On this day in 1996, the SF community lost one of its most popular personalities: Bob Shaw, one of the genre’s great wits and – these days, at least – most under-rated writers. That being the case, we thought it only appropriate to mark the occasion. And since our feelings on the great man are already on record, it seemed to us that, rather than reinvent the wheel, it might be best to republish those earlier thoughts . . .
I first came across Bob Shaw‘s work in the pages of short-lived comic, Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction. The stories were framed by a narrative device based on ‘slow glass’ – loosely adapted from Shaw’s Other Days, Other Eyes (sadly, the only one of his works we were unable to secure for SF Gateway), and included the first instalment of a two-part adaptation of The Day of the Triffids. Although I eventually tracked down a copy of Other Days, Other Eyes, the first of Bob Shaw’s novels I managed to read was the wonderful Who Goes Here? in which protagonist Warren Peace joins the Space Legion in order to forget something terrible about his life. However, since part of the allure of joining the legion is that they erase your memory, he can’t remember what was so terrible about his life that joining the legion is worth the price of forgetting!
It was an early taste of the wit for which Shaw was well-known, and that I would sample for myself when I attended one of his Serious Scientific Talks at the Brighton Worldcon in 1987. These were the highlight of any convention Shaw attended and David Langford – himself an SF legend of no small wit – wrote a touching and engaging remembrance of Bob Shaw in his famed Ansible newsletter, in which he recalls how “newcomers would be bewildered as the bars emptied and the entire membership crowded to hear a presentation called, say, ‘The Bermondsey Triangle Mystery’, replete with demented science, excruciating puns, and gags kept mercilessly running until they coughed up blood. All this was delivered in that mournful Irish voice … which somehow conveyed mild surprise that these peculiar listeners should be laughing so hard that it hurt. The speeches have since been published in various editions, but you have to imagine the voice; indeed, if you’ve ever been to Bob’s performances, it’s impossible to ‘hear’ the words on the page other than in his voice.”
I regret to say that I never knew Bob Shaw, although a chance encounter in the bar at Worldcon seems, to me, at least, to sum up the bonhomie so many of his friends speak of. I was sitting at a table with some new acquaintances while around us ebbed and flowed the social life blood of the conventions – fans, authors, artists, editors – including, as I now know, many people I’d later meet and become friends with. Through the hubbub, a hand emerged to place an empty tonic bottle on our table. I picked it up and joked ‘I’m keeping this, it’ll be worth a fortune one day – Bob Shaw touched this!’ The man himself overheard and dolefully informed us that said item was unlikely to be worth much because value, in these instances, was essentially liked to scarcity – ‘and I’ll be touching a damned sight more of them before the night’s out!’
You can find Bob Shaw’s work via his Author Page on the SF Gateway website, and read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. We urge you to do both – but also: next time you’re in the bar at a convention, take a look around. The odds are good that there will be a few people in the room who knew Bob Shaw – as well as (too many) others who are no longer with us – and if you ask them nicely (and buy them a drink), maybe they’ll tell you a few stories. The internet is full of interesting and amusing information, but the internet never had a pint with a man who could make an entire conference room full of people helpless with laughter using little more than the proximity of Forbidden Planet to Foyles.