Book Review: The Two-Timers, Bob Shaw (1968)

(Diane and Leo Dillon’s cover for the 1968 1st edition)

2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)

Various Bob Shaw fans told me to read Nightwalk (1967) or find a copy of Other Days, Other Eyes (1972)—especially as I adored one of the short stories that appeared in the later fix-up novel —“Light of Other Days” (1966). Instead, I cast wary eyes toward my shelves and read The Two-Timers. I wish I read Nightwalk. I tried, I must confess, but wasn’t in the mood and then something about The Two-Timers’ Diane and Leo Dillon cover—the doubling visages, contorted, anguished, and angular—pulled me in. For the full glory of the image, I’ve included a his-res scan below.

The Plot

John Breton’s relationship with his wife, Kate, is on the shoals. A horrific trauma and mystery looms oppressive in the background–“nine years earlier, to the month, […] a police cruiser had found Kate wandering in the darkness of 50th Avenue, with flecks of human brain tissue spattered across her face” (14). John, after a spousal squabble, had left her to walk alone to a party. Despite a flawless (and true) alibi, a witness swore to the police that the man who killed Kate’s attempted murderer was indeed John! Key scenes in John’s life, for example, the police interactions investigating the crime and his own disturbing thoughts about how his life would be better without Kate, come back to him in “flashes of absolute recall” (23). He suffers again and again. Cue SF element: the man who rescued Kate was indeed John, or rather, Jack Breton. In Jack Breton’s timeline Kate had been “clubbed, raped and stabbed” (36). Jack had found a way to enter John’s timeline and prevent the murder from happening….

And now Jack has returned to John’s timeline to reclaim the wife he had rescued. And of course, as John’s relationship is on the way out perhaps Jack will be able to rekindle some of the old passion and love. And, most importantly, he has a gun to dispose with his other self.

Final Thoughts

The Two-Timers is a middling book. A series of SF tropes are hurled willy-nilly into and entwined within the domestic space of a living room. The arena of a decaying intrapersonal relationships between man and wife…

The pattern goes something like this:

1. Husband hurls barbed (secret) insult: “Breton [John] ran a mental eye over the quiver full of sarcasms which immediately offered itself, and finally—in deference to their guests—selected one of the least lethal” (5).

2. SF idea #1: TIME TRAVEL

3. Wife remembers insult late at night–the Cold War escalates: “She could remember that one, for discussion, probably at 3:00 AM when he was trying to sleep” (5).

4. SF idea #2: WEIRD ASTRONOMICAL OCCURANCES

5. Dopplegängers argue about who gets to keep their wife. Wife feels sexy with the other husband.

6. SF idea #3: TELEPATHY

ad nauseam.

Yes, yes. One can reduce most books to a barebones list which sounds ridiculous…. On the surface all the parts are there. Shaw’s focus on the household arena of a decaying relationship feels unnervingly realistic, the barbs that fly are barbs which fly between husband and wife. But the deluge of compounding explanations and manifestations reduced the powerful simplicity of the premise.

Avoid. Unless you’re a Bob Shaw completest….

(Detail of Diane and Leo Dillon’s art)

(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Two-Timers, Bob Shaw (1968)”

    1. I am partial to SF explorations with realistic relationships and/or even a domestic feel — and the living room as sphere of SF action has huge potential… I prefer the stories of Kate Wilhelm or Michael Moorcock and Hilary Bailey’s NEW WAVE EXCESS SCREAMS of the far more successful (and experimental) The Black Corridor (1969) which was also characterized by a realism of the living room….

    1. Haha, absolutely. Huge fan of the cover composition as well — the black and white pattern, the Dillon art square, everything about it (other than the weird green) really works… Love the Ace Science Fiction Special editions.

  1. I think I enjoyed this one, but Shaw’s books blend together in my memory since I binged on them a number of years ago. He did tend to mix in a few SF tropes with what seemed to be personal experiences (difficult relationships, a collapsed lung, living somewhere in Alberta), with varying success. I always found him to be at least very readable.

    “The Palace of Eternity” (another Ace SF Special) and the underrated “Medusa’s Children” are my two favorite Shaw books, so far.

    1. I have a copy of “The Palace of Eternity” but in a UK edition… As I mentioned to Paul above (do you know his site? if not, here’s a link –> http://sfmagazines.com/), I love when the domestic (including very difficult intrapersonal relationships) is the core arena of a larger SF premise. Some of the best operate via flashback, or, in this case, different perspectives and memories of the same person….

      I have a name for Shaw — Mr. Perpetually Average. This is based on the two previous novels of his I’ve read and reviewed: Ground Zero Man (variant title: The Peace Machine) (1971) and One Million Tomorrows (variant title: 1 Million Tomorrows)(1971)

  2. Like you I have enjoyed Shaw’s short ‘Light of Other Days’. I haven’t read much Shaw but I was lucky enough to read The Palace of Eternity some years back. A much better work than the one you reviewed, or so it appears (vague memories slosh around, i liked it i think…). I can also recommend The Ragged Astronauts. Not a great literary work by any means, but certainly compelling and fun – particularly its central pulpy conceit. It’s followed by two sequels of progressively lesser impact.

    1. The Ragged Astronauts comes up a lot — the premise is so off-putting though! But everyone swears it’s great fun…. perhaps. perhaps.

      I am more likely to read The Palace of Eternity as I have a copy laying around.

  3. It’s intriguing to me that a novel of this era would use parallel universes and the travel between them for a story as small-scale as a guy trying to get back something like his dead wife. It seems like a less self-assured writer would want the world, or worlds, to depend on the outcome; as you’ve described it, it’s just this handful of people who would even know if the alternate self succeeded or not.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      So, what I indicated in my sarcastic “outline” of the novel is that there ARE much larger implications…. But yes, if the book works in any way, it’s its focus on the small scale for at least the majority of the novel. A novel more interesting to talk about than to read. But, hopefully, if you haven’t read any Shaw, please understand you should start somewhere else! cough Other Days, Other Eyes (1972)

  4. This was my first – and only – Shaw, so far, and I agree with your estimation of it; it starts of well, but gradually loses it. On paper, there are some great ideas and a more unusual, realistic take on the time travel mythos. Unfortunately, the actual rendition leaves a lot to be desired, coming off as rather quaint, dull and increasingly ridiculous, as the physics of the time travel becomes inchoate and contradictory (I can’t remember the exact details, right now – it’s been a good five years since I read this somewhat forgettable novel, but I got more and more irritated by some ill-thought out SF concepts and lack of internal logic). But, like you, I’ve heard his better novels are Nightwatch and The Palace of Eternity, as well as The Ceres Solution, Vertigo and his highly praised Orbitsville, all of which I have, and intend to try, at some point!

    1. Well you know me an time travel! It takes a brilliant hand to get me over the frustration with the subgenre –> A few I could tolerate: Robert Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station (this was really good!), Poul Anderson’s There Will Be Time, Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X, Ian Watson’s short story A Very Slow Time Machine….

  5. I always liked his short fiction, but the only novels of his that I have read were Orbitsville and Fire Pattern. Orbitsville I read as a serial in Galaxy (yes, that long ago). I remember liking it, but a gun to my head couldn’t get me to tell you what it was about. Fire Pattern was a poor attempt to meld science fiction and horror (spontaneous combustion) that had a wildly inappropriate, but well done, cover by Tony Roberts. I think a mining operation should be done, and the best of Bob Shaw should be reprinted. Maybe in the form of omnibuses not unlike those that that Baen has doing over the years.

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