If the dear reader has spent any amount of time in Southeast Asia, or read about the cultures existing there, they will be aware of the prayer flag. If one has been even luckier and able to travel to the Tibetan Himalayas, they will have wonderful memories of the strings and strings of colorful flags stretched across valleys, hanging from bridges, and flapping in the wind atop mountains. Prayers inscribed on each flag, they believe the words of mankind are blown to the heavens for blessings and protection from the gods. Employing a similar scenario in in his 1985 Kiteworld, Keith Roberts extends the Christian church steeple into the sky: manned kites fly above an England rebuilding in the aftermath of destruction. The perspective downward rather than upward, however, the colorful objects sent aloft are for watching over the land rather than bringing humanity closer to the heavens.
The land ravaged, and civilized society only beginning to rebuild itself, the setting of Kiteworld is a futuristic, post-nuclear war England wherein the Church has absolute power. Though berms and walls are established that separate normal society from the wilds, it is not enough; protection is also needed against the demons that roam the badlands and traverse the skies. Establishing bases along mountain ranges and the coastlines which form natural boundaries, massive manned kites are kept flying continually aloft, watching for invaders and shooting them, as necessary. Aristocracy getting permission from the Church to fly kites from their own palaces and mansions, colorful streamers can also be seen amongst the towns, villages, and cities. And the kitemen, no matter working in the private sector or directly for the church, are given exclusivity and absolute respect by the populace. Like soldiers, they are considered guardians of the land, and due to the uncertainty of their lives, awarded with admiration, even hero status. Tossed on the currents of wind and facing evil demons, indeed many meet an untimely end. Law, taxes, civil government, and other aspects of civilization slowly settling back into place as the Kitemen guard over the land, Kiteworld tells the stories of a handful of the men and women living the uncertain reality of post-war times.
Like Roberts’ glorious Pavane, Kiteworld is a collection of stories interlinked along the lines of theme and setting. Each story title containing the role of the subject person—Kitemaster, Kitewaif, Kitemistress, Kitecadet, etc.—Roberts patiently unveils character after character, the events of their lives, the places they visit, the people they meet, and the concerns of their lives, all conflating to create a larger picture—a mural, in fact—of life in his beautifully imagined setting.
“Kitecadet” tells of a young man training to be a Kiteman let out on furlough. Experiencing a crisis of faith and a desire to be free of the system, part of his growing up requires making a few mistakes that bring him to another plane of life unobtainable through kiting alone. “Kitewaif” is the story of a street girl readers will be hard-pressed not to fall in love with. An abandoned teen walking the cobbles, collecting items for salvage, and taking advantage of open windows when they present themselves, her life becomes intertwined with an auditor, and together they have an effect on England in ways neither thought possible. The centerpiece of the book, “Kitemaster” is one of the best science fiction novellas ever written. Telling of a man driven from his home in a fit of madness. While ordering his kite crew to raise him to the greatest height anyone had heard in recent memory, the backstory of a home life interrupted by a strange younger sister comes petering slowly out as the land dwindles beneath him. And there are several other stories arriving at the concluding story, “Kitekiller,” which draws all the strings together.
And strings are an appropriate metaphor. The kites not cloth tied over a spindly frame of sticks, kite flying in Kiteworld is serious business—the most serious, in fact. From Church litany to back alley lore, everybody knows the incredible height Canwen achieved as much as the common man can read the winds and know what altitude kites will be flying from the nearest outpost that day. Block and tackle, cable and rig, carriages and leaders, Roberts details the operation bit by bit—a feature explained in a story here, a image presented in conversation there—and by the end of the book the reader has a complete, fascinating picture of the kites and what they mean to the people cleaning, maintaining, managing, and flying the manned devices. From purely a conceptual standpoint, the kites are the showpiece of the book.
In the end, Kiteworld is a gritty look at a land in fear and confusion in the aftermath of nuclear war. Told from a handful of very personal, revealing perspectives, all is watched over by a powerful Church in the magnificently manned kites they fly high above post-war England. A series of interlinked shorts, novelettes, and novellas, the stories immerse the reader in the world via character, the setting allowed to synergistically take shape with each heartbreak, case of conscience, apprehension, coming of age, and best laid plan coming to fruition, or not. Roberts having a subtle, powerful grasp of prose, through it the characters come to living, breathing life. Rich storytelling working at several layers that readers can really sink their teeth into, this is literary speculative fiction near its best.