Young People Read Old SFF

The Light of Other Days

Bob Shaw

Bob Shaw was born in Northern Ireland. Over the course of the three decades of his career, he won three BSFA awards and was nominated for the Hugo, the Locus, the Campbell, and the Clarke.

The Light of Other Days is an atypical Shaw. It is a classic idea story, a story in which an author tries to show unexpected implications of some new development. Slow glass, a material in which the speed of light is so slow it takes decades for light to pass from one side to the other of a thin sheet, was one of the rare examples of an idea veteran editor John W. Campbell considered actually original at the time of publication. It was shortlisted for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

Of course, just because professionals and fans liked a story half a century ago is no guarantee modern readers will. Let's see what they thought.

I love stories that take the reader on an unexpected journey, and Bob Shaw does that brilliantly here. At first I imagined the setting to be in the desert, recalling a trip to west Texas that my husband and I took earlier this year, but then I realized that the story is actually set in Scotland which was just fine with me. Anyway, I also appreciated Shaw's wry observations about marriage and the emotional interplay between the narrator and his wife. What this story is most notable for, though, is the introduction of slow glass to the genre of science fiction. Shaw uses slow glass, a kind of time in a bottle device, to explore the concepts of memory, reality, and time. The beautifully composed line, "those of us who remain convinced that beauty lives though lilies die," encapsulates, for me, the effect that Shawachieves in this story. Slow glass can preserve scenes--memories, really—because light takes longer to pass through it than regular glass, but what happens when those memories are suddenly discovered? Some readers might struggle with seeing this story as science fiction, but I appreciate Shaw's narrative style and definitely want to read more of his work.

This was a curiously futuristic yet old-fashioned story. I was struck by the cruising in the car, the worrying about a pregnancy and the two nuclear families. It seemed very post-World War II baby-boomer era, which makes sense with this story being published in 1966.

With the dissolution of my marriage, some of the comments about marriage and gender roles really struck me as odd. People my age no longer say they want children “later”, they just say they don’t. Single mothers are a common phenomenon and men aren’t under the same obligations to marry.

The most aggravating line in the story was “Some men who live alone are good housekeepers; other just don’t know how.” This is some of the worst sexism from my point of view. People still do this – assume that tasks assigned to women are just inborn. No, they’re not. Anyone can learn to take care of a house, clean it, maintain it and handle personal budgets. I find this personally aggravating because I see so many people refuse to learn basic life skills and actively discourage young men to do the same. Because for some reason it’s women’s responsibility to take care of children and men. (So much sarcasm here, in case it isn’t clear.)

The advanced way of considering the past with slow glass seems to lend itself immediately to people getting stuck on memories. In a funny way, this story is representative of the YPROSF blog – at least, I assume that many of you reading these reviews have fond memories of reading these stories that we’re reviewing. Though I suppose in this metaphor, you, dear reader, are the slow glass farmers while we the reviewers are the youngurbanites cruising by in our automobiles.

I couldn’t help thinking of John Hodgman’s views on nostalgia: “Everyone…will look back…and think that it’s the best. That’s the parlor trick of nostalgia, and it’s why nostalgia is the worst. It’s a toxic impulse … The idea that things were better once and are terrible now and getting worse every minute is what fuels the worst, in my opinion, movements in contemporary culture.”

As a relatively young person, I’ll often hear people who go on wistfully about how things used to be in their pasts. People regret not enjoying the past, and I see people repeating this pattern over and over – ignoring the present in favour of hankering after the past. It’s a vicious cycle where people ignore the great things of the present and the potential in their present. People focus on how things are worse now but forget the wonders of the present.

I fall into this trap, too. Even in the recent past, I would not have been able to type up this review: laptops were far too pricey for the average, casual consumer. We didn’t carry small computers in our pockets. Now we can look up directions on our pocket computers in an instant, complete with current traffic data. We have so much choice, so why choose toxic nostalgia?

I disagree pretty strongly with the author that having a window that shows nature is the same as living in it. Otherwise my screensavers would be a lot more nourishing than they are. And whatever the price is for slow glass, I bet it would be beaten by a high resolution screen that can then also do useful things.

I caught the twist at the second mention of the salesman's wife. All that remained then was to read on and find out if it was a sad or horrific story. Turns out to be sad.

