PavanePavane by Keith Roberts
Ace Science Fiction, 1968
Price I paid: 90¢

In the year 1588, Queen Elizabeth of England was assassinated.

As a result, when the Spanish Armada attacked, England went down to defeat. The entire history of Europe and the New World was changed: now, in the Twentieth Century, the Church of Rome reigns supreme over an orderly world of pastoral beauty, but Man’s technology is still at the level of the steam locomotive, the typewriter and primitive radio.

Yet Science cannot be held back forever; its advocates become more daring and open with each year. A vast revolution is building….

This is another one of those cases where my decision to not research a book before starting to read it might make me look like a doofus in relation to other, more widely-read science fiction fans. Sometimes I find a paperback, in this case for ninety cents, and I think “Well, here’s another unknown loser that might deserve a little attention.” And then I read it, am pretty impressed by it, and then do a little research just to find out that a lot of people hail it as a classic.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t possibly know about every book that people consider a classic. Worrying about that kind of thing doesn’t help anything, and in the end, I’m glad to have found a new book to share.

And in addition to that, the cover to my copy is just spectacular. I love it. I want a poster-sized print of it.

For those of you who, like me, have no idea what the title is referring to, fear not, because I looked it up. Also, the book itself makes a reference to it (sort of an explanatory title drop?) and that helped. It informs the text a bit more if you know what the word means, I think, so I’m a little annoyed with myself for not looking it up sooner. It might have helped me understand the book more quickly.

A pavane is a sort of Renaissance dance. It tended to be slow, structured, and intricate. I think the author stuck with that theme pretty well. The individual chapters of this book—actually short stories because this is a fix-up novel, something else I was unaware of when I picked it up—are called measures. There are six of them and a coda.

The whole book takes place in an alternate timeline where Elizabeth I was assassinated, the English lost to the Spanish Armada, and Catholicism reigns supreme over most of the world down to the present day when the stories take place. Technology is far behind what we have here in the Prime Universe. It’s revealed over time that the Church is holding everybody back, which is one of those plots that I find a bit problematic. Sure, the Holy See has never been something you could exactly call progressive, but casting it as an evil menacing force holding back the world for its own devious ends seems like a big stereotype of the “Dark Ages.” I’m not trying to apologize for or justify all the terrible things the Church has done—I’m not a Catholic by any stretch—but I’ve studied a lot of medieval literature and history and I know that there’s a lot more nuance than that. To be fair, in the end some of that nuance comes forth, but not before I started to get a little grumpy about it.

I don’t want to do a complete rundown of each measure because that’ll take forever. But here’s the gist of each:

  1. Jesse Strange is a railroad guy. He loves a woman named Margaret, but when he declares his love for her, she gently shoots him down. He also meets up with an old pal of his, who turns out to be a bandit (called routiers in this book). Jesse wastes the guy and his pals with a well-placed explosive device on the tracks.
  2. A kid grows up wanting to be a worker on a semaphore tower, the main form of long-distance communication in this world. He gets to be one in the end, but then something weird happens and he dies.
  3. A monk/artist who makes beer bottle labels gets called off to do an important job for the Inquisition. What he sees there drives him crazy. He tries to lead a revolt against the Church.
  4. A commoner woman gets seduced and sexually exploited by a nobleman, something that in this timeline means that she’s sullied because obviously it was all her fault. She’s justifiably mad about it.
  5. A girl of indeterminate age sees a white boat, which she names White Boat. She goes along for a ride with its crew, has a lot of feelings about the matter, comes home, and gets punished. Some people try to destroy the boat when it comes back, but she warns it and it turns around.
  6. A noblewoman, Lady Eleanor, leads a revolt against the Church because of a typo. Rome demands a tax of something her land doesn’t produce. When she calls them out on it, they try to force her into delivering. She gets so mad that she shoots a guy point-blank with a cannon and then declares war.

I know these stories sound pretty mundane. Part of that is my summarization, but not all of it. These stories were slice-of-life stories. What made them shine was that they were set in this parallel England that was both nostalgic and unsettling. Because industry never really took off in this world, the countryside is unspoiled. People still live off the land and all those kinds of things that are supposed to be the “good old days.” Fortunately, this book never quite falls all the way into the “good old days” mode of thinking. This whole book is tinged with so much varied emotion I had to sit back occasionally and catch my breath.

But a lot of my appreciation for this book came about only after I started to get the idea. With the first story, and especially leading into the second, I didn’t get it at all. I didn’t understand what any of the stories had to do with this alternate timeline. I still sort of feel that way. I never quite got a feeling that the stories and the setting were inseparable. They didn’t necessarily have to take place in a world where the Catholic Church took over everything. Some of the stories could have been set in any old time or place. Some of them had a bit of a fantasy flair to them.

