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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Deeper Wisdom, 18 May 2011
This review is from: Pavane (S.F. MASTERWORKS) (Paperback)
Alternate history novels are sometimes regarded as a sub-genre of science fiction, but in some respects this book is the exact opposite of a work of sci-fi. Science fiction is normally set in an imagined hi-tech future, whereas "Pavane", like Kingsley Amis's "The Alteration" or Ward Moore's "Bring the Jubilee" is set in an imagined alternative low-tech present, less technologically advanced than our own society. It would, of course, be quite possible to write about a high-tech alternative present, based on some such premise as "If the Roman Empire had survived we would today be colonising the planets", but this is less often done. If one wants to write fiction about the colonisation of outer space it is easier to do so within the framework of orthodox science fiction and to set one's story in, say, 2511 rather than in an alternative 2011.

Keith Roberts's alternative world has many similarities with that imagined by Amis in "The Alteration". Roberts's point of departure occurs in 1588; Queen Elizabeth I is assassinated, resulting in a civil war and a successful invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. Protestantism is eventually destroyed, both in Britain and in Europe, and the Roman Catholic Church rules supreme over Western Christendom, including the European colonies in the New World. "The Alteration" also deals with a world where a reactionary, intolerant Catholicism has triumphed in Europe, although in Amis's world Protestantism still survives across the Atlantic in the "Republic of New England".

In the world of "Pavane", England remains a semi-feudal society, dominated by the Church and a powerful aristocracy. The Church has banned, or severely restricted the use of, many new inventions, with the result that late 20th and early 21st century Europe only possesses a level of technology which in our timeline had been attained by the early 19th century. The most advanced form of transport is the steam-powered traction engine; long-distance communication is achieved by the use of mechanical semaphore towers.

Like Roberts's later "The Chalk Giants", "Pavane" is less a novel in the traditional sense than a series of seven short stories, all set in Dorset. (There are other links with "The Chalk Giants"; both books feature as important characters a lorry-driver- or traction-engine driver- and a woman named Margaret, and in both a crab symbol takes on great significance). A "pavane" is a type of dance, and continuing the musical analogy Roberts refers to these stories as "measures" with a final "coda". Although each "measure" constitutes a separate story in its own right, they are linked by being set in the same imagined world, by a sense of growing revolt against the power of Rome and by the use of characters drawn from the same family. (The main character in the first story is the road haulier Jesse Strange and that in the sixth story is his great-niece Eleanor; Eleanor's mother Margaret appears in the fourth).

Some have claimed that the book's depiction of Catholicism is offensive to that religion. In fact, Roberts simply depicts a twentieth-century Catholic Church acting in much the same way as its sixteenth-century predecessor did, and I would certainly agree with his thesis that the failure of the Reformation would have acted as a brake on scientific and technological progress, although for slightly different reasons to those he gives. An all-powerful Church acting as the sole source of religious authority and political power throughout Christendom would have led to a deeply conservative, less intellectually adventurous society where there would be no need to ban inventions like electricity and the internal combustion engine for the simple reason that they would never have been invented in the first place.

And yet in the context of "Pavane" such arguments are perhaps unnecessary, as Roberts never intended the book to be a serious piece of counter-factual history. This is demonstrated by a series of deliberate anachronisms antedating his stated point of departure in 1588. We learn that members of the British aristocracy still speak Norman French as their mother tongue, even though this language had ceased to be spoken in England some two hundred years before the Armada sailed. One character is killed by a lynx, a creature which had become extinct in Britain during the Dark Ages. Some places are referred to by their Roman names, such as "Durnovaria" for Dorchester. And when a twenty-first century monarch has trouble with a rebellious aristocrat, his forces bombard her castle with stones fired from mediaeval siege engines. Even the Elizabethans had cannons!

The world of "Pavane" is rather a blend of alternate history and fantasy, in this respect reminiscent of Philip Pullman's world in "Northern Lights", although unlike Pullman Roberts does not make use of explicitly supernatural elements. It is a brilliantly realised world, one both like our own and yet strangely different. In some ways it is a very concrete place; Roberts delights in giving detailed descriptions of his imagined alternative technology, especially the traction engines and semaphore towers. In others, however, it is a strange, mystical, alien place. (The fifth story, "The White Boat", has a particularly mystical tone).

By the end of the six "Measures", most readers will be left feeling profoundly relieved that they have the good fortune to live in the real twentieth century, not this alternate one. And then, suddenly, in the final "Coda" Roberts leads us to question this assumption. As he points out, his world might be a place without democracy and freedom of thought, where the Enlightenment never happened, but it is also a place where Passchendaele, Hiroshima and Auschwitz also never happened. We are left to ponder two unanswerable questions. Might not political progress and scientific advance have been purchased at too heavy a price? And might not the Church's suppression of new technologies have been based on a deeper wisdom rather than obscurantist folly?
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 8 Dec 2013 18:59:28 GMT
Just to clarify, 'alternate history' is usually regarded as a subgenre of SF as the causes of the historical shifts in such stories are scientifically (not supernaturally) explicable. The causes of such shifts don't have to be overly technological - they could have causes that are explicable in terms of social sciences, but such examples are still rational, not magical.

These 'paradigm shift causes' in alternate history are key examples of the 'novum' - the novelty or idea that takes a piece of fiction that makes it SF rather than 'mundane' fiction. For example, the novum in 'war of the worlds' is the existence and arrival of alien invaders. To further illustrate, in the days before mobile phones, the mere presence of a mobile phone in an otherwise 'mainstream' novel would result in it shifting into the SF genre. Once an author employs a speculative novum, no matter how small, they are revealing an intention to comment on our 'realist' world by exaggerating its reflection in fiction by involving a novum or three. This is why many mainstream novelists often deny they are writing SF, when SF writers and critics can see they are doing just that.

Back to the point, 'Pavane' is a brilliant book, great to see someone else loves it!

Stephen E Andrews, author '100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels'
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