Wreath of Stars

It's still hard to believe and harder to write: Bob Shaw died on 12 February 1996. The shockwaves of dismay that raced around the sf world (bad news travels too fast by Internet) signalled the hugeness of the loss. Bob was such a pillar of our universe, as a lifelong sf fan, admired writer, popular speaker, unflappably genial conversationalist and all-round good guy, that somehow we never thought he could leave the fannish party. Indeed, unless Barry Malzberg is still chafing a bit at Bob's negative review of Beyond Apollo in 1975, it's impossible to imagine anyone in sf or fandom not liking him.

Bob was born in Northern Ireland in 1931; by the end of the decade he'd fallen in love with sf as, he said, an escape from the dullness of suburban Belfast. In 1950 he discovered fandom and fanzines, and was soon famous in these inner circles -- the Wheels of IF or Irish Fandom -- as 'BoSh'. As every fanzine fan knows, he and Walt Willis wrote The Enchanted Duplicator (1954), which is the Pilgrim's Progress of fandom; its Profan, the kindly pro author who also remains a fan, was modelled on Eric Frank Russell but might just as well have been Bob himself at any time after about 1970.

His own 1950s fanzine column (a staple of Hyphen from its first issue) was called 'The Glass Bushel' because, belying his genuine modesty, Bob claimed this was the only kind of bushel he was prepared to hide his light under. These are still good funny columns, all the funnier because they're not afraid to be serious ... it was Bob who advised aspiring fanwriters that if they wished to raise a laugh they should write in merciless detail about the most horrible, ghastly experience of their lives, whereupon fandom would fall about in appreciative hysterics.

Also in the 50s, Bob made some early fiction sales to sf magazines -- and maturely decided that these early pieces weren't good enough, that he needed more real-life experience. Off he went to work in Canada and see the world. So the true beginning of Bob's professional career was the strong 1965 story '... And Isles Where Good Men Lie' in New Worlds, followed next year by 'Light of Other Days' in Analog -- rather astonishingly shortlisted for both Hugo and Nebula despite being only the third published story by the new Bob Shaw. 1967 saw his first novel Night Walk, a fast-moving sf thriller powered by a personal phobia which plenty of us share: the fear of losing one's sight and ability to read. The hero is blinded and discovers an eerie way to see through others' eyes by electronically reading the activity of their optic nerves....

I conducted a fanzine interview with Bob in the mid-70s, and questioned him rather ineptly about the special emotional charge attaching to eyes and vision in his work. It wasn't just that he once suffered a sight-threatening eye disease (which occasionally flared up again; he would appear in some hotel bar wearing dark glasses and observe, puzzling fans until the penny dropped, 'I take a dim view of this convention.'). The nasty incident in his novel Ground Zero Man alias The Peace Machine, where a chap's eye is taken out by a steel reinforcing bar and he cradles it pathetically in his hand, actually happened to a boyhood friend and stuck painfully in Bob's imagination all his life. The migraine-induced visual disturbances which I'd found so fascinating in The Two-Timers were part of routine existence for Bob, who went through this subjective light-show (hemicrania sine dolore) about twice a year. I've never been so grateful to Bob Shaw and to sf in general as when in the late 80s I started getting it myself, and was saved from abject panic by realizing this was the harmless phenomenon about which he'd been writing.

Further fine books followed, and the SF Encyclopaedia will give you all the facts; the inventor of 'slow glass' and author of (to pick some more favourites) The Palace of Eternity, Vertigo and A Wreath of Stars would be a notable sf figure even if he'd been a recluse living in a cave. But Bob still moved happily between sf's professional and fan circles, in a way that denied the canard that they are really different circles or that one somehow outranks the other. I unknowingly saw the birth of a legend at my own first Eastercon, Tynecon in 1974, where Bob was guest of honour and spoke hilariously on 'The Need for Bad Science Fiction'. This led to his famed 'Serious Scientific Talks' at convention after convention. Newcomers would be bewildered as the bars emptied and the entire membership crowded to hear a presentation called, say, 'The Bermondsey Triangle Mystery', replete with demented science, excruciating puns, and gags kept mercilessly running until they coughed up blood. All this was delivered in that mournful Irish voice ... which somehow conveyed mild surprise that these peculiar listeners should be laughing so hard that it hurt. The speeches have since been published in various editions, but you have to imagine the voice; indeed, if you've ever been to Bob's performances, it's impossible to 'hear' the words on the page other than in his voice.

