"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - O.W.

Current Study

Current Projects:
Science Fiction exhibition at The Science Museum in London.

Book Out Now:
Sideways in Time: Alternate History and Counterfactual Narratives (Liverpool University Press, 2019). Co-edited Collection.

Book Forthcoming:

Current Sub-Studies

Areas of Interest:
> literature, trauma, and ethics
> science fiction and alternate history
> 20th and 21st century literature
> history and literature of science
> comics and graphic novels
> science communication

20 September 2010

Pavane by Keith Roberts

The cover of my 1988 edition
Today I ploughed through the last hundred or so pages of Pavane by Keith Roberts. The novel is set in an alternate world created by the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 and the subsequent success of the Spanish Armada and thus extinguishing of Protestantism in Great Britain and ensuring Catholicism remains a true force in the world.

That I was reading this novel at a time when Pope Benedict XVI was visiting the UK was purely coincidental, although it made for some interesting associations as I imagined the greedy church in Rome holding back progress across the world as I read about the Popemobile in the news.

No, I read this novel as part of my wider reading in the field of Alternate History. Although the focus of my novel will be on non-mimetic fiction which deals with the Second World War, it is also my intention to gain an at least half-decent understanding and appreciation of the Alternate History genre as a whole (let us call it that for now, if only for argument's sake). By chance, there were at least a couple of references which I might even be able to translate over into real Ph.D work.

It's a peculiar book to read. I've seen it on the shelves, number 35 in the Science Fiction Masterworks series published by Gollancz (the Masterworks cover is far better than that of the 1988 edition I read by the way, I picked it up in a second hand bookshop for £1.25 though so I can't complain), and I'd been meaning to get around to it long before I settled on my current research area. What I didn't realise (which probably betrays how poor my research is at this stage) is that the novel is in fact a fix-up of several short stories. This shows in stories such as "The Signaller", the second in the novel, which serves to further familiarise us with the world Roberts has created, but does little to advance the overarching plot such as it is. I say "such as it is" not through a disdain for the novel's narrative, I found reading it to be both engrossing and enjoyable, but because the stories are at times so disjointed and those which are related as set so far apart, that the plot amounts to little more that "the renewal of British rebellion against the Vatican". This isn't a negative point, the stories are well done and I certainly became invested in the development of this idea of rebellion, but I can see how someone reading this unawares could be disapointed.

This relationship is, however, crucial to what the novel is. This is expressed by the Lady Eleanor in the last full story "Corfe Gate":
'It's like a ... dance somehow, a minuet or a pavane. [...] Sir John,' she said, 'sometimes I think life's all a mass of significance, all sorts of strands and threads woven like a tapestry or a brocade [...] If we ... won, it would all be because of grandfather's money. And the money's tere because of Jesse, and he did it because of the girl ... It's like Chinese boxes. There's always a smaller one inside, all the time'. (p. 212-213)
Eleanor links her own story with the previous one "Lords and Ladies" and beyond that to the first one "The Lady Margaret" bringing the novel full circle, but also expressing the domino effect which Roberts suggests (and in the "Coda" explicitly states) that small actions, seemingly minor decisions or seemingly minor people, can have repercussions which far exceed the scope of what we might imagine. In this case, barmaid refusing to marry a haulier leading to a revolution which changes the world.

If I ever finish reading all of his World War II related novels and stories, I'd be interested to compare Pavane to Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia which has a similar concept but from what I've seen a very different execution. Overall, I'm glad I read Pavane, and I shall certainly be mulling it over for a number of days to come.

Updated 21.09.2010

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