An ever-expanding subgenre of science fiction is devoted to "alternate worlds" or "alternate histories": fiction in which a crucial event goes differently than in the world we know, and history is changed. Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968) is set in a backward 20th century molded by the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I and the triumph of a militantly antiscience Catholic Church. This is a classic alternate history, in the same company as such highly regarded novels as L. Sprague De Camp's seminal Lest Darkness Fall (1941), in which a modern man slips back in time and attempts to avert the Dark Ages; Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (1953), set after the South wins the U.S. Civil War; and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), set after the Germans and Japanese win World War II. Lest Darkness Fall and The Man in the High Castle are justly famous; the other two classics, Bring the Jubilee and Pavane, are less well known, and that is a shame.
One reason for Pavane's relative obscurity among American SF readers might be its British setting and author (the Moore and Dick novels are both set in the U.S., and De Camp, Moore, and Dick were all American). Another reason might be that Pavane is a novel created from interrelated but standalone stories (six "measures," or novelettes, and a coda), and the stories are of varying quality. Most are wise, beautifully written, and intensely visualized, especially the opener, "The Lady Margaret," and the closer, "Corfe Gate"; but "Brother John," the story of the monk-artist who witnesses Inquisition tortures and sparks an anti-Church rebellion, is far less detailed, and sometimes even unclear. Another reason for the novel's obscurity may be that some of the stories/chapters have more of a fantasy feel than is typical of more recent alternate history. Also, the nature of the coda's revelations may put off some readers. Nonetheless, Pavane is an intelligent, powerful, and moving work, deserving of a wide readership. --Cynthia Ward
From Publishers Weekly
First published in 1968, these intricately linked short stories (broken into six measures and a coda) constitute a pioneering work of alternative history that has influenced many contemporary SF and fantasy writers. In them a twisted Church of Rome rules a modern world where steam locomotives are the primary mode of transportation, semaphores (telegraph signals moved by hand and read via binoculars) are used for communication and the horrors of the Inquisition continue. Why? Because in 1588 Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated, leading to the Spanish Armada's defeat of England and the subsequent suppression of the Protestant Church. But in this stately "dance" of stories, revolution becomes inevitable when society's natural cultural and scientific progress can no longer be contained. Roberts displays intense respect and love for history as he rewrites it with deft abandon. Three measures in particular stand out as profound today, just as they did when originally published: "The Signaller," which allegorically portrays a young guild member who pays a high price for his dedication to communication; "Brother John," a stunning portrayal of a devoted priest's traumatizing encounter with torture and his resultant reaction; and, finally, "The White Boat," another almost mythological piece about a young girl's obsession with a boat that can take her to freedom. All the other stories are excellent, but these are outstanding examples of why revolutions occur. Impact is doing a great service by reprinting this and other classics.
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