Bob Shaw’s 1972 novel, Other Days, Other Eyes, concerns the idea of slow glass. This is discovered accidentally when it was found that cars which had been equipped with a new and more heat resistant windshield, were crashing when making left turns because the light was taking a little longer to make its way through the glass. The upshot of this being that when one looks through the glass, the images viewed are in the past.
Initially this is marketed as a bit of a novelty item (albeit an expensive one). People living in cities can buy windows with rural scenes as a daily escape from the greyness of their surroundings. The man who had initially created the glass (renamed ‘Retardite’ when it becomes clear that it is no longer usefully named ‘Thermgard’), Alban Garrod, makes his fortune from it. This changes his relationship with his wife who, to this point, had largely controlled him due to her coming from a wealthy family and him being reliant on her father’s cash injections.
As the novel progresses, Shaw explores the consequences of the application of the technology. The glass is only useful as a novelty, initially, because the only way to see the information held on it is to wait for it for the length of the thickness of the glass. So, for example, if a piece of ‘ten year thick glass’ were in view of an event, you’d have to wait 10 years to see what actually happened. If you’re planning surveillance, of course, you can use ‘thinner’ glass to record events and wait for them to play out in a reasonable time.
Garrod’s wife is blinded by the glass while he is attempting to create a method of random access to the light and, therefore, the images held within it. This would, naturally, increase the usefulness of the glass. Interestingly, her – slightly unusual – salvation is provided by the glass too.
Where, I think, the novel really comes into its own is the concerns with surveillance. Early in the novel, we learn that the glass is already used as a way of recording covert operations and that, effectively, the use of slow glass to ‘capture’ light in the day and then act as street lighting is leading to what are effectively CCTV cameras being placed in every street and in people’s homes. Naturally, this has implications for privacy and I think that this aspect of the novel resonates powerfully, even now.
Indeed, the following quote reminds me of the way that the disruptive influence of technology on our private lives is discussed at prresent:
“In later decades, men were to come to accept the universal presence of Retardite eyes and they learned to live without subterfuge or shame as they had done in a distant past when it was known that the eyes of God could see everywhere.”
The motivation seems slightly dubious, but Garrod finds himself, as an expert on slow glass, offering up his services as an amateur sleuth. This allows Shaw to have his characters discuss the philosophical implications of a camera on every corner. Naturally, there are those who are pleased that crime has fallen. They aren’t concerned with the implications for freedom that there are with near constant surveillance. On the other hand, there are many – and people from a diverse range of backgrounds – who resent this intrusion. They see the argument that you have nothing to fear if you are not a criminal as being (rightly) fallacious. So, while other aspects of the novel have perhaps not aged as well as they might, I think that this aspect of the novel should have at least some resonance with early 21st century readers.
It’s perhaps a sign of the time in which the novel was written that Garrod’s wife, Esther, gains her power and wealth from a man (her father) rather than from her own endeavours. Of course, we shouldn’t be too complacent; while the lot of women has certainly improved since the 1970s barriers still exist (and given my grumbling that some of the background to a previous novel reviewed here relied on the world being a little less exploitative than it is now and thus too hopeful I shouldn’t moan too much). I certainly don’t think that the novel is offensively misogynistic in that way – it certainly isn’t as infused with testosterone as, say, Rogue Moon was.
Although… there is a similarity in the sense that the female character in Budrys’ novel was as calculating as were the men and it is suggested in the novel that Garrod’s inability to make the right choices for himself was a trait sought out by Esther. But… I digress and shall leave that where it is.
Bob Shaw had initially come to my notice through an article on Richard Morgan’s website, with some of his recommended reads. It seems that most, if not all, of Shaw’s work is currently out of print, so it’s taken me a little while to get around to reading him. Other Days, Other Eyes incorporates one of – I believe – Shaw’s more famous short stories, The Light of Other Days (which, now I come to think of it, I may have read in an anthology years ago). This is introduced as a ‘sidelight’ as are two other stories, Burden of Proof and A Dome of Many-coloured Glass. All of these are good short stories in their own right; all dealing with the consequences of slow-glass in a different way. The first, for example, dealing with a man’s grief, the second with the knowledge of a judge that the decision he had taken to send a man to the electric chair could be unequivocally proven wrong by a panel of slow glass and the use of the glass on a man captured after crashing his aeroplane.
The problem for the novel is that the main novel (short anyway) starts to feel a little like a framing device for these short stories. Though all are bound by Garrod’s invention (and after the second sidelight has finished, reference is made to the events of it in passing) none of them flow particularly well from the main narrative. Well, they don’t flow at all. This initial experience of Shaw’s work does seem to chime a little with Morgan’s contention that Shaw was better as a short story writer. I’m hoping, from that perspective at least, some of his other novels are better as I have bought a couple more to read later.
So, the book isn’t perfect. However it is far from terrible. Despite being a little of its time in some ways, I think as far as characterisation and the general humanity of the characters it fares a great deal better than, say, Asimov (I hate to pick on him again, but he came up in a brief chat this morning). From that point of view if nothing else, I think that Bob Shaw’s work deserves a higher profile than perhaps it does today. The idea behind the novel is a neat one and some of the issues raised by the technology are actually quite pertinent to society now. Despite some reservations about the cohesion of the book, I enjoyed this sufficiently that I go forth into Shaw’s oeuvre with a sense of hope.