I didn't like the relationship between the narrator and his wife. I don't need that in my fiction, especially unresolved as it is.

Slow glass is an interesting idea but surely there are more interesting uses than creating windows you can't actually see through, essentially single channel televisions. Think of the uses as a recording medium. Time-locked messages that can't be read for a certain amount of time. You could send them through the mail and avoid governmental snooping, and once the message exits the glass it's gone. I guess I was looking for a more interesting use than what was given in this story.

This story was interesting. And creepy. And actually short-- maybe even too short. It does something that I appreciate in a science fiction story - it took the time to explain the fictional science. This was easier to do in Light of Other Days compared to other stories, because there were no differences in the world, except for the one scientific discovery of the glass that it takes light a long time to pass through.

A few parts of the story didn't sit right with me. I was unsure why the author chose to mention that the wife was pregnant. It didn't seem like a particularly relevant detail, except that the couple was on the road in the first place because they were trying to forget about the pregnancy and its unpleasantness. Also, the couple sees the slow glass in use - and seem thoroughly creeped out and disturbed by its use. They still buy the glass, however - maybe because they feel sorry for the seller? I thought the concept of the slow glass was interesting, but was hoping to read more about the consequences (intended or not) of selling such a product commercially. Overall, this was an interesting proof of concept, but it would have been nice to hear more all around.

I almost rage-quit this story by the end of the fourth paragraph.

It probably would have been the right decision, because it turns out the narrator would get worse.

I really didn’t care about the slow glass concept by the time it was introduced, because I was far too busy being enraged by the narrator. This story would be improved by access to birth control, abortion, and divorce, and from not being in the viewpoint of a man who thinks that his wife’s unwanted pregnancy is a trap for him and considers how he’d like to kill her even though he says he loves her.

Selina has an unwanted pregnancy; lost her job because of it; is stuck with a husband that is angry that she got pregnant, frivolously spending a lot of money on something, and condescending that she doesn’t know how it works; and I’m supposed to, idk, care about this guy? How about no. I want the story where she gets a divorce, and abortion (if she wants one, I don’t trust narrator-guy to actually have a clue if she’s happy about being pregnant or not), keeps her well-paying job, and has a great life.

This story, I would say, was somewhat better than the last one. The premise was creative, it was kept short and didn't drag on, the characters were few enough to keep track of them, and the idea was executed wonderfully. However, I do think that the twist ending was a bit rushed. There was a lot of potential, and what they did, they did well. Overall, I like it, and would like to see more similar content.


  • Mike Scott

    Lisa, “The Light of Other Days” was only the first of a series of slow glass stories, which do indeed go on to give you more about the implications and consequences of the technology. They are collected in Other Days, Other Eyes.

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  • Lisa

    Mike, thanks for the comment. The story read like an introduction so I'm not surprised to hear that there are other stories about the world. Reading my review again, I realize it sounds like I was criticizing the story. The vibe I was going for was more of an "i want to hear about the world, and this story doesn't quite stand on its own" comment. I may check out the collection, or maybe James will pick one out for us to read.

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  • Michael Grosberg

    Mel - the line you found aggravating, I agree with the sentiment but from my experience, some people jus't don't seem to notice their physical surroundings in the same way that people like, I assume, you or I do. Everyone can be taught life skills - swinging a broom is not rocket science - but that doesn't mean they'll use them. And it also applies to women. I know quite a few women who are disorganized slobs. And quite a few who can't or won't cook. As you said, there are no innate skills, but it goes both ways. In a way, that line was true... just incomplete.

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  • Murray Moore

    To help me understand your selected reviewers' opinions, I would like to see a list of SF authors, if any, who they would recommend to each other.

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  • Andy Sawyer

    "This story would be improved by access to birth control, abortion, and divorce". So would have the lives of many people in 1966. Abortion, for instance, was illegal at that time in the UK. "I’m supposed to, idk, care about this guy?" Yes, because that is what reading fiction is all about. It might be useful to read the penultimate paragraph again, for instance.

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  • Rose

    Mikayla, you want the story where she keeps her great job. Losing her job because pregnant isn't the author being sexist; it was the reality for many jobs at the time. For no reason.

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