Book Review: The Grain Kings, Keith Roberts (1976)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Keith Roberts (1935-2000) was an influential, if underread and underappreciated, English author (and cover artist) best known for his alternate history fix-up novel Pavane (1968) and powerful short fictions evocative of the English countryside. He won four BSFA awards in various categories (novel, short story, and artist) yet did not achieve the same critical success in the United States. According to his obituary, his difficult personality, like his common male main characters unable to form steady professional or personal relationships, and propensity to refuse to deal with major publishers impacted his popularity.

The Grain Kings (1976) gathers seven solid to brilliant short fictions in both alternate history and far future settings. Roberts adeptly melds the personal drama with the larger tapestry of the macropolitical (a militant Catholic Church, Cold War tensions in the wheat fields of Alaska, a fascist England, a distant world exploited for resources). This collection is highly recommended for fans of the more literary 1960s and 1970s British SF visions.

Brief Plot Summary and Analysis

“Weihnachtsabend” (1972), 5/5 (Masterpiece): Unlike many Hitler-wins stories, Roberts imagines an alternate past in which the British do not enter WWII and instead enter an increasingly close détente with Nazi Germany. A relief, the “Hakenkreuz […] flanked by the lion and eagle emblems,” represent the Two Empires (11). Remember, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wanted to “conciliate with Germany and make the Nazi state a partner in a stable Europe” (source). In addition, the story speculates that with détente figures like Oswald Mosley (the founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists) gain widespread popularity paving the way for “campaigns of intimidation and extortion [against the Jews] similar to those already undertaken in history, notably by King John” (15). The “Star of David” becomes a “common sight on the streets of most British cities” (15). And the “Whitehall Putsch” establishes a Fascist state (16).

Within this terrifying past, Roberts spins a disquieting tale of a decadent party of British elite on Christmas Eve. Richard Mainwaring and Diane Hunter arrive at a mansion in the countryside. Unease permeates everything. Richard discovers a banned book on his shelf that tells a revisionist history. There are disturbing TV presentations of “Das Christkind” in which the “Aryan child must know, from the earliest years, the darkness that surrounds him” (19). A complex little machine within Richard’s wall records all. And then Diane disappears. And a hunt takes place in the icy night.

Everything about this story fits together–the organic feeling of the historical background, the profound unease found in every phrase and interaction, Richard’s inability to see the net growing tighter around him, and the entwining of Nazi ideology with English culture. Among the best alternate histories I’ve encountered.

“The White Boat” (1966), 5/5 (Masterpiece) forms part of the Pavane sequence of linked short stories. I read and enjoyed Pavane (1968) a few years ago but never managed to review it. This sequence imagines an alternate past in which Queen Elizabeth is assassinated as the Spanish Armada approaches. Protestants are rooted out and a militant Catholic Church creates a theocratic rural dystopia redolent with oppressive ersatz-medieval stylings. I often struggle with these neo-medieval conjurations (see my review of Richard Cowper’s 1978 novel The Road to Corlay). However, Roberts’ keeps the details of the new state in the background and focuses instead on a disenchanted young fisher girl named Becky and her obsession with the White Boat that appears off the rocky shore. She dreams of joining its crew–leaving her loneliness, dying mother, and the oppression of the small horizons of her rural community (49).

As with “Weihnachtsabend,” “The White Boat” demonstrates Roberts brilliant interweaving of personal longing against a tapestry of place and the larger macropolitical backdrop. The landscape, “an eternal brooding seemed to hang over the bulging cliffs,” with its shale and fossils (48) takes on a timeless monumentality. The travails of Becky are the travails of generations seeking to escape. And one gets the sense that like her mother, Becky will be squeezed and squeezed by the earth “into more black shale” (53). A canticle to loss and desire and dreams that drenches all with sadness and piercing power–highly recommended.

“The Passing of the Dragons” (1972), 3.5/5 (Good): In this collection, the three stories set on other planets imagine a future of interplanetary resource exploration (a reflection of the post-colonial reality of the British Empire?). On the distant resource-exploited Epsilon Cygnus Vi, a massive alien lifeform–nicknamed the Epsilon Dragon–appear to be dying out. Is it from habitat destruction? Or a natural life cycle that humans simply do not understand? After the death of one dragon, groups of aliens gather as if in mourning.

A typical Roberts main character, a moody behavioralist prone to drink, is tasked with identifying the reason for their demise. He firmly refuses to infer cause and reason from what he sees. His Pilot (First Class) attempts to interpret their actions in human terms rather conclusions based on evidence. I have a soft spot for stories that present an alien dilemma with human characters who attempt to figure it out–but the act reveals more about themselves than about the alien.

