Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Light Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw

with 14 comments

A couple go on holiday to Scotland to try and patch up their marriage which is in trouble due to an unwanted pregnancy. It is a mark of the story’s age that abortion is not even considered. Up in the Highlands they pass “farms” harvesting the view through slow glass which, as it sounds like, is glass which takes a long time for light to pass through, thus capturing the image of scenery.

This is one of the most famous SF stories ever written but I’m not really sure why. It was my first reading of the story and, although it is obvious that slow glass has struck a chord with lots of people, it is only five pages long and the sting in the tail isn’t sharp enough to pierce.

A contrary view is provided by Graham Sleight’s appreciation of the story as “restrained, perfectly constructed, and so devastatingly economical that moralising would be clangingly unnecessary”.

Quality: ***
Hardness: ****

H&C mention a student of Samuel R Delany who mathematically proved that slow glass doesn’t work and paraphrase Delany as saying this doesn’t matter because it is “science fiction, not fact; if it did work, then the story would no longer be sf but merely literary realism”. I doubt Delany did say that because although I can guess what was really meant here H&C have mangled it so badly that it ends up saying something stupid and false. Not to mention that it shows all that talk of science in Hartwell’s introduction to be a load of old guff.

Written by Martin

18 February 2010 at 09:33

Posted in sf, short stories

Tagged with ,

14 Responses

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  1. It’s the image that stays, not the story. The slow light, the deferral & displacement of the real. The image takes as long a time to pass through the reader as it does the glass. At the time I found it as utterly heartbreaking as Bradbury or early Ballard. It’s still making its way through me. Michel Faber removes all the sentiment from it with his video-window version in “The Eyes of the Soul”, but ramps up that permanent ache of nostalgia, of time passing, trapped, released. No one using brutishly categorical terms like “hard sf”, or discussing the “possibility”of the material, is ever going to get near the cascades of meanings & metaphorical impact of such a piece of imagism. Operationally, a conceit like that has more in common with Yeats than with Greg Benford. The “story” just isn’t important. It’s the quality of the perception, the humane intuition, that shows how under-rated a writer Bob Shaw was. Thanks for making me think about that, Martin.
    –Mike Harrison


    18 February 2010 at 14:27

  2. I’d completely forgotten writing that. (Slow memory.) To defend my reading: your phrasing presumes that a story like this has to “sting”. Especially, I guess, in a systemically literal genre like sf. That Shaw didn’t make this choice here reflects a kind of restraint, as I said, and also the story’s central metaphor – an sfnal making-concrete of an abstract idea, time’s passing.

    Re science in H&C: the Shaw is positively rigorous compared to some of the later stories.


    18 February 2010 at 21:00

  3. Don’t feel you have to defend your reading, it speaks for itself and both you and Mike are persuasive of the story’s qualities. Something has failed to spark inside me though.

    As to my reading, I don’t presume the story has to sting, I assume the opening of the Hagan’s house is intended to sting; that it is there to give the reader the shock it gives the narrator and imbues the slow glass will an emotional weight. I didn’t feel this weight.

    By the by, I do find the story rigorous, it is only the gloss H&C put on it, not its selection, which I find weird. I can only imagine what delights they have in store for me on that front.


    18 February 2010 at 21:49

  4. I wonder if the reason something has failed to spark for you is (in part?) that the framing of the anthology and the introduction is sending your expectations in the wrong direction. Perhaps treating the introduction as afterwords might be something to try?

    Certainly, as Graham says, sone of the later stories seem to have been shoe-horned into the anthology at random. Not to mean that they’re bad stories, but that there are some that don’t fit any definition of ‘hard sf’ that I know.

    And finally, so I’m not completely off topic, I have to sit myself in the Sleight and Harrison camp with this story and say that it worked for me. The Bradbury comparison Harrison makes is particularly apt, I think.

    Nick H.

