Archive for May 14th, 2009

postheadericon A bit about Bob

Bob Shaw (picture Copyright unknown)

Bob Shaw (picture Copyright unknown)

One of the good things about Bob Shaw and his writing, I feel, was that he sought out the obscure and unknown and presented it to the reader in a new and exciting form. Every writer should endeavour to do this of course, but some are more successful than others.

There are a few examples of this in his novels. The Ceres Solution (1983) has a grumpy handicapped young man as the protagonist. A very unsympathetic character with whom the reader gradually gets to like during his journey as he discovers secret methods of transport and alien do-gooders out to help mankind. In Dagger of the Mind (1979) the main character suffers from epilepsy, not something open for discussion in the late seventies, let alone the main subject of an SF novel. Reading A Wreath of Stars (1976) I was introduced to neutrinos and their strange properties then introduced to a universe of neutrinos and their even stranger inhabitants. Neutrinos are some of the smallest particles in existence, (all that quantum stuff aside) and yet another example of how Shaw digs deep into the obscure to show the reader unique and exciting aspects of the world we live in.

Shaw is most famous in SF circles for a couple of things. Slow Glass and Dyson spheres. Obviously he didn’t invent Dyson spheres but produced three novels which dealt with them in detail. Orbitsville (1975), Orbitsville Departure(1983) and Orbitsville Judgement (1990). A Dyson sphere is an artificial construct of immense magnitude that completely envelopes a star to produce a habitable environment of almost unlimited area. Even today most people couldn’t conceive of the size of such an object.

Slow glass is a brilliant yet simple concept, and indeed Shaw discusses it further in his non fiction book how to write science fiction (1993). Slow glass is just glass which captures light coming into it on one side and releases it out on the other side: much like normal glass. The only difference slow glass has is the length of time the light takes to go through it. For normal glass it is instantaneous, slow glass can take days, months, even years.

Fire pattern looks into the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. An obscure – and sometimes denied by science – happening which has been reported over the centuries but never really had its’ fifteen minutes of fame.

Vertigo (1978) updated as Terminal Velocity (1991) looked into the actualities and repercussions of personal flight. These things have been around since early James Bond films and again haven’t come directly into the public consciousness but they are persistent and they are growing. In fact recently at a race circuit near me, Knockhill in Dunfermline, and a man using a jet pack attempted the world speed record.

The Shadow of Heaven (1969, updated 1991) deals with a floating city. How many of those have we seen in fantasy and sf? Yet Shaw makes it believable, workable and liveable.

postheadericon Courageous New Planet, The Birmingham SF Group, No ISBN

Courageous New Planet is a special printing of a short story by Bob Shaw to commemorate his appearance at Novacon 11 in October 1981. 550 copies were printed of which I have copy number 185, purchased recently via Amazon. The story itself is short and sweet and has a nice twist. It is one of those fish out of water stories about a man from present time being saved by future humans. Of course, he doesn’t like what people have done with society. It was reprinted in Dark Night In Toyland but strangely there is no acknowledgement in the copyright page of either the hardback or paperback.

Courageous New Planet cover

Courageous New Planet cover

Courageous New Planet inside

Courageous New Planet inside

postheadericon Fire Pattern, Gollancz, hardback ISBN 0-575-03452-1

Fire Pattern was the first hard back of Shaw’s that I bought, and I bought it when it came out in 1984. The price of £7.95 doesn’t seem much for a hardback; in fact nowadays you can get hardbacks much cheaper. But this was issued when the net book agreement was still in force. And back in 1984 £7.95 was quite a bit of money to fork out. I daresay at the time there were other books put out on the market that were more expensive, but I would guess that £7.95 would more than likely be the average price for a hardback. And given that new paperbacks then were about £1.50 it’s more than five times the price of a paperback.

First edition of Fire Pattern

First edition of Fire Pattern

The cover declares that it is a science fiction novel exploring the mystery of spontaneous human combustion. It’s a slim volume, around 190 pages, and probably is around 50,000 words give or take a few thousand: it might be well and truly rejected today on word count alone.

I remember eagerly awaiting its arrival, and when it did finally arrive it was devoured in one sitting.

Of course, being set in 1996 it’s not science fiction any more as it is now set in the past. It is a near future novel, set in an environment that is recognisable and plausible to the reader. Ray Jerome is a reporter on a local newspaper, one of the old school, harassed and teased by his younger colleagues for having the ability of shorthand. He is assigned to investigate a local case of SHC and, intrigued, delves deeper to find the phenomenon is reported throughout the centuries and even in literature such as Dickens.

His investigations bring forth clues, which lead him toward a possible explanation for SHC. Around halfway through the novel Shaw gives the story a twist. A very dramatic and large turn which sees the protagonist suddenly on the planet Mercury amongst Dorrinians, a race of people with more advanced mental powers.

Although the shift is dramatic Shaw brings the reader round by bringing forth the stubbornness and resilience in the main character, Ray Jerome, who works to make his way back to earth. Ray has a decision to make at the end of the novel, coming face to face with the villain, Belzor.

This wasn’t the first novel by Shaw I read but it was the first ‘new’ novel that I read, getting it on publication. My copy is well thumbed, well read. I read it as soon as I got it and read it again a few months later. It has been read a couple of times since and remains a favourite novel by Shaw.