He was acclaimed by the science fiction cognoscenti and adored by his fans. Mik Duffy remembers the life and work of SF author Bob Shaw
Though he had left Belfast for good by the time he reached double figures, there has been an effort of late to reclaim CS Lewis as a Northern Irish writer. Yet, for all the blue plaques and brouhahha linking Lewis with the place of his birth there’s little trace of Belfast or hint of Hibernian influence in his esteemed sci-fi and fantasy writing. And as the plot to appropriate Lewis continues unabated another far greater fantasist with more pertinent links to the province is sliding unjustly into obscurity.
Acclaimed by the science fiction cognoscenti and adored by his fans, the late Bob Shaw was that rarest of things, a sci-fi novelist whose capacity for earth-shattering high concepts was matched by a razor sharp wit and a knack for crafting compelling and convincing characters. And though, like too many of our finest scribes, his greatest successes occured in exile, his droll worldview and mind-blowing visions remained firmly rooted in Belfast’s industrial heritage.
Born in Belfast in 1931, Shaw trained as a structural engineer, a career he might have remained fully wedded to had his interest in the post-war wave of pulpy science fiction not suggested wider vistas.
Selling his first sci-fi short story in 1954 he sold several more over the next year, but disappointed by the quality of his work, he opted to abandon the field until he’d acquired more life experience. And, falling back on his technical training he found employment in structural design firms in Canada and across the British Isles.
Returning to the genre a decade later Shaw, then working as a reporter for the Belfast Telegraph, had developed a bold new writing style. Mixing a gritty journalistic grasp of the human condition with the sort of conceits that challenge the mind’s capacity for boggling, Shaw 2.0 was a formidable story-teller. Even decades later, his 1960s output retains its ability to startle.
His much-anthologised 1966 short story 'Light of Other Days' concerns the discovery of 'slow glass' – a miraculous transparent material which slows the passage of light, allowing observers to witness sights that unfolded within its view months or even years later.
His debut novel, the nerve-shattering sci-fi thriller Night Walk (1967) offered another breath-taking central concept, a blind prisoner learning to escape a grim interplanetary gulag by tapping into the optic nerves of his fellow inmates. Shaw's 1968 tome The Two Timers, a tale of a widower trying to re-claim a still living version of his wife from a parallel universe, prefigures Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 smash The Time Traveller’s Wife by several decades.
Fearful for his childrens’ future in an ever more dystopian Northern Ireland, Shaw and his family relocated to England where, in the mid-70s, his career entered its most fruitful phase. Already revered by the sci-fi faithful, his appearances on the mainland’s convention circuit gave him a vehicle for his dry wit. Soon his freewheeling 'serious scientific talks', droll absurdist ramblings delivered in his deadpan Norn Iron cadence, had earned him genuine affection from fans.
In print, Shaw’s already fecund imagination was taking greater and greater leaps. His acclaimed novel Orbitsville (1975) saw him applying his engineering background to the grandest of cosmic tableaux. Set in a space station so vast it encloses its own sun, it boasts a dizzying central concept. And whilst a lesser author might have allowed that premise to overwhelm all other concerns, Shaw retains a tight focus on Orbitsville’s flawed denizens. The end result is an exhilarating and intelligent novel where character development and epoch-shattering hard scientific concerns are given equal attention.
After a lull in the early 80s, Shaw returned to the genre with a new project that merged his audaciously daft Ulster wit with his gift for brain shattering ideas. Reading like a cross between Issac Asimov and Flann O’Brien, Shaw’s gloriously demented The Ragged Astronauts (1986) plays with the rules of physics until they snap, positing a solar system where planets are joined by atmospheric bottlenecks and travelers venture between worlds by using hot air balloons.
Alas, the 90s saw a decline in Shaw's fortunes. Five years after losing his beloved wife Sadie in 1991, Shaw himself lost a battle to cancer – an event which prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth in sci-fi circles.
Now, 14 years later his work remains stubbornly out of print, relegated to the netherworld of second hand stores and Amazon re-sellers. Shaw once opined that "the universe is wonderful, but only when there is somebody there to wonder at it." A similar maxim could be applied to his work, and we should rescue it from the memory hole so it can be marvelled at anew.