Phlogiston Forty-Five, 1996
Bob Shaw's initial involvement in science fiction was as a fan. He obtained his first copy of Astounding at the age of twelve, read it, and was hooked for life. In an essay the fanzine Hyphen, he remarked:
...for the next five years [I] never gave a single serious thought to anything but science fiction. This monomania gave me a lot of personal pleasure and satisfaction -- in fact I was deliriously happy for those five years -- but it had an unfortunate drawback in that by the time I was old enough to start work I was virtually unemployable... I cared for nothing but science fiction, knew nothing but science fiction, was bone lazy and utterly without ambition. Into the bargain I was tremendously proud -- I was the only SF reader I knew and really reckoned myself one of the star-begotten.
However his solitary state was not to last long and eventually he met up with other
fans, most notable among these being Walt Willis and James White (who later became famous
as the author of the Sector General stories). In 1954 in collaboration with Willis, Bob
Shaw published his first "book", a slim fan publication called The Enchanted
Duplicator. This allegory of SF fans and fan related activities is written in a
mock-heroic style and details the fantasy adventures of Jophan as he scales the Mountains
of Inertia and journeys through many perils to reach the paradise of Trufandom. Along the
way he must contend with the Hekto Swamp and the Torrent of Overdrinking. He must fight
his way past the Hucksters and avoid the Glades of Gafia. And so on, but you get the idea.
This little allegory seemed to strike a chord, and almost uniquely among fan publications,
continues to be regularly republished. My copy is dated 1983 and is the eighth edition.
Heaven knows how many more there have been since then. Jophan's Quest has itself entered
the fannish folklore (and
Even after Bob began to make a full time living as a professional SF writer, he never lost his love of fandom and things fannish and in 1979 and 1980 he won Hugo awards for his fannish writings, awards of which he was fiercely proud.
In the 1950s he published quite a lot of short stories in the professional magazines, but then fell silent for several years. He returned to writing in the mid 1960s and the short story Light of Other Days (1966) gained him a Nebula nomination and a reputation as a writer of remarkable ingenuity. The story revolves around a genuinely original SF notion -- slow glass is a substance through which light takes years to travel. Hence it can absorb images of (say) a beautiful view and give up these images decades later after it has been installed as a window in (say) an industrial office block in a grimy suburb. The view that it shows is a view of the past, and historical events may be viewed in real time (if the glass had been properly positioned to view them all those years ago). This story was later incorporated into the fix up novel Other Days, Other Eyes.
Bob once told me that he carried the notion of slow glass around in his head for years, waiting for the right story to use it in. He said that it was too glorious a notion to waste on a trivial story. It needed the right plot to illuminate the idea properly. He compared the plot to a jeweller's setting which, if properly designed, would show off a diamond brilliantly, but which if shoddily designed would detract from the beauty of the diamond set in it. He thought of and discarded dozens of plots before he found one that he felt would set the idea properly.
Bob became a full time writer in 1975 and over the years published almost thirty books -- novels and story collections. All were well received and all were ingenious and entertaining. He took great delight in exploring odd notions and he played the game of "what if" most convincingly. What if there really were a proper Dyson Sphere discovered? (Orbitsville). What if there existed two planets which orbited each other and shared a common atmosphere? Could explorers travel between them by balloon? (The Wooden Spaceships). What if there existed an anti-neutrino world orbiting inside the Earth? (A Wreath of Stars). He also explored many of the classical SF themes and wrote what could be considered the definitive treatment of some of them. Immortality (One Million Tomorrows), parallel worlds (The Two Timers), interstellar warfare (The Palace of Eternity), alien invasion (The Ceres Solution), the list goes on and on.
But the one aspect of Bob Shaw the man that seldom surfaced in his professional writing (though it permeated his fan writing) was his wonderfully rich sense of humour. He wrote a regular column in Walt Willis' fanzine Hyphen. The column was called The Glass Bushel (Bob felt that was the best sort of bushel to hide your light behind). He contributed to many other fan publications. And he gave serious scientific talks at conventions.
Nobody who attended one of these will ever forget them. A diffident, utterly stone faced Bob Shaw would stand at the front of a crowded hall reading his talk from a prepared script and looking slightly bemused at the gales of laughter wafting up from the audience.
...I hadn't had a drink for about half an hour, and you know how it is with booze -- a long period of abstinence like that really whets your appetite for it. I think I may possibly have imbibed a little too much because this morning I had a bad headache and there was no alka-seltzer or aspirin. Luckily one of the committee was kind enough to nip out and get me some pain-killer they make in a little shop just around the corner from here -- it's a local anaesthetic -- and that enabled me to come here as planned and tell you all about the Bermondsey triangle mystery...
The jokes would build and build, outrage piling upon outrage. I do not exaggerate at all when I say that I have seen people crying with laughter at Bob's talks, so weak with hysteria that they were incapable of getting off their chair and walking for several minutes after Bob finished speaking. And not once did his face slip. How he managed such perfect self control is beyond me.
But those of us who knew him will remember him not for his novels, his fan writing or his humour (important though those things were), but for his wonderful personality. He was warm and friendly and he loved to meet people and talk about anything under the sun for hours at a time. I knew Bob, on and off, for nearly quarter of a century and I spent many, many delightful hours in his company. He stayed in my house as a guest once and during that week I don't think I ever got to bed before about three in the morning as we shared drinks and conversation. He was a man of whom it can truly be said that everyone who met him loved him. I never, ever heard anyone say anything but good about Bob Shaw. There were no "fan feuds" as far as Bob was concerned.
The day after Bob died I had to install a Unix operating system on a computer. One of the things this requires you to do is give the computer a name. I called it jophan.