“The Trustie Tree” (1973), 3.5/5 (Good): On the planet Xerxes, alien Kalti boatmen ply the swamps and canals. Vivid glyphs adorn their ship prows–and imply their complex theology of the Silent One, the tutelary spirit of the waterways. The story follows an injured man who survives a crash of a flying machine and seeks the help of the Kalti. As he lays dying on their ship, he finally grasps the true nature of the Kalti theology of birth and death and everything in-between. As with so many Roberts stories, the world of Xerxes is beautifully drawn.

“The Lake of Tuonela” (1973), 3.25/5 (Above Average): On the same planet of Xerxes sometime after the events of “The Trustie Tree,” Earth corporations and culture shock threaten the Kalti way of life. However, the boatmen don’t seems overtly disturbed by the transformation of their existence. The sympathetic Mathis attempts to gain support for a nature preserve to protect the Kalti. Ignored by the powers that be, Mathis sets out with a Kalti nicknamed Jack, who speaks a bit of Terran, down the canals in an attempt to traverse the Kel Santo tunnel. I struggled to identify the exact reason for Mathis’ voyage–is it an attempt to understand the Kalti before their final demise?

“The Grain Kings” (1972), 3.25/5 (Above Average): Harrison, a journalist for the World Geographic, is assigned to a gargantuan UN grain combines–with close to a hundred crewmen, multiple restaurants, common areas–that plows the fields of Alaska (the endless prairies of Canada would have been a more realistic and flat setting) in an attempt to feed the the overpopulated masses. Fresh off a divorce, Harrison enters a brief relationship with the photographer’s assistant Alison. In the background, Soviet grain carbines push the agreed-upon parameters.

Despite the fantastic premise, I found “The Grain Kings” the most uneven story in the collection. It lacks a sense of place (the mechanical is less evocatively drawn than the natural), it’s unfocused and far too long, and the dialogue (and his rendering of a German Swiss dialect) drags. Regardless, the premise is a highly original take on potential Cold War conflicts.

“I Lose Medea” (1972), 3.5/5 (Good) is a surreal incantation of British landscape and history and breakdown of a relationship. The typical moody Roberts narrator goes on a camping trip with his wife Medea. Surrounded by barrows and big stone circles, they dissipate the collecting ghosts who congregate amongst the field of gold and hedgerows. The most obtuse of the stories in the collection, “I Lose Medea” slinks in a series of bizarre and fascinating directions–the narrator interacts with the bedraggled participants of a historical battle, observes castles preparing for war, a night in a tent interrupted by a horde of cats, and possibly a violent murder.

Sometimes the general ambiance of a story elevates it above other surreal conjurations of image and tone—and that’s the case here. Roberts’ prose and ability to craft an image are on show. Other than his common pairing of decaying relationships with macro events (in this instance the scope of England’s history), I’m not entirely sure what it all means.

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33 thoughts on “Book Review: The Grain Kings, Keith Roberts (1976)

  1. Roberts at his best was a truly great writer, and your ratings of “Weihnachtsabend” and “The White Boat” are spot on. Way back in 2002 I wrote an article for Steven Silver’s fanzine Argentus relegislating the 1973 Hugos, and my pick for Best Novelette was “Weihnachtsabend”. (Yes, I’ve been at this Redoing the Hugos thing for a long time! It’s a disease, I guess!)

    I’ve only read a couple more of the contents of THE GRAIN KINGS, alas.

    • It was a very solid collection. I felt that “The Grain Kings” was a bit of a dud despite the fantastic premise — but I gave it marks for originality.

      I do not remember enjoying the other shorts in Pavane as much as I did “The White Boat.” I loved the sense that her small town existence life is simultaneously cut off from the larger political world but woven into it as well. And the descriptions of the landscape… the entire thing was pitch perfect.

      As for “Weihnachtsabend” — I felt that its brilliance came from the revision of the standard Hitler wins premise. The sinister identification of a sin within British society in which Fascism could have been a future is one hell of a condemnation of the anti-Semitism and inclinations of the British public at the time!

          • It’s a trilogy of novels about a UK in which the Fascist side of the UK led to a rapprochement with Hitler early in WWII. The books themselves are set after the War as the UK is becoming more openly fascist, and Jews are under serious threat, etc. Good books.

            • Did you review it anywhere?

              Sounds intriguing. I’m not usually for the Hitler-wins style alternate history (which is why I was so surprised by the Roberts) but I’m all for interesting takes on the topic.

  2. re: Grain Kings… you call the machines “carbines”, I think you mean “combines” aka harvesters.
    – yours truly from the western Canadian prairie.
    ps, made me think of The Godwhale, TJ Bass, 1974; contains a short description of large scale automated harvesting that has always stuck with me.

    • That is what I meant! I’ll fix it. As someone who grew up in rural farmland (the Western part of Virginia) I should know better.

      I’ve read and reviewed The Godwhale on the site. I must confess, when I read it I wasn’t blown away. I suspect I’ve changed my tastes a bit.

