Bob Shaw (1931-1996)
Over the decades, many sf writers – from Asimov to Zelazny – have first made their reputation in the world of sf fandom and conventions. Among all the UK writers who have followed this route, none has enjoyed a higher reputation as both fan and professional than Bob Shaw, who emerged as one of the leading figures in Irish fandom in the 1950s and remained a mainstay throughout his career. His “serious scientific talks” were the highlight of many British sf conventions through the 1970s and 1980s, even as his reputation as one of Britain’s leading sf writers blossomed – and his two Hugo Awards were achieved for his fan writing, long before this was seen as a potential route for professional success.
Shaw worked as a structural engineer, and later in industrial PR and journalism, before becoming a full-time author in his mid-forties. He had lifetime problems with his eyesight, and perhaps unsurprisingly a preoccupation with vision is present in many of his works.
His first novel, Night Walk (1967) is an ingenious adventure set on a prison planet, in which the protagonist, who has been blinded, invents a device which allows him to see through others’ eyes. Early in his writing career he produced his most famous story, “Light of Other Days”, which introduced the concept of “slow glass” – glass which has light-retardant qualities, with the result that (dependent on its thickness) light can take days or even years to pass through. It established him as a writer of genuine ingenuity. The Palace of Eternity (1969) showed his range of ambition, in a tale of interstellar war, environmental themes and metaphysics.
For many years, Shaw reliably published a book a year – mostly novels, augmented by regular short story collections. Among them were two series, containing probably his most successful full-length works. Orbitsville (1975) and its two sequels describes a colossal world on the interior of a Dyson Sphere – a shell enclosing a sun at planetary distance. (Larry Niven’s Ringworld, drawing on the same ideas, restricted itself to a narrow ribbon.) It won the BSFA Award as Best SF Novel of 1975. The Ragged Astronauts (1986) – also the first of a trilogy – described a double planet system in an alternate cosmos, in which it was possible for one planet’s technologically primitive humans to migrate to the sister world via hot air balloon. It too won the BSFA Award, was runner-up for the Hugo Award, and was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
In the 1970s, the young Martin Amis regularly reviewed sf in the Observer (a British Sunday newspaper) and reserved some of his warmest praise for Shaw: “easily the most accomplished of the younger British stable, he has one insuperable advantage over his contemporaries: he can write.” Amis described A Wreath of Stars (1976) – possibly Shaw’s most successful single novel – as “staggeringly enjoyable”; it describes the meeting and intersection between the Earth and a ghostly world composed of anti-neutrinos, invisible under normal circumstances.
Shaw was one of the most reliably entertaining writers British sf has produced, and we are pleased to present almost all his backlist in the SF Gateway.
And to help you explore his works, here are his Gateway Essentials titles: