Thursday, 1 May 2008


I'm sorry to return again to a theme of Englishness and pastoralism (I suppose it's something of an obsession for me), but I noticed a copy of Keith Roberts' Pavane in our science fiction box, and couldn't resist recommending it.

Pavane is one of my favourite books, a novel-length paste-up of a series of thematically linked stories set in 1968 in an alternate timeline where the Catholic assassination of Elizabeth I had led to wars resulting in Papal dominance of the world. Because of this and the Church's vetting of invention (particularly having a downer on electricity and internal combustion), the England of this 1968 is socially feudal, and technologically roughly like our early 19th century. The mood and setting I can only describe as like an SF take on Thomas Hardy's Wessex: set in Dorset (Golden Cap and Corfe Castle feature prominently) it has the same landscape and the same lyricism and melancholy. Despite what has been seen as a flawed ending, it's widely acclaimed as his masterpiece and a classic of alternate-world SF: "Moody, eloquent, elegaic".

Keith Roberts himself was a strange and tormented character. As A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs mentions, he died under harrowing circumstances - pneumonia after a long decline while suffering from multiple sclerosis, during which time his legs had to be amputated (not, I strongly suspect, a consequence of the MS, but of the heavy smoking mentioned in some accounts). Nevertheless, he attracted some highly unsympathetic obituaries (Michael Moorcock said, for instance, "I think it's a mercy someone that miserable is dead") that highlighted Roberts' habit, despite being engaging company sometimes, of vitriolic fallings-out with every friend and work colleague he had dealings with. More on Keith Roberts at Ansible #160 gives typical accounts.

This Scratchpad e-zine article, The not-quite-career of Keith Roberts (PDF) by Bruce Gillespie, gives I think a fair summary of the corpus of Roberts' work. His weakness, Gillespie argues, was the "disturbing, even embarrassing, psychodrama being played out" with two repeated types of character: sexually rejected isolated men who bury themselves in their work, and attractive innocent young ultra-competent women. The former isn't hard to identify with Roberts himself; the latter appears to have been some kind of significant fantasy figure for him, even turning up in his autobiographical Lemady. Way back I read some of his stories about Kaeti, one of his highly interchangeable heroines, and found them fairly resistible. Of his other books, The Chalk Giants and the historical Boat of Fate aren't bad, but Pavane is his best legacy.

You can read the Prologue of Pavane and part of the first story, here on the Internet Archive. For the bibliographics, see Uchronia. If you don't mind major spoilers, this LJ Hurst review, originally in Vector, is an interesting and more technical analysis than most reviews, unfortunately finding considerable weaknesses of logic if you peer too closely at the economic picture and overall scenario.

Rather than spoil the literary aspects, I thought I'd leave the techie part for last. It would be lying to gloss over that Pavane is intensely geeky in places. It will gladden the hearts of steam enthusiasts with its description of Jesse Strange's cargo-hauling steam road train, a technology that never really kicked off in real-world Britain beyond a few traction engine road train services like this one at Eskbank. In less cramped landscapes, they made more sense (see the Boer War Fowler B5 Armoured Road Train) and still exist, though not steam-driven, notably in Australia.

The other geeky technology in Pavane is the highly authentic description of its mechanical semaphore network, a technology that was perfected briefly in the real world before being driven out by the electrical telegraph. For the time, it wasn't at all a bad system: telegraph chains, as described in this Royal Signals datasheet, made it possible to get a message from Portsmouth to London in 15 minutes under best conditions. The bandwidth was pretty poor - at best, around 15 characters a minute - but coding of stock phrases made the best of this. As well as the actual message, semaphore transmissions necessarily contained control codes - for instance, what we'd now call a "handshake" routine to ensure both operators had established communication - and the most interesting part for me, technically, is that operation of semaphore chains, around 1800, contained all the roots of modern digital data transfer protocols, such as handshaking, data packets, route encoding, and error checking.


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