James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Darkness Be Over Me

Pavane

By Keith Roberts 

8 Aug, 2021

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You

3 comments

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

Keith Roberts’ 1968 Pavane is a collection of linked alternate-history stories. 

Mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet, Queen Elizabeth dies. The ensuing Protestant/Catholic civil war leaves England vulnerable to external enemies. England is conquered, its armies used to crush the rest of Protestantism. The Catholic Church reclaims its role as the sole religion of Europe well into the 20th Century1.

I can’t see a way of discussing the background without massive spoilers so here, have a massive spoiler warning.

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS



This might have been the first SF work I encountered that plays with the conceit that Catholicism unbroken would lead to a technologically repressed Europe. This is a somewhat popular view amongst some Anglicans and Protestants, no doubt inspired by the fact that Catholic Italy remained a backwater during the Renaissance. 

In fact, this is not an alternate history. At least, it’s not the sort set in a slightly different past. It is a recapitulation set in the future. To quote some convenient fairies:

Because once, beyond our Time, beyond all the memories of men, there was a great civilization. There was a Coming, a Death, and Resurrection; a Conquest, a Reformation, an Armada. And a burning, an Armageddon.

Yes, there are Fair Folk lurking just out of sight. Consequently, all of the peculiarities and implausibility of the narrative can be blamed on the fairies.

The Church’s determination to halt technological progress isn’t mere hidebound conservativism. It’s an attempt to ensure that society has the means to manage fusion bombs the next time they appear. Only a cynic would try to sum the total human misery under the Church to see if it were greater than the total human misery in our history. Granted, global thermonuclear war seems likely to be unpleasant but which is greater? Centuries of grinding poverty or a few billion people dying in a few months in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war? Please show your work. Measure in human life-years. 

Still, if there is one thing SF teaches us, it is that most people don’t give a fig for plausibility as long as the story is engaging, the characters interesting, and the writing skilled. Roberts stands out as an ambitious writer who focuses on delivering a well-crafted story. Pavane would stand out now were it a new book. In the SF of the 1960s, it must have been astonishing. 

Pavane is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo)

Now for the details:

Prologue” • (1968) • short story 

Recounting the death of Elizabeth and the consequences that followed.

First Measure: The Lady Margaret • (1966) • novelette 

The Church Militant has banned high-capacity gasoline engines; transportation is managed by massive steam-engines. The hauliers’ life is a hard one … but then, so are most lives in Catholic-run, technologically backward Dorset. 

Jesse Strange inherits the family transport company on his father’s death. This, he hopes, will provide him with the means to acquire that which he desires most — true love. But there are some things money cannot buy. 

Second Measure: The Signaller • (1966) • novelette 

Despite not being born to it, Rafe wrangles a passage into the elite Signallers Guild. Controlling as it does the semaphores that are the primary means by which information is transmitted across Europe, the Guild enjoys considerable power and independence. Even the Church must respect the Guild, as it is dependent on its skilled labour force for communications. 

Rafe soon discovers that the signaller’s life is a hard one … but then, so are most lives in Catholic-run, technologically backward Dorset. Following an arduous apprenticeship, he is dispatched to a remote post. There he will either survive with only his own wits to protect him or die trying. 

Brother John • (1966) • novelette 

Being graced with an artistic bent of very little utility in mundane life, Brother John is steered into holy orders. He discovers the monk’s life is a hard one … but then, so are most lives in Catholic-run, technologically backward Dorset. It does at least offer some hope of using his talent.

Confronted by the brutal means by which the Church Militant enforces its laws, means that care little about trivialities like innocent, guilt, or mercy, Brother John snaps. The crazed monk becomes a figure about which resistance to the Church’s barbarous methods can crystalize … at for as long as the monk manages to stay alive. 

Lords and Ladies • (1966) • novelette 

Margaret Strange finds a temporary diversion from her mundane life in a dalliance with a well-born young man. However, as she eventually discovers, the Church did not set in place firm social hierarchies only for young women to vault over them by exploiting their beauty. Ultimately, everyone marries within their own class, regardless of inclination. 

The White Boat • (1966) • novelette 

While collecting the day’s haul from her family’s lobster pots, Becky encounters the mysterious White Boat. Knowing little of it, she becomes fascinated, spinning fantasies about its nature. The crew of the White Boat are smugglers, and her entanglement with it proves in no way prudent or safe. 

Corfe Gate • (1966) • novelette 

Lady Eleanor is confronted with a choice between:

  • a tax levy that will leave her peasants starving, or 
  • rebelling against a Church she cannot hope to best. 

The Church’s heavy-handed attempt to force her to comply inspires her to rebel. This sets in moment events that will unravel the Church’s seemingly unbreakable hold on Europe. 

Coda” • (1968) • short story 

A brief explanation of why the Church behaved as it did. 

1: Having resorted to an ebook, I can attest that the word Jew” appears nowhere in the text.