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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