1960s, 1968, Ace Books, Ace Science Fiction Specials, alternate history, British, fantasy, fixup novel, Gollancz SF Masterworks, Keith Roberts, Leo and Diane Dillon, religion, science fiction, steampunk
Keith Roberts sprung onto the science fiction scene concurrent with the New Wave; within a few short years he’d written a number of short stories that earned critical acclaim, including the core of the fixup novel Pavane, for which he is best known. Roberts wrote five novels and thirteen collections/fixups, illustrated covers for issues of Impulse, New Worlds, and Science Fantasy, and had a lengthy career that ended in 2000 from pneumonia and bronchitis, having lost his legs due to complications from multiple sclerosis years before. Roberts seems destined to be remembered for two things: the classic fixup Pavane (and scattered works from his early career), and being impossibly difficult to work with, suspicious that publishers and colleagues were cheating him out of his royalties. His obituaries are eager to praise the former and point out the latter.
It is Anno Domini 1968. Almost four hundred years earlier, in 1588, Queen Elizabeth was assassinated. The Spanish Armada’s decisive victory brought most of Europe under the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran rebels in the low countries crushed underfoot. The heavy hand of the church rests over Angle Land, and while its power lies secure in Londinium there is unrest brewing in the countryside—brigands roaming the moors, threat of rebels and heretics, superstitious rumors of faeries and the old gods rising within the uneducated peasants. Technology has stagnated, with discoveries like electric power outlawed by the Church, leaving the book effectively proto-steampunk. Roberts’ novel consists of six measures, each a distinct story-fragment; together they describe and illuminate the world, focusing on themes of loss, religion, government, and power:
- “The Lady Margaret:” A young haulier who drives the Lady Margaraet, one of his family’s steam-powered traction engines towing goods between towns, pines for the love of a young barmaid.
- “The Signaller:” A wounded signaller recounts the journey he undertook to become a semaphore operator for the pro-Church government, as he struggles to reach the safety of his remote station.
- “The White Boat:” A disenchanted fisherman’s daughter waits and watches for the sign of the mysterious white yacht that slips into port on dark, fog-shrouded nights.
- “Brother John:” A monk artist becomes disillusioned after seeing the effects of the Inquisition firsthand, triggering a crisis of faith that leads to armed insurrection.
- “Lords and Ladies:” At the deathbed of the haulier from the first story, a young woman’s bitter memories arise, her dark past from the time spent as mistress to the local lord.
- “Corfe Gate:” The aristocratic daughter of the woman in “Lords and Ladies” helps trigger an armed insurrection against the forces of the Pope, to varying degrees of success.
On top of these loosely linked but interwoven narratives is a coda, acting as capstone to the “novel.” If we can call it that—Pavane works more as a kaleidoscopic vision of a dark, regressive alternate future. As the twentieth-century progresses, the Church maintains a firm grip on Western society, limiting technological and scientific development. Instead of a global international power, England (“Angle Land”) becomes the same type of far-flung backwater as in Roman times, a land under serfdom that sparks little Papal interest compared to China or the New World. Roberts never reveals all of this world’s secrets and does not go overboard explaining the complexities or full history, leaving the reader to savor every morsel and ponder its significance. Even the elements of religion and superstition have an air of mystery about them—several events are implied to be fantastical/metaphysical, but may be simply unexplained everyday phenomenon.
The closest comparison I can think of for Pavane would be Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and the novels make a fascinating pair: two of the earliest alternate histories, stories set under the occupation of enemy powers that show the effects of change through a dozen fragments of everyday life. Dick’s work can stumble due to his unpolished, pulpy prose, and I’ve never been sure if his plotting by way of the Dao was entirely successful or not. Roberts, meanwhile, writes with the lyrical grace of a poet; take this little window into a traction engine shed from the first pages of chapter one:
At three in the afternoon the engine sheds were already gloomy with the coming night. Light, blue and vague, filtered through the long strips of the skylights, showing the roof ties stark like angular metal bones. Beneath, the locomotives waited brooding , hulks twice the height of a man, their canopies brushing the rafters. The light gleamed in dull spindle shapes, here from the strappings of a boiler, there from the starred boss of a flywheel. The massive road wheels stood in pools of shadow.
The fact that Keith Roberts can sustain that type of lyrical imagery for the entire novel should tell you that this book exists on another level. Much like several other novels I’ve read this year, it is not a direct, to the point story—the first measure/story is the most straightforward, and it’s not a standard SFnal tale. As mentioned, Roberts does not delve into exposition, instead showing pieces of the world and letting the reader draw their own conclusions. It’s a very complex novel, and I think that makes it all the more rewarding—it asks some potent questions about history, religion, and governance, and its complex answers may not be the ones you’d expect.
Pavane takes its name from the processional dance from Renaissance-era Europe, and much like that dance the novel is complex, obscure, and stately, a slow but calculated read with a dark and mysterious undertone. The writing is plain astounding, and Roberts’ knack for lyrical storytelling is on full display; the characters and setting spring to life from his pages, remaining plausible despite the many differences in this world’s alternate twentieth century. It remains a classic of science fiction, though an obscure one due to its cerebral material and the fact Roberts never reached the same success as other authors from the same period. On the bright side, it has continually been reprinted and is very easy to find. If you are a SF reader who enjoys the more cerebral, thought-provoking type of SF that came out in the 1970s, I’d recommend that you do find it. Read it, grasp at its brilliance, and be ready to come back again to revisit and ponder the deeper meaning.