Friday, 24 September 2010

"Pavane" by Keith Roberts

Yet again, the "SF Masterworks" series has delivered another amazing and unexpected book to my reading list.  This week's entry is "Pavane" by Keith Roberts, an alternate history of England (in the same sense that
"Bring the Jubilee" by Ward Moore was an alternate history of the US). 

 Although England has quite a few turning points to choose from in its history, Roberts starts with the death of Queen Elizabeth by an assassin's bullet, and the conquest of a divided England by the Spanish Armada.  From this single point of divergence and its immediate consequences, Roberts brings us forward to the year 1968.  In this history, the Protestant Reformation never occurred, and the Church is a second Roman Empire. England and America are both provinces of the Church.  

Although electricity, combustion engines, and other relatively modern inventions are known, their use is regulated by the Church as a means of preserving order and limiting opposition.  Instead of radio or telegraph, giant towers use mechanical arms to signal in semaphore over vast distances, where scouts watching through binoculars record and relay messages that must travel beyond the line of sight.  Metal and fuel are carefully regulated as well, so that freight is hauled by short trains of steam-powered cars that run on dirt paths rather than rails.  This is steampunk without the romanticism, a second dark age where the Inquisition still has free reign.  Into this difficult time come amazing characters, who fight against and sometimes transcend the limitations of their time. 

"Pavane" was assembled from a series of six short stories set in the same universe.  Two of the stories are standalone vignettes describing some aspect of this altered world.  Four of the stories make a longer arc that takes us through three generations and (finally) beyond the long reign of the Church.  Each story is compelling and breathes life into Roberts' England . The end of the arc is elegant, fitting, and true.

A final section ("Coda") accompanies the books, and here Roberts implies that the Church is aware of our world and has limited man's progress to avoid the horrors of World War II and the atomic age.  I was recently thinking a lot about the role of a "modern man" in most time-travel novels.  It simplifies the narrative, and makes it easier to comprehend.  When working in the short form (television, movies), I can understand the necessity of simplifying a narrative in this way.  In novels, it gives the author a means of steering the reader's understanding, of inserting an interpretation of the larger meaning of the novel.  For whatever reason Roberts chose to use the device, it bothered me.

There is a similar moment in "Man in the High Castle" by Philip K .Dick, an alternate history in which the Allies lost World War II.  In "Man in the High Castle", there is an author whose infamous and contraband book "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" describes our own world.

In a key conversation, the author reveals that the novel was written entirely relying on the I-Ching to construct the narrative, and admits that he believes the world he describes (our world) to be the real one.  These are characters attempting to peer beyond the edge of the page, looking at the audience, and it succeeds because they don't hold or force the moment.  I'm almost glad Dick never finished the proposed sequel in which characters from the alternate present attempt to break into our world.  It's better to leave a bit of mystery and room to imagine.

I disagree with Roberts' assessment of his England as an improvement, but more importantly, I think it undermines the strength of the book as a whole to spell things out in such detail, even if we're only ultimately talking about two paragraphs in a larger work.  Maybe it's just me, I didn't want to know that "The Force" is actually produced by "Midichlorians", either.

"Coda" aside, this is a great book, and the larger arc is a fine one.  I would highly recommend that anyone read this book and make up their own mind about the rest.

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