Shaw, Bob

Tagged: Author | Fan

Working name of Northern Irish writer Robert Shaw (1931-1996), in mainland UK from 1973. He worked in structural engineering until the age of twenty-seven, then aircraft design, then industrial public relations and journalism, becoming a full-time author in 1975. Shaw was early involved in sf Fandom, his first book being The Enchanted Duplicator (1954 chap) with Walt Willis, an allegory of fan and Fanzine activities; he received Hugos in 1979 and 1980 for his fan writing, which was also collected in volumes like The Best of the Bushel (coll 1979 chap) and The Eastercon Speeches (coll 1979 chap), both assembled as A Load of Old BoSh: Serious Scientific Talks (omni 1995 chap). In the meanwhile Shaw published his first professional story, "Aspect", with Nebula Science Fiction in August 1954; during the mid-1950s he contributed several more stories to that magazine and one to Authentic Science Fiction before ceasing to write for some years. After a strong "come-back" tale – ". . . And Isles Where Good Men Lie" (October 1965 New Worlds) – he published "Light of Other Days" (August 1966 Analog), which established his reputation as a writer of remarkable ingenuity. Built around the intriguing concept of Slow Glass, a kind of Time Viewer through which light can take years to travel – thus allowing people to view scenes from the past – this story remains his best known. He later incorporated it, together with two thematically-related examinations of the theme, into Other Days, Other Eyes (fixup 1972; cut 1974).

Shaw's first novel was Night Walk (1967), a fast-moving chase story. A man who has been blinded and condemned to a penal colony on a far planet invents a device (> Invention) that enables him to see through other people's and even animals' eyes, and thus manages to escape. The Two-Timers (1968), a well written tale of Parallel Worlds, Doppelgangers and murder, demonstrates Shaw's ability to handle characterization and, in particular, his talent for realistic dialogue. In The Palace of Eternity (1969) he still more impressively controls a wide canvas featuring interstellar warfare, the environmental degradation of an Edenic planet, and human Transcendence; the central section of the novel, where the hero finds himself reincarnated as an "Egon" or soul-like entity (> Identity), displeased some critics, though it is in fact an effective handling of a traditional sf displacement of ideas from Metaphysics or Religion. This intelligent reworking of well worn sf topoi was from the first Shaw's forte, as was demonstrated in his next novel, One Million Tomorrows (1970), an Immortality tale whose twist lies in the fact that the option of eternal youth entails sexual impotence – though only for males.

All Shaw's early books – which include also Shadow of Heaven (1969; cut 1970; rev vt The Shadow of Heaven 1991), involving Antigravity, and Ground Zero Man (1971; rev vt The Peace Machine 1985) – were published first (and sometimes solely) in the USA; and their efficient anonymity of venue may result from a highly competent attempt to appeal to a transatlantic audience. Only slowly did Shaw come to write tales whose placement and protagonists were distinctly UK in feel; and it could be argued, sadly, that his best work was his most impersonal. The fine first volume of the Orbitsville sequence – comprising Orbitsville (1975), Orbitsville Departure (1983) and Orbitsville Judgement (1990) – can almost certainly stand, after Other Days, Other Eyes, as his greatest inspiration. Like Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970) and Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973), the Orbitsville books centre on the discovery of – and later developments within – a vast alien artefact in space (a Macrostructure, in fact), in this case a Dyson Sphere. Within the living-space provided by the inner surface of this artificial shell – billions of times the surface area of the Earth – Shaw spins an exciting story of political intrigue and exploration, which in later volumes develops, perhaps revealing an undue impatience with the venue he had invented, into a heavily plotted move into another universe entirely. Orbitsville gained a 1976 BSFA Award.

A Wreath of Stars (1976) may be Shaw's most original, and perhaps his finest, singleton. A rogue planet, composed entirely of antineutrino matter (> Antimatter), approaches the Earth. It passes nearby with no immediately discernible effect. However, it is soon discovered that an antineutrino "Earth" exists within our planet (> Matter Penetration) whose orbit has been seriously perturbed by the passage of the interloper. This is an ingenious, almost a poetic, idea, to which the plot only just fails to do full justice. Other books followed quickly: the overcomplicated Medusa's Children (1977); the Warren Peace sequence – comprising the successfully comic Who Goes Here? (1977; exp as coll Who Goes Here? And, The Giaconda Caper 1988) and its disappointing sequel Warren Peace (1993; vt Dimensions 1994) – both being jeux d'esprit akin to Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965), and suffering, as did Harrison's sequence, from rapidly diminishing inspiration; Ship of Strangers (fixup 1978), an homage to A E van Vogt in which the crew of the Stellar Survey Ship Sarafand, after some routine adventures, confront a striking Cosmological issue (> Miniaturization); Vertigo (1978; with "Dark Icarus" [April 1974 Science Fiction Monthly] added as prologue, exp vt Terminal Velocity 1991), an effective policier set in a world transformed by Antigravity devices allowing personal flight; plus Dagger of the Mind (1979) and The Ceres Solution (1981), in both of which Shaw's ingenuity declined, for a period, into something close to jumble. He had meanwhile been writing short stories – his collections include Tomorrow Lies in Ambush (coll 1973; with two stories added, rev 1973), Cosmic Kaleidoscope (coll 1976; with one story omitted and two added, rev 1977), A Better Mantrap (coll 1982), Between Two Worlds (coll 1986 dos) and Dark Night in Toyland (coll 1989) – which again demonstrate his professional skills but tend to lack a sense of commitment, to the point that some later stories seemed strained, frivolous, anecdotal.

However, with the Ragged Astronauts sequence – The Ragged Astronauts (1986), The Wooden Spaceships (1988) and The Fugitive Worlds (1989) – Shaw returned to his very best and most inventive form, creating an Alternate Cosmos which allowed him to describe with joyful exactness the sensation of emigrating, via hot-air Balloon, up the hourglass funnel of atmosphere that connects two planets which orbit each other. After his pattern, later volumes lose some of the freshness and elation of the first, but the series as a whole emphasizes Shaw's genuine stature in the genre as an entertainer who rarely failed to thrill the mind's eye with a new prospect. At his best, Shaw was an ingenious fabricator and lover of the worlds of sf. [DP/JC]

see also: Alternate History; Arts; Asteroids; Comics; Conceptual Breakthrough; Eschatology; Fantastic Voyages; Faster Than Light; Gravity; Humour; Imaginary Science; Matter Transmission; Moon; Parasitism and Symbiosis; Perception; Physics; Satire; Scientific Errors; Scientists; Space Flight; Time Paradoxes; Toys in SF; Under the Sea.

Robert Shaw

born Belfast, Northern Ireland: 31 December 1931

died Stockton Heath, Warrington, Cheshire: 11 February 1996

works

series

Orbitsville

Ragged Astronauts

Warren Peace

individual titles

collections and stories

nonfiction

about the author

  • Paul Kincaid and Geoff Rippington, editors. Bob Shaw (no place given: British Science Fiction Association, 1981) [nonfiction: anth: chap: British Science Fiction Writers: pb/photographic]
  • Gordon Benson Jr, Chris Nelson and Phil Stephensen-Payne. Bob Shaw: Artist at Ground Zero: A Working Bibliography (Leeds, West Yorkshire: Galactic Central Publications, 1993) [bibliography: chap: fifth edition: in the publisher's Bibliographies for the Avid Reader series: pb/nonpictorial]

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