I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Keith Roberts’s Pavane, maybe fifteen or sixteen, but it had a profound effect on me.
I’d begun my science fiction reading at junior school with HG Wells and Jules Verne and an enormous, dog-eared book that mixed fiction and fact, with pieces about Charles Fort and John Merrick packed in alongside stories like ‘The Screaming Skull’ and ‘The Dunwich Horror.’
The mid-70s were a golden age of science fiction cover illustration, and I moved on, attracted by the work of Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington and others, to short story collections – I read mostly short stories, back then – by Asimov and Heinlein and Niven and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. It was a wonderful, innocent time of discovery, and sometimes I miss it.
One day, going along the science fiction shelves of WH Smith in Worksop, I came across a book called Pavane, by an author I’d never heard of before. It was the Panther edition, with a very strange cover involving a castle on a distant crag, a line of robed figures queuing up before an executioner, and the disembodied head of a woman floating in the foreground. I can’t remember what the back cover blurb was like now, but it must have been interesting enough for me to buy the book. And my world changed.
Pavane was published in 1968, and it consists of a series of linked stories set in an England where Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was victorious, and Britain is under the heel of Rome. It’s a world where technological advancement has been strictly controlled, semaphore stations carry news from hilltop to hilltop, and traction engines haul freight.
It’s not a perfect book, by any means. The Coda, which takes place some years after the main events of the book, seems tacked on and unnecessary, a little jarring. But it is a deeply moving book, in places, and its slow, stately, lyrical prose matches the slow dance of the title. It’s a significant achievement, by any measure. I was utterly bowled over by it.
I can still remember the thrill I felt when I first read it. Firstly, it’s a beautifully-written book. At the height of his powers – and I’d submit that Pavane represented the apogee of his work – Roberts was a wonderful writer. His prose was quite unlike the prose I’d been used to reading up to that time. I was knocked out.
But I think it was more what the book represented which changed things for me. Up till then I’d read nothing but American science fiction. Cocooned away in Sheffield in those pre-Internet days, I had no idea that British people were doing this stuff, and I had no idea that English landscape – the events of the book take place mostly around the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset – could be a location for science fiction, or be described so powerfully. I was so used to my science fiction taking place on distant worlds that it was a shock to discover that here was a book whose location I could actually visit.
The most important thing, though, I think, is that for the first time I realised that science fiction could happen to ordinary people. For all that it’s set in an alternate history, for all that it features ‘Old Ones’ – faerie creatures – Pavane is about ordinary people. The first story in the book is about a haulage contractor; another is about a semaphore operator. Science fiction, I found, did not have to be about the heroic captains of mile-long starships fighting battles in distant galaxies. And that was a lightbulb moment for me.
So I hunted down all the Roberts I could find. In his collection Machines and Men there are stories about people who run small-town fleapit cinemas and petrol stations. The landscape of Dorset was important to him – he returned to it in the novel The Chalk Giants – maybe not quite so successfully, to my mind. The Furies is about an invasion of giant wasps in the West Country.
I can’t overstate the effect Roberts’s work had on me as a young writer just feeling his way into science fiction. My first novel – although looking back it wasn’t probably much more than a novella – was either a straight rip-off of or an homage to the Lensman books. My second, though, was set in a Britain under martial law following an oil crisis. And no, you can’t read either of those – they were crap and they no longer exist. I started writing short stories about people who ran garages, people out for Sunday walks in the English woods, people on canal boats. I wrote a lot. That lightbulb moment is still with me today; Europe in Autumn is about a chef.
I’m not certain whether I would be the same writer if I had never read Roberts. That discovery of British science fiction led me on to JG Ballard and M John Harrison and DG Compton and Arthur C Clarke and Richard Cowper and John Wyndham and Chris Priest, and all the other writers whose work has not only helped shape my own but given me so much sheer joy down the years. I would, I’m sure, have read them all sooner or later anyway, but they came at an important time in my grounding as a writer, and if, one day, I ever write something half as good as Pavane I’ll consider all the hard work to have been worthwhile.
Keith Roberts died in 2000. You don’t hear people talking about him very much these days, and that’s a shame. He was an enormously talented writer whose work, for various reasons, was overshadowed by that of his contemporaries. Perhaps it’s because his work had such an impact on my own that I think he deserves a greater place in the history of science fiction, I don’t know. Some of his work, to my mind, is problematical, and I understand he could be a difficult man, but for Pavane alone I think he needs to be remembered as an important figure in British science fiction, rather than a footnote.