Friday, April 20, 2012

Micro Review [Book]: Pavane by Keith Roberts

Part of the Neil Gaiman Presents series. Neil Gaiman, in partnership with, has helped commission new audiobook recordings of books that meant something to him as a child/budding writing legend.

The Meat

So, steampunk is a thing, right? I'm in a band that people have called "steamfolk," for whatever that's worth. And before steampunk (or even cyberpunk, see William Gibson) was a thing, there was Pavane by Keith Roberts. Pavane is an alternate history book where the English failed to defeat the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth was assassinated by papists, and the Catholic Church never lost its ascendency in Europe. As such, the entire continent of Europe, and, it is alluded, other parts of the world, have been locked into essentially medieval technology and a persistent Inquisition state into the late 20th century. As a matter of fact, technology itself has been branded heretical because speedy channels of communication that could not be easily censored are anathema to the maintenance of empire. The telegraph, let alone the telephone, has been suppressed, and messages are sent across the countryside via semaphore towers that are so physically demanding to man they sometimes kill their operators. You can imagine the velocity with which heads would explode if someone from our timeline were to pop over and explain Facebook to these cats.

If this sounds awesome to you, then turn off your computer right now and just go read the book. Or, download it from, and then turn off your computer.

If you remain ambivalent, then we should dig deeper. Off we go...

Here's how Pavane works: it's a series of long vignettes that at first appear unconnected, but ultimately join up in both a narrative and emotional Gordian knot. My problem going through the first 2/3 of the book was that I didn't have a strong emotional handle to grab onto. Each vignette either changes characters entirely, or leaps generations to follow descendants of the central characters of the previous vignettes. Each of these leaps may give us a glimpse at a much later sliver of the previous character's life, but it otherwise diverts us away from those people we just invested ourselves in. It was a little frustrating to get legitimately invested in these characters and then have to step away before feeling like their stories were finished. But then at the end, I realized that Roberts had been so much on top of his game, that the mere mention of a piece of machinery featured in the first vignette would bring a literal tear to my eyes. So, all was forgiven.

And when you get right down to it, we have come to expect narrative conventions of stories being finished, but that's not at all how real life works. Even in death, nobody's story is ever really finished (that is, until an individual's third death -- seriously, read this, and try to not get chills). And in Pavane, Roberts is telling the story of an empire that has stretched from the Holy Roman Empire into an alternate 1980s that cannot possibly conceive of synth-pop. It is fitting, then, that a narrative tapestry woven from such material should eschew such "endings."

The Math

Quality of Writing: 8/10
Bonuses: +1, steam traction engines are a real thing; +1, published in 1968, the book is an unheralded forbear of the increasingly popular steampunk sub-genre -- steampunk before steampunk was a thing. Steampunk.
Penalties: -1, despite the ultimate payoff, not having a clear emotional through-line makes it seem longer than it really is; -1, you needn't bother reading the Coda section, which undermines some of the mystery and tragic heft of the rest of the book.
Nerd Value Coefficient: 8/10. Neil Gaiman endorses it - you don't need me to tell you it's worth your time.