That said, though, the stories worked really well together. The protagonist of the fourth measure is the niece of Jesse Strange from the first measure, for instance. I think she was also related to the woman from the sixth measure, which I also got the feeling took place a bit further down the timeline from the other stories. It was also made clear that the revolt led by Lady Eleanor would never have been a possibility if it weren’t for the fact that Jesse Strange, following his story, got super-rich and influential. The stories did tie together, but they did it loosely.

That brings me to the fact that this was a dense text. I read it over the course of about six hours on Saturday afternoon, and I regret that. Not for the usual reasons, obviously, but because I felt like this book deserved a lot more attention than what I gave it. There was a lot going on and a lot to puzzle over and a lot to interpret. All of those things are great, but they don’t lend themselves to a last-minute readthrough before writing a small essay for the Internet. I want to go back and read this book again. Somebody (Stephen King?) once talked about how some books are for sipping and others are for chugging. This one was a sipper. I’ll admit I tend to get impatient with the sippers, but Pavane deserves the extra attention.

The stories had some great moments, too. At the beginning of the sixth measure, our heroine shoots a guy with a cannon. That’s basically the start of the story. A problem I have, though, is that most of the stories were constructed in a way that I tend to dislike, namely, they started off with some action or at least something mysterious and cool, then they went back and filled in all the details for us. So, for example, that last story was BOOM CANNON and then about thirty pages of how we got to BOOM CANNON and then another thirty of the fallout. The impatient part of me found that tedious, even while I was enjoying the story.

There’s this whole deal with some Old Ones, too. I never quite got that, although it was interesting. It was more of a genre dissonance than anything else. The Old Ones are, best I can tell, the remnants of an ancient civilization that predates humanity. Now we’d call them fairies or the fae folk or something. In this book, they’re around, usually right on the edges of the story, never explicitly defined or described or anything. One of the characters is one, I think, but he’s not a main character. It’s weird to me because when I think of alternate history books, I don’t think of bringing in things like that. Sure, we can get alt-history where the difference is explicitly that there’s magic (I enjoyed Harry Turtledove’s recent The House of Daniel), but when alt-history is about a point of divergence and seeing the butterflies, I don’t expect some of those butterflies to also be fairies.

The best I can do to justify it, even though it doesn’t actually need justifying because I didn’t dislike it, is the idea that in this Catholic dominated timeline, one of the alt-history butterflies is that people found the supernatural elements, as opposed to our own timeline, where those things lie dormant. Lending credence to this is the fact that the Church is keeping the West technologically backward, so there’s not been any kind of industrial revolution to separate us from the (super)natural world.

There’s a coda at the end of the book that I wasn’t super fond of. We meet the son of one of the characters from measure six, Lady Eleanor’s seneschal. This kid is just now coming home to the place where that story takes place. There are now hovercrafts and stuff. He finds a note from his dad saying that what the Church did wasn’t necessarily all that bad, that they knew, somehow, that holding back technology just long enough for humanity to catch up was their motive all along. There was this cryptic reference to how this world may have had its troubles, but there was “…no Belsen. No Buchenwald. No Passchendaele.”

Is the implication here that the Church knew about our timeline and wanted to avert the World Wars and the Holocaust? Is this suddenly some kind of a time travel-induced alternate history? What is that all about?

Apart from that, though, this whole book was a goldmine. I think there’s a lot to appreciate about it, and that it’s worth savoring and contemplating and discussing. I had a lot of what the crap moments, but they either fell by the wayside or eventually made sense, which is something I don’t get to experience all that often these days.

It looks like Admiral Ironbombs and I came to a lot of the same conclusions, which makes me happy.

So yes, read this book. But don’t read it the way I did. Don’t gulp it down between snacks and brushing the cat and Tetris. Make some time for it and really dive in.

2 thoughts on “Pavane

  1. Hi Thomas,
    I enjoyed your review of Pavane; it’s one of my two all time favorite SF/fantasy novels. I also laughed, because the things that bugged you were the things I like the most. The Old Ones, for instance. For me, the best thing about them was that they were unexplained – in fact they may have been a dying hallucination while the protagonist was being killed by a wildcat. Like you, I found the coda tacked on, and not up to the quality of the rest of the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you don’t like the Coda you should dig out a copy of the original version of Corfe Gate (Impulse #5, probably on if you are lucky) which was actually Corfe Gate and a different version of the Coda spliced together. Excellent novella, and much better than the book version.

    Liked by 1 person

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