bend I looked back through the rain and saw Hagan sitting with squared shoulders on the wall where we had first seen him.

  He was looking at the house, but I was unable to tell if there was anyone at the window.

  – The Light of Other Days


In many ways, 'The Light of Other Days' is typical of Shaw's work, both as a short story writer and a novelist, never allowing invented (or speculative) technology to override the human narrative, and understanding first and foremost that characters rather than special effects are the heart of any good science fiction story. Shaw himself was quoted as saying “"I write science fiction for people who don't read a great deal of science fiction,” and the vast majority of his work remains true to that dictum.

Trained as an engineer, Shaw worked as an aircraft designer for Short and Harland, then as the science correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph from 1966 – 69 and as publicity officer for Vickers Shipbuilding before starting to write full-time in 1975, and his engineering background can be seen in many of his novels, particularly in Orbitsville (1975) and The Ragged Astronauts (1986).

His early novels, such as Night Walk (1967), The Two-Timers (1968) and The Palace of Eternity (1969) owe much to such American writers as A.E Van Vogt or Jack Vance and (in the case of The Two-Timers) British writers like Fred Hoyle or John Wyndham, although were never derivative of any of them. They also display what would become something of a hallmark in his work, that of the fugitive protagonist. Again and again in Shaw's work, there is the notion that the protagonist is in flight either from past misdeeds or undeserved retribution. In Night Walk, special agent Tallon is pursued and imprisoned by hostile forces, in Orbitsville the starship captain Garamond  is forced to flee Earth following the accidental death of a child, in The Two-Timers, Jack Breton crosses to a parallel Earth in order to reunite with his murdered wife Kate and in The Ragged Astronauts the entire population of the planet Land is forced to flee when a hostile alien species threatens to destroy them:

There could only have been a few citizens of the Kolcorronian empire who had never had a nightmare about being caught on exposed ground amid a swarm of ptertha, and in the next hour Toller not only experienced the nightmare to the full but went beyond it into new realms of dread. Displaying their terrifying new boldness, the ptertha were descending to street level all over the city — silent and shimmering — invading gardens and precincts, bounding slowly across public squares, lurking in archways and colonnades. They were being annihilated by the panic-stricken populace, and it was here that the terms of the ancient nightmare became inadequate for the actuality — because Toller knew, with a bleak and wordless certainty, that the invaders represented the new breed of ptertha.

They were the plague-carriers....

 “... throughout the empire the people are dying from the insidious new form of pterthacosis in spite of all our efforts to fend the globes off. And the newborn, upon whom our future depends, are the most vulnerable. We might be facing the prospect of slowly dwindling into a pitiful, doomed handful of sterile old men and women — were it not for the looming spectre of famine. The agricultural regions are becoming incapable of producing food in the quantities which are necessary for the upkeep of our cities, even allowing for our vastly reduced urban populations.”

The King paused to give his audience a thin sad smile. “There are some among us who maintain that there is still room for hope, that fate may yet relent and wheel against the ptertha — but Kolcorron did not become great by supinely trusting to chance. That attitude is foreign to our national character. When forced to yield ground in a battle, we withdraw to a secure redoubt where we can gather our strength and determination to surge forth again and overwhelm our enemies.

“In the present case, as befits the ultimate conflict, there is the ultimate redoubt — and its name is Overland.

“It is my royal decree that we shall prepare to withdraw to Overland — . . .”

  – The Ragged Astronauts


Equally, though, much of Shaw's work deals with the alteration of perception, a theme he shared to some extent with the American SF writer Philip K. Dick,  – and attributable at least in part to the sight-threatening eye disease which dogged him for most of his life – in Night Walk, a blinded Tallon can only see through 'sonar eyes' attuned to the eyes of other living things, in The Palace of Eternity  the protagonist, Mack Travener, dies and is reborn as a godlike 'ergon', in The Two-Timers a parallel Earth proves to be subtly different in many ways, in Orbitsville the interior of Orbitsville itself proves to be much larger than first thought and in the wickedly funny Who Goes Here? (1977) notions and tropes dealing with time, alien races and memory are distorted.

A man of great wit and personal charm who worked within a traditional science fiction framework, it is hardly surprising that Shaw sought to satirize the very tropes of sf, which he did with great success with the previously mentioned Who Goes Here? Ostensibly a parody of the 'ray-guns and bug-eyed monsters' school of escapist science fiction – which, in many ways, came from the wellspring of Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship TroopersWho Goes Here? is the story of Warren Peace, a voluntary amnesiac  who joins the Space Legion in order to forget, only to find that the process has worked too well:

 "And today, Warren, why do men join the Space Legion?"

 "To forget—but I haven't got anything I want to forget."

 "Not any more you haven't." Widget leaned back in his chair, satisfied he had made his point. "You've forgotten it."

 Peace's jaw sagged. "This is stupid. What have I forgotten?"

 "If I told you that it would spoil everything," Widget said reasonably. "Besides, I don't even know what was on your mind when you came in here thirty minutes ago. The Legion respects a man's privacy. We don't ask embarrassing questions—we just hook you up to the machine, and . . . bleep! . . . it's all gone."

 "Bleep?"

 "Yes. Bleep! The crushing burden of guilt and shame is lifted from your soul... “

 ". . . going to level with you men," Handy was saying. "Things are going badly in this sector. Proud Terra's thin red line is too thin and too . . . er . . . red. I can't promise you a quick victory like the one we had on Aspatria. But we've got one tremendous advantage, one great weapon the enemy doesn't possess—and that is our invincible spirit. These Ulphans are an undisciplined, cowardly rabble. The only way they can bring themselves to fight is by skulking under cover and firing from behind rocks." Handy paused to register his contempt for what he obviously regarded as a lack of common decency.

