Thursday, 12 February 2009

In memoriam:
Bob Shaw [1931-1996]

There's a tendancy, when eulogising the recently deceased, to recall only that which portrays them in a favourable light, and to downplay the less commendable facets of their personality or career. In the case of Bob Shaw, however, no such well-intentioned distortion is necessary; he was, quite simply, one of the nicest people whose company I have ever had the good fortune to share.

My first contact with Bob, more than twenty years ago, exemplifies his generosity and good nature. It was the spring of 1975, and I had learned of science fiction fanzines through the short-lived World of Horror; I'd already received several copies of the Dr Who Fan Club newsletter, but this (curiously) was sponsored by the BBC and had little or no contact with the fabulous fannish universe the WoH column hinted at. Within months, a friend and I were drawing up our own plans to enter the fray, with one of those dry-as-dust serconzines pretty much endemic at the time.

By coincidence, Marvel had recently added Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction to its black & white line, a surprisingly honest attempt to drag sf comics out of the 1950's EC vein and towards the New Wave occupied by the likes of Moorcock and Ellison (who were both represented in due course, along with adaptations of work by Wyndham, Silverberg, Weinbaum and Niven). More importantly to this tale, Marvel decided to lift Bob's "Slow Glass" concept from his Hugo-nominated "Light of Other Days" for use as a framing device to give each issue an overall cohesion; instead of EC's Crypt Keeper, shopkeeper Sandson Tyme would startle his customers with visions of distant worlds and strange futures.

Despite this peripheral involvement and the somewhat variable quality of the strips, Bob wrote to offer his congratulations and - apparently on an editorial whim - his address was published in full. I'm unaware as to whether he was subsequently buried in fan mail, but I grabbed the chance to contact a Real Skiffy Writer and, surfing a wave of teenage chutzpah, even included a short questionnaire for use in our proposed first issue.

As it turned out, the fanzine took a further two years to materialize, by which time Bob had replied to this and several other letters, the "interview" had turned up in another location entirely and, best of all, I'd had the opportunity to meet him in person. Better still, it was in a Novacon bar, which is on a parallel with joining John Huston on safari or Ernest Hemingway at a bullfight. He was entirely at ease, and within moments so was anyone who took an adjoining seat. As I swiftly learned, no matter how successful he became as a science fiction author, he never really evolved from the youngster who tapped at Walt Willis' front door a half-century ago and immediately boosted Irish Fandom by fifty per cent; at heart, he remained a fan.

It's difficult to put into words my admiration for Bob. I enjoyed and respected his sf novels, adored his fanwriting (frequently reprinting the lesser-known pieces in my own fanzines) and always valued our occasional chats at conventions, or on the telephone. Our final lengthy exchange was a short while before Novacon 25, concerning a less than favourable review I'd given A Bit Of BoSH in Critical Wave #41 (entirely down to the editors, I must add); then as always, Bob was supportive, understanding and, above all, honest. In a sense, we ended as we began, fan talking to fan.

Despite his achievements in professional print, Bob's is a greater loss to fandom than to sf as a whole. I doubt he ever regretted that balance for a moment.

[First published in Critical Wave #44/45, April 1996, which also included a 1975 article by Bob Shaw and additional tributes to him from fellow science fiction authors Stephen Baxter and Keith Brooke]

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