"Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw: An Appreciation by Graham Sleight
Many writers' work disappears from view after their death, but the speed and extent to which this has happened to Bob Shaw is particularly unjust. Shaw was a Northern Irish author whose sf career was firmly traditional; he was never drawn by the stylistic experiments of the New Wave. But he produced some of the most memorable images that modern sf has to offer: the ghostly neutrino planet within our own in A Wreath of Stars (1976), the immensities of Orbitsville (1975), and the extraordinary balloon flight between planets in The Ragged Astronauts (1986). Perhaps most famous is the opening line of "Light of Other Days": "Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass."
In a sense, this is a story that could have appeared in Galaxy a decade or two earlier. A single innovation is posited, explored, and its effects on a small group of people are described. The extrapolation-on-all-fronts that one associates with cyberpunk is not present-–and, given the story's isolated setting, nor does it need to be. The narrator and his wife are on holiday, driving through rural Scotland. The arrays of slow glass they see are there for commercial purposes. Slow glass is, simply, glass which light takes months or years to pass through. A sheet set up in the Scottish Highlands can therefore be sold to a city-dweller and provide them with years of beautiful views.
The implications of this are fascinating enough in the abstract. Would having a slow glass window in a city home be a life-enhancing piece of beauty, or a retreat from what's really outside the window? What does it mean that society commoditises the beauty of its landscapes in this way? But Shaw deals with them in the specific through the narrator, his newly-pregnant wife, and Hagan, the man who tries to sell them some slow glass. We're told, to start with, that the pregnancy has caused tension for the narrator and his wife Selina: "We, who had thought ourselves so unique, had fallen into the same biological trap as every mindless rutting creature which had ever existed." They cannot afford a child, and nor do they want one. By contrast, looking in through Hagan's cottage window, they see his wife and son playing happily. But when Selina opens the door to the living-room, she finds it "a sickening clutter of shabby furniture, old newspapers, cast-off clothing and smeared dishes. It was damp, stinking, and utterly deserted." The window was slow glass; Hagan's wife and child died in a car accident six years ago; all he has of them is the old photographs in slow glass. Shaw leaves understated at the end the obvious conclusion: that the narrator and his wife have some perspective on their future child from someone who has lost his future. "Light of Other Days" is so restrained, perfectly constructed, and so devastatingly economical (a little over three thousand words long) that moralising would be clangingly unnecessary.
Shaw later used the story as the basis for a novel, Other Days, Other Eyes (1972), pushing the implications of slow glass further--for, say, murder investigations or surveillance. But the short story is perfect in itself, a character study that could only be achieved in SF. By making a metaphor concrete, by creating a device that captures nostalgia, he has done what all writers want to: he has made the ephemeral last.
Link to story.