Author: Keith Roberts
Pavane has been hailed as a masterpiece by writers as different as Neil Gaiman and G.R.R. Martin. It certainly has all the markings of a writers’ book, for those inspired by Roberts’s work are various and many (and even Pratchett might be among them). While it’s usually classified as alternate history, I rather agree with my library’s categorization – it’s a science fiction book, though the telltale signs are very subtle and few in number, limited mostly to the epilogue, called Coda. In a way, Roberts’s work reminded me strongly of Wolfe, although obviously it’s the other way round: Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun actually seems to have been guided to some extent by Pavane.
I will freely admit that it took me a while to get invested in this strange collection of linked stories, aptly described by Chris as structurally mimicking the stately Renaissance dance the book takes its name from. The title seems very fitting. The language is flowery and yet somehow rigid; the descriptions take forever but they have an inhospitable feel of something matter-of-fact, set once and then deemed unimportant. The pace is ponderous and every step seems slow and laden with grave consideration. Little of note happens, and when it does, it does so quickly and flittingly, and then is gone, almost as if it hadn’t happened at all. The atmosphere created by Roberts is vaguely oppressive: the tone dark and brooding, the fates of characters inescapable and invariably ending in death, and a deep sense of futility pervades everything. His world is an unforgiving one; stilted and largely unhappy, forced to accept a status quo unchanged for centuries, where any unprecedented thought runs a risk of being labelled heresy. Accordingly, Roberts’s characters are equally unhappy: they strain against the set limitations but are unable to break free, and frustration, resignation, anger and misery are their constant companions. None of the stories have a happy ending, and, as a result, the Coda’s ostensibly happy ending strikes me as false.
And yet there is a magnetic quality to these stories, in all of their depressing glory: for all of the protagonists are strong-willed and resilient, and very human in both their triumphs and defeats, in their moments of joy, however fleeting, and moments of despair. A special emphasis must be put on the female characters: Roberts created all of them: Margaret, Margaret, Becky and Eleanor as believable, realistic, and flawed. They are wilful and incredibly stubborn, and powerful in their own way, and more progressive than most female characters of today’s genre novels: they are human, ambiguous, and not stereotypical (bar the odd remarks about breasts, which I guess were supposed to be an indication of the scarcity of lingerie more than anything else). They might be even more interesting than their male counterparts, mostly because the world is even less hospitable to their sex than to the men: after all, Pavane depicts a world without Reformation, suspended in time of distorted Baroque like a fly in amber.
The stories of Pavane are set in a world where the catholic Church rules unopposed over the entire Earth; while I found the main cause of this turn of events rather unbelievable, and the whole setup equally implausible, with bits and pieces of progress accepted or persecuted on completely arbitrary grounds by the Church, the final effect was intriguing – if flawed. For reasons unexplained nor even alluded to steam is okay, but oil isn’t; telegraphs are sanctioned, but electricity is heresy. Inquisition still tortures people and exorcisms are an everyday occurence, monarchy is the default and coexists with rich aristocracy and even richer merchant caste but there is no academia nor banks, for example. With the rigid, self-contained description the reader is expected to simply accept the strictures imposed by the author, but I found it increasingly difficult to just suspend my disbelief and roll with it. If I were to find a novel with a somewhat similar premise but completely different set of guiding principles, I would point to Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (which, having been published nearly a decade earlier, might have been an inspiration for Pavane itself).
I guess my conflicted feelings about Pavane boil down to a difference of opinions between the author and me. A difference which is political in essence but which is rooted even deeper than ideological divisions: in the appraisal of progress itself. Roberts showcases his poor aborted world as a lesser evil mostly on the premise that evil can be quantified. I disagree. Justifying oppression by claiming that it touches fewer people is a risky argument by any moral or ethical standard. And while Roberts halfheartedly tried to nuance his view, showing the consequences, both good and bad, of the aborted social development in the stories, he totally abandoned the task in Coda and launched into an apologia of the Church as an authoritarian saviour of humanity. The Coda, for me, was the least convincing story of them all, and it’s a pity that it concluded the collection, because it left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth.
All in all, I’m actually quite happy that I read Pavane; I think it deserves better recognition, especially as a source of inspiration to later authors. There seems to be a long intergenerational discussion hidden in novels that both were inspired by Roberts’s book and that inspired Pavane – and this discussion might be more interesting than Pavane itself. It’s a valuable, intriguing and thought-provoking novel, certainly; but masterpiece I would call it not ;).
Lastly, for those who would be tempted to read this book, I suggest picking the Old Earth Books edition (cover above) with a couple of illustrations by the author: the painting are indeed striking and very aptly depict the mood of the stories.