Looking back I notice that I’ve covered Bob Shaw’s short story collections relatively quickly and Dark Night in Toyland is the last of his short story collections. With over twenty novels I seem to have concentrated a little more on the short story collections more than the novels. There are four collections in total and in chronological order they are: Tomorrow Lies in Ambush (1973), Cosmic Kaleidoscope (1976), A Better Mantrap (1982) and Dark Night in Toyland (1989).

I’ve enjoyed the novels of Bob Shaw that I have read but always found that a well written short story can be just as rewarding for a reader if not more so. And with a short story collection you can visit a lot of different worlds over a short period of time, whereas in a novel you are immersed deeply in one world. There are pros and cons for both short stories and novels.

I bought the paperback of Dark Night in Toyland second hand years and years ago and the Gollancz hardback online quite recently, both were mid price: not cheap but not too expensive either.

The difference with this collection is that it comes with a short introduction from Bob Shaw, which the others do not. It’s a short introduction but an introduction nonetheless. The collection is dedicated to Arthur C Clarke.

Apart from the book Writing Science Fiction there isn’t really much of Shaw’s nonfiction available to the general reader, most of it is in hard to find fanzines and short run booklets. There is a variety of his nonfiction work available and some of it can be really hilarious. Shaw’s fiction can be a bit overlooked nowadays but that is doubly true for his nonfiction. There would be room for a publisher to issue some of Bob Shaw’s nonfiction work to the world.

In the introduction Shaw himself hesitates to define and bracket his stories, but would be willing to discuss it over a drink. As mentioned this is a varied collection – perhaps the most varied in theme and variety of all of Shaw’s collections of short stories.

This collection spans the widest range of any Shaw collection, from 1960 to 1988, twenty eight years and includes a horror story and a fantasy story in addition to the expected science fiction.

The collection starts with the lead story, and the one which Bob Shaw mentions briefly in the introduction, Dark Night in Toyland. And the story is pretty apt for this time of year too as the story takes place at Christmas. A couple worry about their son, who has cancer, and the effect his loss will have on their lives. While his parents worry the child plays with a Biohdoh set he received as a present, creating creatures from the set. Halfway through the story the child slips into a coma. This is a very emotionally based story, concentrating on the effect of illness on people. To describe the plot further might spoil it for someone who hasn’t read the story but it is one of Shaw’s deeper stories.

Of all the realities in existence Arthur Bryant in Go On, Pick a Universe wants to go to one where he is the most ‘perfectly developed’. It sounds like a kingdom of the blind situation but Bryant is assured of a triple chance – three transfers for the price of one; that’s a better offer than Asda or Tesco – and ‘The Probability Redistributer never goes wrong.’ The first two realities he is sent to don’t come up to his requirements; and the third one he can’t come back from. There is some nice humour in the story and a decent, if unanticipated, ending.

I don’t remember Stormseeker at all and it’s possible I didn’t read it when I first got the book as I have a tendency to dip into short story collections rather than read them from the first story to the last, so it’s another ‘new’ story for me. It’s short, only a few pages long, and told in first person. The narrator is able to see storms, in a more unique way that others and much better than any technology. The narrator takes a potential mate on a storm-seeking trip and gets a surprising response.

Aliens Aren’t Human is a comic horror story and the one that stays with me most from this collection. The aliens are naive to human eyes but soon learn the realities of the situation. The humour in the story is very slapstick and farcical in a gruesome sort of way seeing as the humour is the result of murderous actions by human protagonists in the story, while the aliens don’t understand the implications or reasons behind the actions. While the humans are trying to kill the aliens the aliens think the humans are doing nice things for them. Bob Shaw calls the aliens Dorinnians, a name he uses again in Fire Pattern, although the two aliens couldn’t be more different.

In Love Me Tender Massick, an escaped prisoner, drives across wild country in a stolen swamp buggy, and the petrol gauge is dodgy. He finds a house in the wilderness where he can stay for the night, although the old man there is reluctant at first. There is a woman there and the old man, Cromer, insists she is sick and he is looking after her. Massick wants the girl, but there is a nasty surprise in store.

To The Letter is all about a man, Hillowen, who wants to sell his soul but Zurek isn’t keen on buying it, but a deal is struck and – much to his chagrin – Hillowen finds himself ‘irresistible to women’.

Courageous New Planet is covered in this post.

Cutting Down is one of the longer stories in the book and is about Herley and his visit to Hamish Corcoran, who says he can control obesity with the use of pills. Harley decides to take the pills, is discovered by Corcoran, and a brief fight results in the death of Corcoran. Unfettered by guilt of murder Harley intends to give the drug to his wife.

Hue and Cry is told from the viewpoint of an alien creature trying to kill and eat the ‘two legged food creature’. Turbon is unsettled about the whole affair and when reinforcements arrive to rescue the ‘two legged food creature’ the story ends with a nice twist about the dangerous aliens and the differences between their males and females.

The K-Y Warriors is a bit longer than a lot of the stories in this collection and a lot on the personal side of science fiction rather than technology or aliens and alien worlds. Concentrating more on the relationship between husband and wife Willet and Muriel and their bickering it’s more emotionally intensive and mature than the other stories in the book. Things get strange and intriguing when Willet discovers that Grandma Gina’s fridge runs without being plugged into the electricity.

Dissolute Diplomat is the oldest story in the collection dating from 1960. Aliens detect a terran spaceship entering their territory, against the conditions of a treaty Hal Portman arrives and starts bullying the aliens. They get their revenge – intentionally or unintentionally – by a misinterpretation of a word.

In Well-Wisher Ibn Zuhain, Lord of the Long Valley, sees into the future and doesn’t like what he sees. He demands a change to the benefit of his people from a stranger who grants wishes.

Executioner’s Moon is a short story dealing with Dave Surgenor on the ship Sarafand, the subjects of Ship of Strangers. Searching for possible survivors from a crashed ship Surgenor and another crewmember are captured and taken prisoner by a band of savages. The local king has knowledge of local astronomical conditions and uses this to his advantage and control the population: that knowledge is used against him to ensure the two crew members survive the threat of execution.

Deflation 2001 is a really short story, only a few pages long, dealing with union negotiations in a future world and someone is going on strike at a very awkward moment.

Shadow of Wings is the final story in the collection is a novella and undoubtedly a Fantasy story seeing as the protagonist is a wizard and it deals with the last days of magic. The wizard Dardash is tricked out of his self imposed exile from the world and reluctantly accepts a mission to kill the king Marcurades. Marcurades is obsessed with scientific discoveries. Dardash inserts himself into the court of the king and begins to work toward his goal of killing the king and returning to his solitude. But events take a turn and Dardash finds his attempts to kill the king blocked by other magic. The story is finely drawn, the plot rolls along nicely but the ending is reminiscent of the type of ending given in Well Wisher.

Some of my favourite Bob Shaw stories are still in the first of his collections that I read, A Better Mantrap, but I feel this collection is more varied and covers a broader degree of his work. It certainly covers the most period of time but I feel this is the most mature of his collections and the stories herein represent some of the best of his work.

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