 "So what we're going to do in this sector is to use our invincible weapon, our moral superiority, our spirit. The Ulphans expect us to fight in the same lily-livered way that they do—but we're going to surprise them by going straight in. Straight in with our heads held high and our banners waving. Can you imagine the daunting psychological impact of seeing proud Terra's warriors marching line abreast and unafraid into the mouths of the cannons?... "

  – Who Goes Here?


Like Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Who Goes Here? is a biting comment on the insanity of warfare as well as an affectionate and funny spoof of military science fiction. Taken together with Orbitsville, The Ragged Astronauts and Other Days, Other Eyes (a 1972 novel expanded from 'The Light of Other Days'), Who Goes Here? lies at the core of Bob Shaw's output.

A fine literary craftsman and an intelligent storyteller, Bob Shaw's work encompassed many of the tropes of science fiction – from Hard SF and Space Opera to Steampunk, Parallel Worlds and  'near-future' thrillers. And, like the best SF, much of his work engaged with contemporary rather than 'futuristic' concerns: The Shadow of Heaven (1969) deals with the consequence of ecological disaster in a scenario reminiscent of John Christopher's 1956 novel The Death of Grass. When a virus makes the growing of crops impossible, it leads to The Compression where the population of the USA is forced to move to mega-cities on the coast (since the sea is the last remaining source of food) and the only source of vegetables are floating islands high above the coast.

The Orbitsville Trilogy (Orbitsville, Orbitsville Departure (1983) and Orbitsville Judgement (1990)) initially deals with the problem of overpopulation and, later, with the notion of a 'Capitalist dictatorship'. Similarly, the threat which hangs over the protagonists of the Land and Overland Trilogy (The Ragged Astronauts, The Wooden Spaceships (1988) and The Fugitive Worlds (1989)) is primarily an ecological (if alien) one.

In Ground Zero Man (1971, later revised as The Peace Machine in 1985) Shaw addressed the then very real threat of nuclear war in a novel in which the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction rests in the hands of Lucas Hutchman, an "undistinguished mathematician", who invents a machine that has the ability to instantaneously detonate every nuclear bomb in the world.

Of course this is not to say that Bob Shaw was a science fiction 'prophet', and at times his work is content to be entertaining rather than profound and often ranges across the colourful futurescapes that were and are a staple of the Anglo-American SF tradition. In Ship of Strangers (1978) Shaw indulges in what could be described as 'light space opera' calling to mind the early work of A.E Van Vogt (in particular 1959's The Voyage of the Space Beagle) and, to a much lesser extent, the sort of small screen science fiction typified by Star Trek and its ilk. In One Million Tomorrows (1970) he deals with one of the cornerstones of genre science fiction, the notion of immortality achieved through scientific methods and its impact upon society as a whole. Medusa's Children (1977) deals with the threat from an alien lifeform – but one which is indigenous to Earth –  coming not from beyond the stars but beneath the seas.

During the Troubles, Shaw and his family left Northern Ireland and he spent the rest of his life in England where he produced much of his major work.

A prolific short story writer as well as a novelist, Bob Shaw published several collections: Tomorrow Lies In Ambush (1973), Cosmic Kaleidoscope (1977), A Better Mantrap (1982) and Dark Night in Toyland (1989). Like the best of his novels, his short fiction is often witty, elegantly constructed and deeply human in its concerns. 'The Gioconda Caper' (1976) serves as a good example of his shorter work, concerning the theft of the Mona Lisa and revealing in its delicious punchline the truth behind that enigmatic smile which has puzzled and captivated the world for centuries. Throughout his life, Bob Shaw retained his love for science fiction, twice winning the Hugo Award Twice For Best Fan Writer (in 1979 and 1980) and was in great demand at science fiction conventions for his 'Serious Scientific Talks' which to use a phrase from William Shakespeare 'were wont to set the table on a roar'.

At his best, Bob Shaw was 'one of British SF's most reliable entertainers' (Infinity Plus) combining strong narrative with believable and sympathetic characters as well as the much-sought-after 'sense of wonder' which, in many ways, represents the Holy Grail of science fiction. His death from cancer in 1996 was met with dismay by the science fiction community. Neal Barrett writing in The Independent said his work “proved both in Britain and the United States that there's still a lot of mileage in good, solid, traditional science fiction” while David Langford's obituary in Ansible described him as “a pillar of our universe.” If Bob Shaw is dimly remembered outside of the SF community it is perhaps because he chose to work in the somewhat disreputable field of science fiction, but he was a writer of wit, compassion and imagination and that, at least for now, is a uniquely human quality.


Bibliography

Night Walk (1967)

The Two-Timers (1968)

The Palace of Eternity (1969)

The Shadow of Heaven (1969)

One Million Tomorrows (1970)

Ground Zero Man (1971 vt The Peace Machine  - 1985)

Other Days, Other Eyes (1972)

Orbitsville (1975)

A Wreath of Stars (1976)

Medusa's Children (1977)

Who Goes Here? (1977)

Ship of Strangers (1978)

Vertigo (1979 vt Terminal Velocity - 1991)

Dagger of the Mind (1979)

The Ceres Solution (1981)

Fire Pattern (1982)

The Ragged Astronauts (1986)

The Wooden Spaceships (1988)

The Fugitive Worlds (1989)

Killer Planet (1989)

Orbitsville Departure (1983)

Orbitsville Judgement (1990)

Warren Peace (1993 vt Dimensions)

Collections

Tomorrow Lies in Ambush (1973)

Cosmic Kaleidoscope (1977)

A Better Mantrap (1982)

Dark Night in Toyland (1989)


Photo by Mark Tiedemann