Vertigo by Bob Shaw

Vertigo (1978) isn’t from Bob Shaw’s vintage period, but neither is it one of the less successful novels from the 1980s, when some of the passion seemed to leave him for a while. It concerns a much cherished human ambition — personal flight — and the consequences for us poor infallible humans. It’s true, and many SF authors would back this up — but people should never be allowed new inventions, because great as technology may be, it’s always going to be screwed up one way or the other.

So in Vertigo, Bob Shaw delivers a world in which aeroplanes have been largely forgotten due to the dangers posed by vast hordes of individual flyers wearing their personal counter-gravity devices, and as an amusing aside, scores of people are killed each month by falling objects dropped by these flyers. Folk navigate by glowing lines in the sky called Bilasers, but unlike most of Bob Shaw’s preceding novels, it doesn’t so much deal with the technology as the people who use it.

Like a lot of SF, you get the sense in Bob Shaw’s Vertigo that what you are reading is our own world, thinly disguised, and this is helped along with the emphasis on characters, and the hordes of typical social groups that we come across. All you need to do is imagine what teenage gangs would be like if they had personal counter-gravity devices, and you are half way there — because they wouldn’t be hanging around the chip shop, but instead they’d be doing what they do in Vertigo, and terrorising rooftops, flying here and there while high on drugs and up to no good — such as playing chicken with commuters.

It means that whereas you don’t get a full on SF novel, it means that with Bob Shaw and Vertigo you get something more akin to social satire and black comedy, in which the ills of the world are amplified by seeing that world gone crazy with a new technology.   At heart, Vertigo is a story not unlike say the film The Wild One, and talks about youth gangs, people’s inability to deal with them, and the ultimate fact of those same people taking the law into their own hands. Having said that, the passage that sticks with everybody when reading Bob Shaw’s Vertigo, isn’t anything to do with technology, flight or science, but is (if you will recall) a funny story about a shopkeeper and some boxes of matches.

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