Shaw, Bob (Robert) (1931–96), science fiction writer, was born 31 December 1931 in Belfast, the eldest of three sons of Robert William Shaw, a policeman, and his wife Elizabeth (née Megaw). As a child he developed a lasting enthusiasm for science fiction as ‘an escape from the dullness of suburban Belfast’, and collected American science fiction magazines (sold by American servicemen to second-hand booksellers in Smithfield market in Belfast). He was educated at a technical school. On leaving school at the age of seventeen Shaw became an apprentice draughtsman at a structural engineering firm in London, then an aeroplane designer with the Belfast aerospace firm Short & Harland. As a boy Shaw saw a friend lose his eye in an accident; this gave him a morbid fear of blindness (reinforced by chronic hemiplegic migraine) and a life-long preoccupation with perception, reminiscent of the American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (1928–82).
In 1950 Shaw discovered the Belfast-based science fiction group Irish Fandom, founded in 1947 by Walter Willis (1919–99) and James White (qv) (1928–99), which maintained a clubbish existence centred on Willis's house in the Upper Newtownards Road. The group played a disproportionately important role in the subculture of British and American science fiction ‘fandom’ (centred on conventions and ‘fanzines’ – amateur magazines) until about 1960; it dissolved in 1965. Shaw contributed stories, cartoons, and a humorous column (as ‘BoSh’) to its fanzine Hyphen. His first professionally published story appeared in the New York Post in 1951; several others (which he later regarded as juvenilia) appeared in Nebula Science Fiction and Authentic magazines. He also wrote (with Willis) The magic duplicator (1954), adapting The pilgrim's progress to the search of Jophan for the Tower of Trufandom (modelled on Scrabo Tower).
In 1954 Shaw married Sarah (‘Sadie’) Gourley, a member of Irish Fandom; they had two daughters and a son. In 1956 they moved to Canada, where Shaw sought broader experience, and he stopped writing for several years. The family returned to Belfast in 1958, and Shaw joined the publicity department of Short & Harland (where James White also worked). His mature literary production dates from 1965; his reputation was established by the 1966 story ‘Light of other days’, depicting glass that slows light and reflects past events. His first novel, Nightwalk, appeared in the USA in 1967; he targeted American audiences, and his first novel published in Britain (1970) was a cut version of his fourth American novel, Shadow of heaven (1969).
Between 1967 and 1970 Shaw was science correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph, writing its ‘Chichester’ column. After briefly struggling as a full-time writer, he became public relations officer at Short & Harland in 1970. By the early 1970s his work had sold more than a million copies in several languages (including pirated Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian editions). In April 1973, fearing the impact of the Northern Ireland troubles on their children, the Shaws moved to Ulverston, Cumbria; Shaw became publicity officer with the Vickers shipbuilding group in Barrow-in-Furness. The move, and Shaw's transition to full-time authorship in 1975, created enduring financial problems.
Intense productivity in the late 1970s, which saw the publication of two of his best novels, the humorous pastiche Who goes here? (1977) and A wreath of stars (1976, which imagines the discovery of a planet occupying the same space as Earth within an alternative universe composed of antineutrinos), was followed by a breakdown in the early 1980s. Shaw's wit, which made him a popular speaker and raconteur at the worldwide fan conventions around which his social life centred, was accompanied by alcoholic melancholia and lack of confidence. He recovered, to produce the Ragged astronauts trilogy (1986–9), his most sustained work, but the sudden death of his wife, Sarah, in 1991 triggered further heavy drinking. By 1990 he lived in Bootle, Lancashire. He polished gemstones as a hobby, and twice represented Ulster at archery. In late 1993 Shaw underwent major surgery for cancer. In December 1995 he married an American fan activist, Nancy Tucker (1928–2000), in Michigan. They returned to Britain the following February. Bob Shaw died 11 February 1996 in his sleep at Warrington.
Shaw saw himself as writing ‘hard’ science fiction, based on scientific speculation. (He thought the film Star wars damaged science fiction by reinforcing its image as ‘space opera’ in futuristic settings.) His stories extrapolate systematically from fantastic starting-points; the Ragged astronauts trilogy (set in a universe where pi=3 and a non-metallurgical civilisation travels by hot-air balloon between twin planets with intersecting atmospheres) exhibits significant knowledge of the mechanics of flight. Fans praise his skilled characterisation (by the standards of the genre) and poignant sense of wonder at the universe.
Shaw worked within, and developed, existing genre conventions, heavily marked by the adolescent wish-fulfilment often found in science fiction. Telepathy is a recurring preoccupation; in one novel migraine allows time travel. Like much post-war British science fiction, his work is often absurdist, sometimes implying that space colonies will spread suburban ennui across the galaxies, occasionally lamenting lost imperial certainties (some stories sourly depict social disintegration of the kind that afflicted post-colonial Africa). Poignancy often becomes self-pity; his outspoken atheism coexists with a desire to punish God for the world's shortcomings (The Ceres solution, 1981) or to become a god himself. His female characters suggest lonely adolescent male fantasies. While his stories never have Irish settings, east Belfast placenames sometimes appear; two novels feature districts called ‘Silverstream’, while Orbitsville judgment (1990) depicts a frustrated hero in a backwater called ‘Orangefield’.
Shaw is less significant as an author than as a travelling Irish entertainer within science fiction fandom. (His two Hugo awards, in 1979 and 1980, were for fan writing rather than fiction.) He reflects the twentieth-century Irish relationship with international popular culture (often downplayed in hibernocentric accounts) as one of many young people seeking refuge in Anglo-American popular culture from the austerities, divisions, and provincialism of post-war Belfast. Some of Shaw's fanzine columns are available online at http://fanac.org/Fanzines.