With slightly poisoned irony, it was these transcribed talks and other fanzine writing that brought Bob the acclaim deserved for his fiction: the 1979 and 1980 Hugo awards, but for Best Fan Writer rather than Best Novel. (Orbitsville, however, had deservedly won the 1976 British SF Association Award.) Privately he sometimes wearied of the famous speeches, which conventions tended to take for granted, and for which of course he asked no payment. There were times, he said wryly, when he dreaded registering for a con because by return of post the committee would send their draft programme with 'Bob Shaw's Serious Scientific Talk' in a prime slot. Fandom can be thoughtlessly cruel to those it loves; we loved Bob a little too much. Some of the 'serious scientific' humour also surfaced in less frenetic form in his funny 1977 sf novel Who Goes Here?, which remains pleasantly rereadable.

After a period of professional quiet in the early 1980s, Bob made a popular come-back with his biggest sf project: the trilogy of The Ragged Astronauts (1986; British SF Award winner; Hugo shortlist), The Wooden Spaceships (1988) and The Fugitive Worlds (1989), set in a universe of audaciously daft physics where pi has an unfamiliar value, twin planets can share an atmosphere, interplanetary balloon flight is feasible, and the gravitational constant is 'whatever it needs to be to make my solar system work'. Things looked good as the 1990s began. There seemed every reason to expect sf gatherings to be gladdened for the foreseeable future by Bob's familiar bearded, heavy-eyed face: 'Cartoons of me look like Ming the Merciless,' he would complain without rancour.

But then came the run of evil luck. Bob's wife of many years, Sarah ('Sadie' -- herself a legendary figure of Irish Fandom), died with shocking unexpectedness in 1991. For a while Bob tried, as he put it, to drink the world dry. In late 1993 he suffered a grim cancer operation which left him unwell for a solid year. 'At one stage of the surgery,' he told me cheerfully, 'they must have been able, literally, to look right through me and out the other side.' Last year there were gleams of better cheer: Bob was on good conversational form at the 1995 Eastercon and declared himself to be writing again at last (he'd delivered part of a second sequel to Who Goes Here in 1994, but had abandoned it owing to poor health). True to his own maxim about extracting humour from bad experiences, he published a funny article about smuggling dope in the colostomy bag which he had once anticipated with particular dread. His 'serious scientific talk' at Intersection downplayed the traditional puns in favour of a moving appreciation of his 50-year association with sf and fandom; even before the dismal clarity of hindsight, many of the listeners felt that Bob was saying goodbye.

December saw his second marriage, to Nancy Tucker in the USA; but illness persisted. After returning to England this February, enjoying dinner with his son's family and Nancy, and paying a last visit to the Red Lion pub, Bob died peacefully in his sleep that night. The funeral took place on 19 February 1996.

I still can't believe it. Goodbye, Bob.


Footnote

Bob Shaw's fanzine material is no longer easy to find, but the convention speeches up to 1988 are still in print as A Load of Old BoSh (1995) from Beccon Publications, 75 Rosslyn Avenue, Harold Wood, Essex, England RM3 0RG ... £5.50 post free in the UK, all profits to the Royal National Institute for the Blind 'Talking Books' fund. If ordering from the USA I would suggest a $10 cheque to Beccon proprietor Roger Robinson, who has a dollar bank account. The Best of the Bushel (Inca Press 1979) assembled 13 Hyphen columns with an introduction by Walt Willis, but is probably now fairly rare.

I drafted this piece at less than half the length as a memorial appreciation for SFX magazine in Britain, and am grateful to the fanzines where it appeared -- Apparatchik #55 (March 1996) and subsequently the BSFA's Vector -- for the chance to expand it with a few more personal reminiscences. Of course it isn't adequate. What could be?