1979’s Vertigo is not my first Bob Shaw novel. That would be Who Goes Here.
It’s also not my favourite Bob Shaw novel. That would be The Palace of Eternity.
It is, however, the only Bob Shaw novel set in Canada1.
Well, Alberta. But as an Ontarian I regard all of the lesser provinces with equal favour. At least they aren’t Manitoba! Well, except for poor Manitoba.
Today’s venerables mourn the bustling Moon bases and omnipresent jet packs promised by the futurists and SF writers of ages past. Air Patrolman Rob Hasson’s twenty first century may not have moon bases 2, but it definitely has the counter-gravity harness, that marvelous device that gave the freedom of the skies to millions.
Millions of idiots.
People turn out to fly as responsibly as they drive; counter-gravity offers ever so many new ways to be terminally irresponsible. Air Police like Rob enforce the law in a doomed bid to limit the carnage. Their reward is derision and an impressive on-the-job death rate.
Still convalescing from a three thousand meter fall (which he managed to arrest almost in time), Rob has inadvertently become a key witness in an upcoming case. His testimony is important enough that his bosses send the
mopey bastard unfortunate copper off to Alberta, there to lurk under an assumed name, well beyond the reach of English gangsters. They hope.
Rob is not murdered by gangsters. However, he IS forced to adapt to the strange ways of the small city of Tripletree. Rob is not a man who enjoys new experiences. Even if he were, Tripletree offers very little of interest to the foreign visitor. Rob retreats to his room, compulsively watching tapes of imported British TV shows, hoping that his hosts, obsequious Canadian cop Al Werry and family, will leave Rob alone.
Events force him out of his cocoon. Tripletree finds itself in the throes of a slowly accelerating crisis, one that is well beyond Werry’s ability to manage. It involves a landowner (pompous businessman Buck Morlacher, heir to an abandoned hotel) and the bored teenage idiots of Tripletree (who like to hang out and get wasted in aforesaid abandoned hotel).
In competent hands, there’s no reason conflict between bombastic Buck and teenage idiots should escalate into open violence. With the ineffectual Werry fumbling the role of referee, the only brake on the conflict is essential human reasonableness.
Basically, Tripletree is screwed.
One of the challenges I faced in writing this review is that I reviewed it only a little while ago, back in 2000. I would rather not reprise that review, as that would seem like cheating the generous patron who commissioned the current review. So I have avoided re-reading the 2000 review and tried to take a fresh look at a book that I remembered only hazily. I hope this will be sufficient.
This is a SF novel of the sort that examines the secondary effects of new technology. The classic example, one that I think comes from a Heinlein essay, extrapolates from the idea of an automobile not just the immediate effects (the need for roads and gas stations) but the social consequences, like the transformation of American dating customs (wide, padded back seats allowing sexual experimentation far from parental eyes).
Shaw extrapolates from the behaviour of automobile and bicycle drivers and imagines a world where the main brake on population growth may well be the death toll up in the air. His guesses are, on the whole, reasonable but predictable. Given the established ubiquity of counter-gravity belts, I would expect the consequences to be even more wide-reaching and dramatic. Imagine, for example, to what purpose the almost twenty million refugees of our world would put the belts. But for some reason that doesn’t happen in Shaw’s world.
When I reread this, I kept thinking of John Brunner’s now fairly obscure Web of Everywhere, in which a transportation innovation does utterly transform global society, precisely because everyone who can use it does. Brunner’s world does not have the comfortable and inexplicable barrier between his familiar middle-class characters and the majority of the population about whom Shaw did not want to think.
(Shaw does describe a slow hail of frozen dead in the winter, plummeting suicides who have drifted over the pole from Asia. Asia is a great mystery to the west, and its inhabitants can only speculate what motivates the dead to launch themselves on their doomed voyages.)
Shaw’s portrayal of an autonomous 3 Alberta as seen through Rob’s eyes is pretty negative. Aside from Ollie the shopkeeper and Werry’s son, few of the locals are appealing. The town is terminally boring. Some of this may reflect Shaw’s own experiences, travelling in Canada in the 1950s. I have heard (second hand gossip only) that Shaw had a wretched time.
But I don’t think that’s the real or at least not the whole reason that Rob sees Alberta, and Tripletree, so negatively.
Rob isn’t just recovering from painful, debilitating, physical and mental trauma. He’s also someone who is intensely uncomfortable with new experiences; he’s the kind of tourist who patronizes familiar hotel and restaurant chains and refuses to learn even a few words of a new language. Sending a low-key xenophobe like Rob to Canada may be a sign that his bosses don’t like him all that much 4. Or perhaps it is just that, like most of the characters in this story, the bosses are profoundly oblivious to the internal states of those around them.
Rob’s self-loathing host is, if anything, even more broken than Rob. The book makes it clear that violence is not an effective answer to Rob’s, and Tripletree’s problems … but I wonder if psychotherapy could have helped.
Vertigo is available from Gateway/Orion. And apparently from Kindle.
1. The only one so far as I know. A thousand quatloos to any Bob Shaw fan who can think of another such book. Hrm … I have read speculations that Orbitsville’s vast, featureless, soul-crushing plains are based on Canada’s.
2: Or it might. It’s not germane to the plot.
3: In general, Shaw does not seem to have viewed nationalist movements favourably. Alberta does come off as fairly prosperous and (aside from the absurd small-town feud) as safe as anywhere else on Earth. The same could not be said of the African nation in Wreath of Stars .
4: I did wonder if this was a Hot Fuzz scenario, in which the bosses maliciously send the hero off to rural exile … but it seems much more likely that they were merely insensitive and incompetent.