SF Masterwork of the Week: Pavane

Our SF Masterwork of the week is acknowledged as one of the earliest and still one of the finest alternate histories ever written. And who better to take us on a guided tour of this very different Britain than a writer who knows a thing or two himself about counterfactuals – the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author of The Separation (among many, many fine works), Christopher Priest . . .

Although it was written more than 40 years ago, Keith Roberts’s novel Pavane remains one of the finest science fantasy novels of all time. More than that, it’s a novel capable of being judged by the highest standards, in-genre or outside. You can say of many novels that they are well written, well told, unusual in subject matter, deeply serious, highly entertaining, a feat of sustained imagination, original, moving, gripping, and so on – it is vanishingly rare to find all such qualities in one place.

Pavane first appeared in 1966 as a series of five long short stories in Impulse magazine. They produced a flood of letters from its readers, who wanted to know more about not only the author (who was then almost unknown) but also about the Dorset landscape and people described in the stories. Odd and intriguing clues were scattered about: it was obviously fiction, but what were the facts behind the stories? A modern reader feels the same intrigue.

A book version came along about two years after the stories appeared. More recent editions have included a sixth story, “The White Boat”, which Roberts wrote a little later.

The novel opens with a brief historical note: “On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying.” The woman is Queen Elizabeth I, and her assassination opens the way to a successful invasion by the Spanish, and Britain falling under the rule of the Pope.

Thus the scene is set for an alternative history scenario. By 1968, when the novel proper begins, England is a feudal place of wild heaths and thriving forests, towns with Latinate names, medieval castles, rural communities and craft industries. Taxes are raised as tributes and tithes. The repressive rule of the church in Rome means that most modern technology doesn’t exist, or knowledge of it has been suppressed because it’s deemed heretical. There are no telephones, radio, TV, aircraft – a handful of cars owned by the wealthy chug along on under-powered two-stroke engines, using sails if there’s a following wind. Goods are transported in huge road-trains hauled by steam traction engines. There’s no broadband – messages are sent by clacking vanes on semaphore towers.

The first story, “The Lady Margaret”, sets the tone of the book: it’s a detailed, authentic-seeming description of a young haulier taking his road-train across Dorset on a delivery trip. Almost nothing happens: he sets out from Durnovaria (Dorchester) late on a cold winter’s afternoon, he delivers goods to a depot in Poole, he calls in to see a girlfriend in Swanage on the way home. He picks up a new load. While crossing the heaths he suffers a violent attack by a gang of routiers – during this he contributes to the death of his best friend.

By the time you’ve finished the opening story, Roberts’s simple but magnificent prose has built up a compelling picture of what it feels like to live and work in this society. The story is full of allusions and references, some of them mysterious (at first), but most of them deftly sketching in the extraordinarily rich details of the world. You learn what it’s like to fire up a traction engine; you feel the wintry cold of the footplate, the dark mysteries of the heaths, the sensual smells and sights of the towns. You believe in the characters and start to care about them.

Five more episodes remain, and the world of Pavane continues to unfold like the stately dance its name implies. You realise that the story of this humdrum but beautiful traction engine is where the society itself starts to change: heresies are about to break out; the repression from Rome will self-destruct. Marvellous scenes and revelations are to come, and it’s not for me to spoil them for you here.

The novel seems to be at first, and of course it is, an alternative history. But later it changes, becomes something more. The end is oblique: we follow the events clearly enough, but the consequences of those events indicate more of a parallel history, a statement about our own modern world.

Pavane is the sort of novel that readers are always instinctively searching for, and which many writers would give the good part of an arm to be able to write. Keith Roberts never wrote a better novel than this, but then few other writers have come close to it either.

Pavane is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Keith Roberts’ work via his Author page on the SF Gateway website, and read about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This piece was written by Christopher Priest and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Christopher Priest‘s latest novel is the Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA and John W. Campbell Memorial Award-shortlisted, The Adjacent, which is available in paperback and as an eBook. His website is www.christopher-priest.co.uk. You can find his work via the Orion website and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.