Oct 7 2010 10:01am

Slow glass seen from all around: Bob Shaw’s Other Days, Other Eyes

It seems like an old fashioned way of writing science fiction to take one new technological innovation and examine all the implications, and Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) is indeed an old fashioned book. Having said that, it holds up rather well. The technological innovation is “slow glass” a form of glass that by complicated scientific gobbledegook handwavium slows down light passing through it, so that what you see through a window made of it is yesterday, or ten years ago, depending on how the glass was tuned. The book is a fix-up, three short stories set within the frame of the novel, covering slow glass from invention through all its implications and exploitations, and similarly covering the collapse of the marriage of its inventer, Alban Garrod.

This is not a comedy, but Bob Shaw could never resist slipping in a joke here and there—and some of the jokes here read like out-takes from his Serious Scientific Talks. Garrod and his chief engineer trade jokes about famous scientists in school “Make up your mind, Heisenberg!” “Stop fiddling with that belt, Van Allen!” I can almost hear him saying the lines—in person he was one of the most consistently and spontaneously funny people I’ve ever met. I wish I could have seen him and John M. Ford together.

For the most part, however, Other Days, Other Eyes is serious and even sad. The most memorable part of the novel is the first “sidelight,” the Hugo and Nebula award nominated short story “The Light of Other Days” (1966). Nobody could forget the image of a man sitting in the rain staring at the windows of his house for glimpses of his dead wife and child. The second “sidelight,” the judge agonising over the decision he made to hang a man, whatever truth the glass would later reveal, is also terrific.

Mostly what we have here is pure extrapolation, in a thin shell of story. Slow glass starts out as a fortuitous discovery, causing problems with cars and planes crashing. It becomes a fad, with people having picture windows or “Scenedows” showing changing views of pretty places. It’s used to light cities at no cost. It’s used in the justice system, and eventually it abolishes the concept of privacy, foreshadowing concerns about “the transparent society.” Along the way there are two rather clever slow-glass mysteries, both solved by Garrod’s powers of intellectual scientific detection. This is all thoroughly satisfying to re-read now, as clever as it ever was.

It’s a day-after-tomorrow story, set the day after 1972. Slow glass has its well worked out effect on the world, but there are very few other changes. Old computers do pretty well here actually—a policeman fires up a request that goes from his computer to the central police network...and the response is then printed out locally. I’ve seen much worse. Medicine has advanced somewhat—and pig hearts are being routinely transplanted into people, and normally corneas can be replaced. TV is 3D, but still exclusively broadcast, with no normal facilities for timeshifting viewing.

The social mores of the late sixties and early seventies continue—we’re just on the edge of second wave feminism. There are liberated sexually available women with silver lips, but they work as secretaries. Pregnant women have no choice but to stop working. Since the emotional and personal plot concerns the breakdown of a marriage, we see one really unsympathetic female character, Alban’s dominating wife Esther—but weak-willed Alban’s no prize either. It does rather better on race—there’s a black police chief, seen positively, and there’s the aforementioned silver lipped secretary, the love interest, Jane Wason. She is described as being an American of Korean ancestry. I’m not quite convinced by the American-ness of any of the characters—Bob was Irish and lived mostly in Britain and Ireland, and while this is mostly ostensibly set in the U.S. it doesn’t quite ring true.

There’s a science fiction plot, or rather a set of technological speculations embellished with a couple of interesting puzzles, and I commend it to you. There’s also an emotional plot, concerning Alban and Esther. SPOILERS for the emotional plot coming up. It isn’t as much a divorce novel as Earth Made of Glass, because from the first time we see them together he already hates her. But it’s a painful relationship nevertheless. You don’t often see the tyranny of the weak, and this is done well. It isn’t comfortable to read, and this is why I haven’t re-read this for some time. I find I kept wanting to be allowed more sympathy for Esther, for her to be less monstrous. There’s something a little off about the emotional arc of “Middle aged scientist billionaire gets away from tyrannical wife and finds true love with gorgeous younger woman” as a plot for today.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Milton Pope
1. MiltonPope
Oh! Oh! Oh! "Light of Other Days" is my favorite SF story ever! It's eight pages of perfection; all the more amazing because Bob Shaw isn't otherwise one of my favorite authors.

It was also responsible for the one e-mail (actually, GEnie message) exchange I had with J. Michael Straczynski. I expressed my regret that I had never recommended "Light of Other Days" for the new Twilight Zone program: it was a perfect fit. He said that when he was in charge, there was no permissions budget, so he couldn't have done it anyway.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
I read this not too long ago. I agree about the absolute perfection of Light of Other Days, which for some reason, I had not previously read. More wasted years....

I agree, the Alban and Jane plot didn't strike true.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
"Light of Other Days" is SF taking a basic human emotion and doing a new thing with it.
4. Nooks
Any clues about who did the cover art for the edition pictured?
john mullen
6. johntheirishmongol
Long long time since I read this but I remember slow glass and thinking what a great concept. This is one those those things you can do in sf that just cannot be done in other genre's.
7. louww
I remember that book fondly...

I wish someone would bring Bob Shaw's books back in print...
8. Gerd D.
Great book, read it as part of a best of SF literature series of books (unfortunately discontinued), fittingly right after I read Dick's Flow my tears, the Police man said, I remember that the torture scene actually made me squirm back then. The idea of images of violence that can't be shut out rather reminds one of the internet these days, though.
Rob Hansen
9. RobHansen
Interestingly, Marvel Comics used slow glass as the framing device in their b&w SF anthoolgy title UNKNOWN WORLDS OF SCIENCE FICTION in the early 1970s:

I have all of these and while the adaptations are of variable quality, the stories they adapted were mostly inytelligently chosen.
10. lakesidey1
I loved "The Light of Other Days", which is why I picked up this book (about 8 years ago it must be now - I can't find my copy, alas :P) I remember only two things: first, the feeling that the book was fairly good, but not nearly as good as the short story, not by a country mile; second, the sense of immense thankfulness (is that even a word?) that the author hadn't taken the Nightfall route and expanded the short story but had instead kept it intact as a small interlude in the book. Nightfall (the novel) ruined Nightfall (the short story) for me....
12. Jeff Rodman
Bob Shaw shows an extraordinary prescience in visualizing a world in which everyone, ultimately, can see everyone else at every time. Shaw's "slow glass" has become implemented in 2012 as unnumbered micro webcams, gigabyte thumb drives, near-infinite web storage, and "big data" analysis, but that's just a detail. How a society is confronted with this capabiity, and how it deals with it, is exactly what Shaw considers. I'm ordering a fresh copy, having lost my paperback of decades ago.
13. ZZMike
"The Light of Other Days" is one of the few stories I really remember. It made such an impression at the time - and still does. It's in a league woth Joe Haldeman's :The Forever War".

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