In the 20 years or so since Bob Shaw died, his name has faded somewhat from the consciousness of science fiction readers, which is a tragedy. Because at his best, Bob Shaw was a master of complex and original ideas that he somehow managed to turn into convivial and engaging novels. For some 30 years, between the mid-60s and his death, he wrote a string of excellent novels, without, perhaps, ever quite receiving the recognition that was his due.
These are the five novels that stand out for us, but frankly you could open any of his books and you won’t be disappointed.
One of his earliest stories, “Light of Other Days”, was perhaps his best, and certainly the piece for which he remains best known. It introduced the wonderful novel concept of “slow glass”, glass through which light travels more slowly than usual. Indeed, looking through a slow glass window, you would see things that might have happened months or even years before. He introduced this unique idea with the story of a man harvesting views for windows that would later be installed in dull and unscenic city apartments. But behind this rather neat notion, there lies a genuinely heartbreaking emotional story. He later combined the story with two other pieces exploring the same idea to form this superb collection.
In 1970, Larry Niven published his award-winning novel of a massive artificial ring encircling an alien sun, Ringworld. At about the same time, Bob Shaw was working on a similar idea, though in the end it would be delayed a few years before it appeared. In Shaw’s novel, it is not a ring but a complete Dyson sphere that is discovered, an alien artefact that produces a living space billions of times the surface area of Earth. The story of the exploration of this incredible structure is, to be fair, a much better novel than Niven’s, and won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. It produced two sequels, Orbitsville Departure and Orbitsville Judgement, that are very nearly as good as the original.
This late trilogy, comprising The Ragged Astronauts, The Wooden Spaceships and The Fugitive Worlds, is another example of Bob Shaw at his inventive best. The first novel in the sequence was the runner up for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award. It is set in a universe where two worlds are so close they share an atmosphere. When disaster threatens the people of one world, they have no alternative but to emigrate to their sister planet, by balloon. Like so much of Shaw’s work, the novels are vivid, intricate, and above all fun.
One of the things about Bob Shaw’s work is that, though he tended to use straightforward science-fictional inventions as the basis for his stories, he didn’t repeat himself. He was never afraid to try moving into new territory or present different perspectives. In this novel, for instance, there are familiar devices such as an interstellar war, and the despoiling of a beautiful, idyllic planet; but at the heart of the story is the idea of human transcendence, with the central character reincarnated as a soul travelling through the universe. It’s a spectacular piece of work.
An antineutrino planet passes close to the Earth, but not close enough to do any harm. But once it has gone on its way, diamond miners in Africa start to see ghosts deep underground. Then researchers discover that there is another antineutrino planet nestling right in the Earth’s core, and the passage of the other planet has disturbed it. And a man with no ambition in life suddenly finds himself acting as the ambassador to some very strange beings while being caught up in all sorts of deadly political machinations. The result is by turns breath-taking and heart-breaking.
Oh but don’t stop there. Go on, there’s lots more good stuff from Bob Shaw, you owe it to yourself.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.