Monday, 13 April 2009

Pavane - is this the start of Steam Punk?

I discovered this book in the best way, by chance and through a personal recommendation. If I had not sat next to Peter Jenkin on the train and fallen into conversation with him he would never have told me about the book he was reading.

It was the traction engine on the cover that caught my eye. Although I prefer the internal combustion engine, external combustion varieties - where the fuel is burnt outside the cylinders - still appeal tremendously. Railway locomotives may have a literary presence but road locomotives rarely feature in fiction of any sort, let alone sci-fi or fantasy.

A pavane is a dance of Spanish origin popular around the time of Queen Elizabeth I and this story is divided into measures and a coda. Now, I know nothing about music but I know what I like and I quite like this musical example of a pavane. Not sure how you dance to it, though - probably too courtly and graceful for my usual enthusiastic outbursts of physical musical pleasure.

Keith Roberts' Pavane is really a series of closely linked short stories set in an alternative history where the Spanish Armada successfully landed in Britain following the assassination of Elizabeth I. The whole world subsequently came under a very repressive Roman Catholic rule in which the Pope issued directives on every aspect of life. Continuing the long association between men of the cloth and the steam engine, the Pope banned the internal combustion engine for most of the twentieth century, restricting its use and stunting its development. I'm really intrigued by this idea - but what a terrible world this creates!

Catholicism controls every aspect of like in Pavane. All other technological advances are potential heresies until the pope has passed judgment upon them and the Inquisition is more active than ever.

The scene is then set for a great deal of nastiness and civil unrest. The action takes place over several generations and depicts the slide into revolution of an incredibly repressive religious regime. It's set in the Wessex and probably stands comparison with Thomas Hardy's novels. I also associate Dorset with the Great Dorset Steam Fair so relate to the setting particularly strongly, although foreign readers probably won't pick up on many of the references.

I really enjoyed this book. Classified retrospectively as Alternative History, it pre-dates the genre by several decades - it was first published in 1968. It's also hailed as one of the first examples of steam punk. There's more to it than that and yet the exploration of the steam punk possibilities Keith Roberts conjures up would have intrigued me more than the sadistical excesses of the Inquisition, although this is handled adroitly and the violence is not gratuitous. The ceremony of blessing the instruments of torture so that the truth can be revealed is an idea that struck me particularly.

I would have enjoyed it even more, however, if the story had concentrated more on the steam engines. It strikes me that the old British steam-powered road trains offer vast literary possibilities and have been overlooked for too long.

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