A Tunnel in the Sky

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Bob Shaw

Profiled by David Longhorn
Posted July 25, 2004

[Editor's note: at the time this article was posted none of Shaw's work was available in new editions, and that is still the case for almost all on them. There are a select few in print and/or Kindle. If you take this link to amazon and search, a purchase of even a used copy may earn us a commission. Galen]

Shaw was born in Northern Ireland and trained as an engineer, later specialising in aircraft design. He moved into commercial writing and journalism before becoming a full-time writer. Shaw was active on the sf fan scene in the 50s and published several stories - his first, ‘Aspect’, appeared in Nebula Science Fiction in 1954. However, this early burst of creativity seems to have fizzled out. It wasn’t until the mid-60s that Bob Shaw came to prominence.

From the start Shaw shunned the ‘New Wave’ approach of his fellow Brits, Moorcock, Aldiss, and Ballard. Instead he followed a path roughly parallel to that of Larry Niven in America, crafting an updated form of ‘hard sf’ complete with the supposedly outdated paraphernalia of spaceships, aliens, futuristic gadgets and real science ideas. Like some earlier British authors, such as Eric Frank Russell, Shaw began by setting his stories in a generic, Americanized future or near-future. Perhaps for this reason much of his early work at first failed to find a British publisher. Later he focused more on the contemporary UK.

His first novel was Night Walk (1967), a lean thriller set in a starfaring future hampered by difficulties in locating habitable worlds. The protagonist, like most Shaw heroes, is a competent professional (in this case, a ‘locator’ or space scout) and something of a loner. He is blinded by a brutal police officer for refusing to reveal the location of a habitable planet, and imprisoned on a swamp-island. As the title suggests, much of the book concerns the hero’s attempt to escape. It is, to say the least, ingeniously plotted, not least in the way that Shaw neatly ends the novel with a splendid moment of epiphany. Through his suffering and resultant ingenuity the hero transforms his universe - this was to become a Shaw motif.

Shaw’s next novel was The Two Timers (1968 US), a parallel universe thriller that is confidently handled and still holds up well. Still more readable is The Palace of Eternity (1969), a space-war thriller with a metaphysical twist. It remains impressive in its depiction of a truly alien race, the Syccans, and for its attempt to give a rational explanation for the soul. The Shadow of Heaven (1969), set in an overpopulated and oppressive future, was less impressive, perhaps because it was drastically cut by the publisher and only appeared as Shaw wrote it in 1991. The same can be said of the Cold War thriller Ground Zero Man (1971), which was fully published as The Peace Machine in 1985.

If publishers didn’t rate Shaw, readers certainly did, not least because he tackled familiar sf concepts with zest and originality. Thus in One Million Tomorrows (1970) we find a view of a future where immortality is technically possible - it offers a fascinating contrast to Jack Vance’s To Live Forever. Then, in 1975, came Orbitsville, which economically depicts the discovery of a Dyson sphere. Shaw’s action writing is perhaps at its best in this taut galactic adventure, which pivots on well-realised human emotions. It deserves to be at least as well-known as Ringworld. The sequels, Orbitsville Departure (1983) and Orbitsville Judgement (1990) inevitably suffer by comparison, but do tie up a lot of loose ends.

In the mid-70s Shaw - having re-explored familiar concepts - seems to have begun to cast about for more exotic themes and ideas. The result was a remarkable burst of creativity, that began with what many consider Shaw’s finest book. A Wreath of Stars (1976) may stem from serious speculation about what is now termed ‘dark matter.’ It is set in a future world that has suffered partial, but still painful, political and economic collapse (a frequent Shaw background) and which is suddenly confronted by the existence of an ‘anti-neutrino’ world looming in its sky. The phantom planet - which has mass, but passes through terrestrial matter - is only visible through special lenses. Its passage leads to the discovery of something even more surprising - an inhabited world within our earth. Much can be made of the metaphorical power of this anti-neutrino world, and perhaps Shaw was influenced by Hollow Earth theories and Burroughs' Pellucidar. Suffice to say that, if you want to start somewhere with Shaw, read this novel. You won’t be disappointed.

Less well-received, but equally inventive, was Medusa’s Children (1977). Some might find it top-heavy with ideas, not all fully cooked. The ingredients - the Bermuda Triangle, global warming, ancient super-civilization, gestalt intelligence, telepathy, human life in a very low-tech space colony, mutant killer squid, quite a bit of sex, some violence - are used in a plot that recalls, in some details, Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

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Who Goes Here? (1977) was Shaw’s first comedy novel, and creaks somewhat, especially when compared to Douglas Adams’ work. The sequel, Warren Peace (1996), was not well-received. Shaw was on surer ground with Ship of Strangers (1978), an old-style fixup from short stories that pays tribute to van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle. Vertigo (1978), about a world where personal anti-gravity flight packs are universal, is enjoyable but second-division Shaw.

Better by far is Dagger of the Mind (1979) a horror thriller set in Britain that returns to the theme of truly alien intelligence and its possible uses for, or chilling indifference to, human beings. Shaw had always had a gift for the grotesque and in this novel he uses it to good effect. The Ceres Solution (1981) is less assured. Shaw returns to a chaotic, American future and tries to hold together a plot involving ancient astronauts and an unlikely method of teleportation. Individual scenes are still highly effective, though.

It was with The Ragged Astronauts (1986) that Shaw showed much his old panache. Having put on record his contempt for the cyberpunks, with their jargonised world centred on ‘bloody computers,’ he created a parallel universe where space travel between neighbouring planets is possible in hydrogen balloons. The chapters depicting a mass migration of a whole civilization from Land to Overland reminded many Shaw fans why they had stood by him. The sequels - enjoyable but somewhat slow - were The Wooden Spaceships (1988) and The Fugitive Worlds (1989).

Bob Shaw was also an accomplished short story writer, with a gift for scene-setting and credible dialogue. His first major success was ‘Light of Other Days’ (1968), which was nominated for a Nebula award. The story introduced the poetic, yet scientifically valid concept of slow glass - glass that transmits light in minutes, hours, days or even years. A treatment at novel length, Other Days, Other Eyes (1972), is one of his best books.

Shaw’s best collections are his earliest: Tomorrow Lies in Ambush (1973); and Cosmic Kaleidoscope (1976). The former contains some of Shaw’s most entertaining and intelligent fiction. ‘Call Me Dumbo’ is a shockingly harsh take on the crashed-spaceship-on-desolate-planet idea. ‘And Isles Where Good Men Lie…’ deals with a soldier who knows the alien invaders he is renowned for killing are in fact unarmed colonists. In these and other stories, pulp conventions are re-examined in the light of Sixties radicalism - Shaw was perhaps with the New Wave, if not of it. Later and less compelling collections are A Better Mantrap (1982), Between Two Worlds (1986) and Dark Night in Toyland (1989).

While his later work showed a falling-off in creative energy, Bob Shaw remains one of the most admired British sf writers. His soaring imagination was matched by his rare skill in creating sympathetic characters, and giving them credibly human thoughts and feelings.

David Longhorn is editor of Supernatural Tales.


Related Links:
Bob Shaw's Bibliography Page at fantasticfiction.com
David Langford's Tribute at Ansible


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December 31, 1931
Belfast, Northern Ireland

February 12, 1996

No Official Website
(Check Related Links)

British Fantasy Society (The Ragged Astronauts)