    19 February 2010 at 00:49

  5. I should have added that Michel Faber’s version of the image is really about a geographical rather than a temporal nostalgia–it’s also the kind of nostalgia for something you’ve never had (& can never have) rather than something you’ve lost. That’s always fascinated me.


    19 February 2010 at 11:25

  6. Pardon me, but isn’t most speculative fiction remembered more for the concept than the characters?

    No doubt, there are a few great sci-fi characters around, but that’s not what I remember from Alien, Avatar, Neuromancer or Dune. And even though Ender Wiggins is a great character, the concept of the first book is probably why I read it in the first place.

    Uncle Loyd

    17 March 2010 at 00:51

  7. You don’t remember Ripley or Case or Paul Atreides? (I’ve no idea who the characters in Avatar because it looks utterly shit so I haven’t watched it.)

    It may well be that SF is more remembered for the concept than the characters but that is more of a criticism of SF than anything I’ve written here. I certainly don’t read speculative fiction for the concept. Then again, I don’t read it for the characters either; I read it the same way I read all fiction, for the totality of the experience.


    17 March 2010 at 08:34

  8. Pardon me, but isn’t most speculative fiction remembered more for the concept than the characters?

    Pardon me, but no. If “speculative fiction” includes film and television: hell, no. And if it includes fantasy: are you high?

    David Moles

    17 March 2010 at 14:00

  9. I’m definitely not high; right now I’m just about at sea level.

    Yes, there are many interesting characters in sci-fi (speculative fiction, or whatever you choose to call it) but that’s not what I was addressing. “Light of Future Days” is admired for the idea, not the plot or the characters. In my experience, a large portion of sci-fi is remembered for the same.

    Film and television can’t be “speculative fiction”? There’s a lot of crap movies and TV (as many as there are crap books), but I can’t throw it all out due to the medium. I suppose graphic novels can’t be speculative fiction either?

    Uncle Loyd

    17 March 2010 at 16:04

  10. I didn’t say film and television can’t be speculative fiction. I said that if film and television are speculative fiction, the suggestion that ideas rather than characters are what people remember is even more wrong than it already was. But perhaps you’ve never seen Star Trek, Star Wars,, Dr. Who, Battlestar Galactica, E.T., Aliens, or The Terminator.

    David Moles

    18 March 2010 at 09:55

  11. I remember when I were but a teen noticing just how much energy is stored in a sheet of slow glass. Say you have a one meter square bit of SG exposed to the exterior in a region where it gets an average of 100 watts (taking into account the fact that solar power is notoriously unreliable at night and also that 100 is a nice round number). If it’s five year glass, that’s 1.6×10^10 Joules or very roughly the energy contained in four tonnes of TNT.

    I think later on in the novel version someone gets blinded when a sheet of slow glass releases all its stored light at once but really she should have been reduced to a shadow on the wall.

    James Davis Nicoll

    22 September 2010 at 16:51

  12. The story sticks, not because of the “sting”,but because of the tragicness of it. Here is an artisan whose greatest desire is not the accumulation of wealth, but rather the warmth of his family. The loss of one’s family is the greatest loss anyone can experience.

    This is not a story of artistic glass, but one of love and loss and how it affects us and those around us. That is why it has stuck with us for so very long.


    10 January 2011 at 07:33

  13. […] Lives’ by Ursula K. LeGuin ‘Light Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne ‘The Star’ by Arthur […]

  14. No longer much of a sci-fi reader, I had remembered this story for at least 30 years, I think, as, simply, an extremely moving story and, fortunately, found it easy to track down recently by Googling “Slow glass”. I was moved by the self-inflicted torture which the seller, like any of us in his position, cannot avoid subjecting himself to, a torture compounded by the fact that it must come to an end. Any improvements in the factual basis of the story would not help it’s critics to warm to it. Loss is the theme, not patents pending.

    Jonathan Burn-Forti

    21 May 2011 at 09:57

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