The stately ebb and flow of human (r)evolution is movement many individuals are aware of but for lack of meta-control are unable to absolve humanity from. The rise and fall of civilizations a picture painted in a wide variety of arts and philosophies, history is the canvas upon which most are situated. This leaves the remainder—the future, alternate histories, and alternate worlds—to science fiction and fantasy. A wondrously conceived and presented alternate history, Keith Robert’s 1968 Pavane is as quietly monumental as it has been influential, and captures the cycle perfectly. Rich, realistic characters, textured, substantive exposition, and a theme that permeates and transcends the text, the novel will remain relevant as long as humanity is participating in this cycle we call life.
Alternate history (and steampunk before the term existed), the prologue of Pavane lays out a scenario wherein the Catholic church is able to maintain supremacy beyond the 16th century and into the 20th. Strictly limiting the growth of technology, steam is the main source of motorized power, and communication towers, with flags and semaphores, flash messages across Europe, from Britain to the Vatican. Church officials the mightiest of the mighty, the Church Militant maintains its authority amongst the common folk, with the slightest word against the church cause for heresy. Feudalism still in place, quotidian life is as harsh as can be for those without blue blood or a place in the church.
Pavane is not the story of a hero or heroine fighting against this authority. Like Monet, Roberts dabs some paint here and there on his canvas of story to create a scene. A new character coming to life with each drop, none, however, can be viewed in isolation. A step back needed to see the whole, it’s only upon completion of the novel, and the coda settled into place, that the dabs congeal into a larger picture. Individually, there is the poignant story of a lovesick engineer—so gritty one can smell the burning coal and feel the train smoke blowing through his hair as he drives his steam wagon across the countryside. There is the tale of a quiet young fisher girl whose bravery comes spilling out when innocence is pushed to the limit. Another tells of an honest, well-intended young man who meets fate in nature one day. An artistic priest finds his real calling after being asked to the Archbishop’s bidding in London. There is also the story of a fiery young woman who defies all, including the Pope himself, in her attempts to deal with the system. And lastly is a phlegmatic young woman left aside by indifferent parents and family, and who learns a valuable life lesson as a result. Some characters the relatives of prior characters, others merely lives touched by them, the stories are linked laterally in an indirect fashion that builds subtly to a rousing climax of collective import.
Pavane a beautifully constructed narrative, each of the six character vignettes can be read and enjoyed as a piece of quality, literary fiction on their own. But taken together, the elements floating between—the people, places, and events—bind the vignettes into a cohesive whole. Not done in a linear fashion, Roberts works holistically, a thread here, a thread there, drawing important ideas together into a meta-statement regarding humanity. The pavane a slow, measured dance that involves tit for tat and tat for tit, the metaphor is pregnant; the dancers in the novel move to the slow, creeping rhythms of social evolution, none working in isolation. The end result wholly transcendent, Pavane is one of those beautifully bittersweet texts that sticks in the mind long after the reader has turned the last page, generations that were, and generations to come weighing on the mind.
Despite certain, rather overt scenes, Pavane is a text neither directly for or against Catholicism. Anyone who interprets the novel as a work straight-forwardly decrying the Pope is blind to the sub-text. An inquisition is used, but indeed, there was a real one in history informing it. Church leaders are often portrayed as greedy materialists unwilling to part with their valuables to help the poor. If the dear reader has been to the Vatican and seen for themselves the gaudy quantities of gold in St. Peter’s, they will find it hard to disagree with the idea. And yes, the Church is presented as an entity wishing to suppress scientific exploration and the usage of technology. History again the proof, the preservation of knowledge through the Dark Ages is a tenable argument against the repression of knowledge—the heliocentric model a prime example—as a tactic the church has used to keep members in the fold. Catholicism essentially used for its history, Roberts also employs the pagan beliefs of Britain of old, as well as Norse traditions that some of the isles once put their faith in toward laying out the deeper foundations of a concept regarding social evolution.
In the end, Pavane is a drop-dead gorgeous book that captures a wide view of humanity through a handful of affectingly personal lenses. Ostensibly a work of alternate history, steampunk elements likewise inform the background and setting, making the story an imaginatively rich portrayal of a society in slow transition. Undoubtedly a major influence on writers to come (Ian Macleod's The Light Ages and Terry Pratchett's Going Postal come immediately to mind), the novel is threatening to slip through the cracks of time—an idea the text itself transcends—making the narrative interestingly self-vindicating, and thus a worthwhile read.
A side note: On top of being a talented writer, Keith Roberts was also an accomplished artist in the genre. Accredited with dozens and dozens of magazine and book covers (including Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick, and others), it’s a complete mystery how the under-representative piece that graces the SF Masterworks edition of Pavane (see above) could have been allowed through. Almost a childish rendering (Thomas the Train Engine is not so far away), it captures a few symbols of the book, but not the symbolism.