David V. Barratt
Saturday 17 February 1996 00:02

Bob Shaw was one of Britain's best-loved science fiction writers. In a 40-year career he produced 25 novels and several collections of short stories, and proved both in Britain and the United States that there's still a lot of mileage in good, solid, traditional science fiction.

Born in Belfast in 1931, Shaw worked as an engineer in the steel and aircraft industries, and later as a journalist on the Belfast Telegraph (1966-69) and as a publicity officer for Vickers Shipbuilding (1973-75) before turning to writing science fiction full-time. Like many SF writers he started as a fan. He said, "I was utterly without worldly ambition because I knew that all that was needed for a rich, full life was a few shillings a week with which to buy SF magazines and beer."

His first short story was published in 1954, and was followed by more in the mid-1950s, but his writing career took off with his story "Light of Other Days" in 1966. Later expanded into the novel Other Days, Other Eyes (1972), this contained one of the few really original ideas in modern SF: slow glass, through which light can take months or even years to pass, allowing people to view the past. Both the short story and the novel are haunting; the story has been anthologised around 40 times.

Shaw wrote in 1991, "I write science fiction for people who don't read a great deal of science fiction." He avoided what he called "in-group jargon", and, however fantastic his ideas, he concentrated on believable characters living real lives. Even in those books which came closest to "hard" science fiction, with astonishing settings - such as his Orbitsville trilogy (1975, 1983, 1990), about a vast hollow sphere around a sun - what was important was the lives of the characters in that environment. Perhaps his most outlandish setting was in The Ragged Astronaut (1986) and its two sequels (1988, 1989), in which two planets orbiting each other share a common atmosphere, and people travel from one to the other in hot air balloons.

Shaw started as a fan, and remained a fan throughout his life. In his book How to Write Science Fiction (1993), what comes through is his love and enthusiasm for the genre. He was in great demand at SF conventions for his "Serious Scientific Talks", which were anything but serious. Both in these talks, and in conversation over a pint, he delivered humour in a wonderfully dry, deadpan manner in his soft, slow Irish voice.

He had been ill with cancer; he had also been deeply saddened by the death of his first wife Sadie in 1991. Both took their toll. Those of us who knew him were delighted last November when he announced his engagement to Nancy Tucker. He moved to her home in America in December, but his illness brought them back to England only last week; he died peacefully in his sleep.

Bob Shaw once said, "The universe is wonderful, but only when there is somebody there to wonder at it." He and his writing conveyed that wonder.

David V. Barrett

Robert Shaw, writer: born Belfast 31 December 1931; married 1954 Sadie Gourley (died 1991; one son, two daughters), 1995 Nancy Tucker; died Warrington 11 February 1996.

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