Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pavane

Some books stay with you forever.  You encounter them at an impressionable age; they strike an inner resonance with uncanny accuracy; you can return to them again and again, and always find something new.  Keith Roberts' alternate history, Pavane, recently reissued by Old Earth Books and reviewed by Michael Dirda, is one of my personal favourites.  I found it in the Ace edition, with the terrific cover by Leo and Diane Dillon (above) that Old Earth Books have used in their reissue, in a Church jumble sale in the small Cotswold town where I grew up.  I was fourteen or fifteen.  Maybe sixteen.  The paperback was a couple of years old, sitting not amongst other books but amongst a scatter of bric-a-brac, an alien artifact from another world.  I was already a stone science-fiction reader, getting most of my fix from the local library.  We were poor.  I couldn't afford books, but bought what I could anyway.  And bought this, and read it, as I recall, in a single sitting, and then reread it again, in an attempt to understand it.

I'm still trying to understand it.  It changed the way I thought about science fiction.  Divided into measures than hand the narrative from character to character, it's the story of another history, in which the Catholic Church ruled England some four hundred years after the assassination of Queen Elizabeth the First, suppressing various technologies.  A world of steam road trains, hand presses, semaphore towers flashing signals across the land, the Inquisition at large, and revolution in the air.  An English novel: its setting, in and around Corfe Castle, evoked with lambent touches and imbued with English weather and tough English romance; its stories told in full-on tough, tragic mode. Its characters may shape its history but are also shaped by it, hurt by, die by it.  Unlike much of the stuff I was reading at the time, it presents no easy solutions; its world is not some puzzle easily solved but is as obdurate and hard-grained as the real world.  There is human muddle, human suffering, human triumph.

It showed me, I think, that science fiction stories did not need to be peopled with lords and ladies (as Roberts titles one of his measures), child-messiahs, orphans who just happened to fit the lock of their world as if oiled. That stories could be about ordinary people, yet reflect larger movements, larger stories.  It showed me that science fiction could aspire to the condition of literature.  I taught me about the telling detail; about how to evoke an entire world by observation of the particularity of things.  Roberts is very good at showing us how things work, by dropping in the exact image, and describing how people use them, and how they change the people who use them.  There are DNA-traces of Pavane in most of my novels, but most especially, I guess, Pasquale's Angel and Fairyland.  It's one of the books that makes me want to write better, even if I know I can never better it.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Michael Walsh said...

Thanks for the review! I, the publisher, greatly appreciate it.

As a footnote, the book also features two pieces of art the Roberts did illustrating two of the stories.

March 14, 2012 3:11 PM  
Blogger The Plashing Vole said...

I agree with you on Pavane. I collect KR novels but none come near Pavane, and several become 'crotchety old man turns reactionary political views into dystopian novel'.

I wondered whether Terry Pratchett's 'clacks' semaphore towers were a homage to Pavane.

March 15, 2012 8:10 PM  

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