      As I mentioned in the review, the story would have made SO MUCH MORE sense if it was set in the Canadian prairie! I’m not exactly sure how Alaska becomes wheat fields… without leveling the endless mountains/forests. I chalk it up to a non-American/Canadian author a bit confused with geography — haha. Stanislaw Lem’s New Mexico in His Master’s Voice contains endless sand dunes (and he wasn’t talking about White Sands).

      • re: Godwhale… can’t control what ideas stick and don’t stick, lots of mediocre writing with sticky ideas. Time tends to amplify the sticky bits too. I remember when you reviewed GW, not surprised at your assessment, I find this with a lot with what were for me influential readings at the time, but re-reads fail to impress. Makes me think about the process of reading and what goes on in my brain, I conclude that even marginal prose can still serve to feed the mind on a first reading.

        • Wait…. I reviewed Half Past Human not the sequel The Godwhale — my apologies.

          Half Past Human has stuck in my mind. I’m not sure if I read his weird science-laden prose as poetic — which is what a lot of reviewers say about it. Which is why I’m interested in returning to it at some point.

  3. Looks like an interesting collection! I’ve only read White Boat, but Weinachtsabend sounds particularly fascinating. Thanks for the rec!

    • Did you read “The White Boat” as part of Pavane or separately?

      But yeah, I don’t know if you saw my response to Rich above, but what makes “Weihnachtsabend” so great (and disturbing) came from the “revision of the standard Hitler wins premise. The sinister identification of a sin within British society in which Fascism could have been a future is one hell of a condemnation of the anti-Semitism and inclinations of the British public at the time!”

      • As part of Pavane.
        Yup, that’s what’s so fascinating. I think Roberts has a gift for finding the disturbing and uncomfortable realities in British culture and merging them into new wholes, like in Brother John chapter of Pavane, for example.

          • No worries! I can only imagine how exhausted you must be. I stopped teaching students before Covid, but I imagine the work only got harder after the pandemic.

            • Far worse. In every way possible… I’m not going to go into too much detail but the type of school I teach at meant that it was particularly impacted (primarily at risk students).

            • Oh man, that sounds tough. I think also the kids suffered, not only lack of contact and socialization, but also concentration problems and difficulties in adapting back to classroom environment. Plus, as a teacher you’re running a high risk of getting sick. Hope your break will bring you much needed rest and reset! 🙂

  4. The tundras of Alaska, way up north in Alaskan terms, will be grain fields by 2070.

    Lovely reviews, Dr. B. Especially agree with your assessment of “The White Boat” being the best of Pavane, which I enjoyed. Keith Roberts and John Brunner were famously irascible and self-sabotaging personalities and I’ve always enjoyed both their works.

    uh oh

  5. I bought this anthology and read it when it came out. What do I remember?

    ‘Weihnachtsabend’ is very good, everything in it finely crafted and working: real literature. Note that its premise was not without its literary antecedents in the era Roberts wrote his story. See —

    THE SOUND OF HIS HORN, 1952, by Sarban (British diplomat John William Wall)

    I also have good memories of ‘The Grain Kings’ — indeed, I probably liked it more than you did and I suspect partly not for what was actually on the page but what I saw in it, which was that In another universe, ‘The Grain Kings’ would have been an ANALOG story with a Schoenherr cover. It’s Roberts doing what’s essentially a 1960s-70s era ANALOG story i.e. it’s in the same line of ‘present technology extrapolated into ludicrous future gigantism’ as Rick Raphael’s ‘Code Three,’ though rather better than Raphael. I’d forgotten or didn’t absorb that the physical setting was Alaska, but simply assumed it was the northern Midwest or Canada.

    As for the rest, I skipped ‘The White Boat’ since it had been in PAVANE, and as for Roberts’s space fiction with extraterrestrial settings I generally felt that no matter the mood or atmosphere he attempted to inject such stories were just something he could do persuasively. YMMV, of course.

    • I’ve heard of The Sound of His Horn (1952) but haven’t procured a copy yet.

      “The Grain Kings” was surprisingly explicit in its sexual content (some very awkward and cringy sexual descriptions) so I’m completely sure I agree with the ANALOG vibe (unless I’m missing stories with similar content). But yeah, it definitely had a more mainstream general premise with its Cold War conflict with BIG THINGS.

      Far better than Rick Raphael! I reviewed that fix-up novel a while back. I enjoyed the “people at work in the future” feel but little else.

  6. Ordered a copy off eBay a few days ago. I’m a fan of alternate history stuff. The Man In The High Castle is also on my list. I’m wondering if you read that PKD book?

    • Yes, I read The Man In the High Castle — along with most of PKD’s novels and a good 50+ short stories — in my late teens. I wasp quite obsessed.

      I hope you enjoy the Roberts’ collection!

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