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Pavane Is Alternate History's Lost Masterpiece

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Looking for a stocking stuffer this holiday season that's a bit off the beaten path? Want to discover a forgotten classic of alternate history? Then you might want to give the 1968 novel Pavane by Keith Roberts a try.

Pavane was one of the first (and sadly, not the last) books that defeated me. I picked the book as part of a ninth grade reading assignment, and I found it dense, unclear, and just generally too much of a slog to get through. (Also, I was busy doing more important stuff, like procrastinating.) I barely got through 20% of the book but still managed to bluff my way successfully through the final assignment, which I imagine is mostly because my teacher knew nothing about it either. It wouldn't be until a couple years later that I made another attempt at reading it, and once again I found it dense, unclear...and brilliant.

But let me back up. The divergence at the heart of Pavane is compelling, if a bit Anglocentric. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth I is assassinated, and the Spanish Armada goes onto defeat the British fleet. King Philip of Spain senses an opportunity to seize greater power, and swiftly conquers all of northern Europe. The power of the papacy is restored, the Reformation is crushed, and Europe slides back into the Middle Ages. And then, four centuries later, the story begins.


The book takes its name from a courtly medieval dance performed in six parts plus a coda. Similarly, Pavane is divided into six "measures", the loosely connected novellas that move the story along, as well as a closing coda that throws everything that came before it into serious question. Keith Roberts originally wrote five of these stories for Science Fantasy, and then collected them in 1968, along with a sixth story and the coda, to create the book's current incarnation.


The world of Pavane is equal parts rich detail and maddening ambiguity. The dominant vehicles of England in 1968 are steam-powered traction engines, which haul goods from place to place in lieu of railroads and must evade the marauding thieves known as routiers. Messages are transmitted over great distances using semaphore towers, which can relay coded signals over hundreds of miles in a matter of hours. The Inquisition is still in full swing, and now requires artistically inclined monks to serve as court reporters.

But for all those clear pieces of information, there's at least as much that goes only partially explained. Multiple references are made to faeries and old ones and the remarkable abilities such beings have. Are they truly magical, or does Clarke's third law come into play? On multiple occasions, characters encounter bits of seemingly advanced technology, but Roberts refuses to describe them clearly, perhaps on the grounds that none of the characters in Pavane would understand them anyway. The coda in particular seems to push any chance of fully understanding the book out of reach, but that can be part of the fun.


As is to be expected of a story collection, Pavane is somewhat uneven. The opening entry, "The Lady Margaret", is probably the most straightforward, at least in part because it has to give the reader enough exposition to understand what the hell is going on. "The Signaller" starts out in a similar vein, as it traces its protagonist's journey from lowly commoner to signal operator, but it concludes on a mysterious note that sets the tone for the subsequent stories.


"Brother John" and "The White Boat" are two of the most opaque stories, and as such two of the most difficult, but the hints that they do parcel out are crucial to the overall mysteries surrounding the world of Pavane. "Lords and Ladies" and "Corfe Gate" pick up on the family first seen in "The Lady Margaret", and probably represent the greatest narrative successes of the book. "Corfe Gate", in particular, packs a major dramatic wallop, as the long-delayed rebellion finally begins and technology starts to come back into the world.

Pavane is neither a glorification nor vilification of the Catholic Church. Obviously, Roberts's entire premise rests on the assumption that a dominant Church would set back the progress of humanity by centuries, which isn't exactly a positive statement. But, as with most things in the book, there is more going on here, and at least one character articulates a fascinating counterargument, that maybe humanity needs to be protected from itself and its runaway technology every so often. It's a paternalistic argument, to be sure, and one you (or I) won't necessarily agree with, but there's no simple reading of the book's religious politics.


I'm fascinated by the idea of lyrical storytelling - something that doesn't exactly tell a concrete story, but keeps dancing around its point long enough for you to get the idea. This is both the great joy and great frustration of Pavane. It's entirely appropriate for it to take its name from the dance, as it is stately, complex, and somewhat obscure. This is a book to read once, get stuck, return to with a clear head, blast through, and then read again in search of deeper meanings. They are definitely there, and they are definitely worth finding.

Pavane goes in and out of print, but it is readily available from any number of secondhand booksellers, generally for rock bottom prices. That's not a reflection of its quality so much as its forgotten status. It never attained the stature of such other early alternate history works as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle or L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall. Its more historically obscure divergence point, heavily British subject matter, and dense writing style are three immediately obvious reasons why that might be, but that's no reason to keep ignoring it. If you're looking for a book that's actually worth the challenge of reading it, I'd recommend Pavane. I certainly don't regret coming back to it, even if I'm still not entirely sure what I read.