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5 of the best: Keith Roberts

By / April 18, 2017 / no comments

Not so long ago, we wrote a post about John Brunner. It was intended as the first in a series about writers who are drifting out of our awareness, writers who are perhaps not enjoying the eminence their work deserves. Having started with Brunner, it seemed natural to follow up with his close contemporary, Keith Roberts.

Where Brunner was at his best when working with the structure of the story, Roberts was a more straightforward stylist. His writing was fluid, evocative and clear, and he was often hailed by his contemporaries as one of the best writers in science fiction.

He first emerged in the early 1960s, and probably gained most immediate attention as an artist producing a number of covers for New Worlds and its sister magazine Science Fantasy (later renamed SF Impulse), as well as interior illustrations to accompany not only his own stories but several others. He was a prolific short story writer, and used a number of pseudonyms, as there were several occasions when two or three stories in any one issue of Science Fantasy would be by him. Several of his early stories were whimsical pieces featuring a teenage witch called Anita, and since they were associated with Keith Roberts, in those early years it was often his better work that was published under a pseudonym.

His first novel, The Furies, was a deliberate variation on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, but it served its purpose, it got him noticed by publishers. But already as that first novel came out he was working on the stories that would constitute his first great work.


PavaneRoberts’s natural element was the fix-up, a series of linked stories gathered together to form what he called a mosaic novel. In his career he only wrote four novels that were constructed like that, and only one of those features on this list. But his fix-up novel par excellence was his first, Pavane, one of the all-time great alternate history novels. In this world, Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was successful, and Catholic rule was permanently established in Britain. This initiated a restrictive and conservative rule that stifled innovation and by the 1960s, when the novel is set, the old aristocracy still rules from their castles, long distance communication is by semaphore towers dotted within sight of each other across the country, and there are no railways but rather traction engines pull road trains. In the various stories we witness a dying signalman who sees fairies, a monk who witnesses the tortures of the Inquisition and has visions of a different world, a young girl who falls in love with a glamorous yacht only to discover the crew are smuggling Bakelite, and the beginnings of a rebellion against the old order. One word of advice: the story “The White Boat” was written some six months after the rest of the volume and wasn’t included in the original editions, and when it was included it was sometime positioned in the wrong place. For the record, it should go between “Lords and Ladies” and “Corfe Gate”.

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The Chalk Giants

The Chalk GiantsThis is possibly the most controversial of our picks here, since it seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate. This could be something to do with how they first encountered the book. It is, like Pavane, a mosaic novel, a collection of linked stories, but in this instance there were brief linking passages between the stories, and the second piece in the collection, “Fragments”, was a literally fragmentary work that was designed to act as a bridge between the opening scene-setting story and what comes after. When it was first published in America, however, “Fragments” and the linking passages were all removed so the book’s coherence was lost and it became just another collection of short stories. Read as a novel, it tells the story of Stan Potts, heading out of London for the countryside around Corfe Castle on the eve of armageddon. There he hopes to find sanctuary with a woman he loves, though whether she loves him is not so apparent. We are never exactly sure whether he makes it or not, because what follows are a series of visions of the future recording the collapse and the slow recovery of civilisation. In each of these visions there is a woman exactly like the woman of Stan’s dreams; the first iteration of what would become known as the multigirl in Roberts’s work.

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The Grain Kings

The Grain KingsWe are seriously in need of a Collected Stories of Keith Roberts. He was a master of the form, but his best work is spread across half a dozen different collections, not to mention the stories like “Monkey and Pru and Sal” that formed part of The Chalk Giants, and the several stories that haven’t been included in any collection. If we have to choose just one of his collections, however, then let it be this one. There are seven stories, including lovely pieces like “The Lake of Tuonela” and “The Grain Kings” (a spectacular story about a duel between two massive harvesting machines that are practically little villages in their own right); but the star of the show, and the reason for picking this particular collection, is “Weihnachtsabend”, which has good claim to be the very best story he wrote. It’s set in a world in which Britain surrendered to the Nazis before the Second World War even started. A mid-level British civil servant is invited to spend Christmas with his Nazi master at his stately home. But the cruelty of the rituals he witnesses there opens his eyes to the nature of the regime and turns him into a resistance fighter.

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KiteworldOne of the distinctive features of Roberts’s work is that he almost never sets his stories in a technologically advanced world. The technology is always on a human scale, the steam engines in Pavane, the wind turbines in “The Big Fans”, and so on; yet this technology is always described with relish and genuine affection. Typical of this are the Cody manlifters in this novel, massive kites that lift observers high into the air on the borders of the Realm to guard against demons. By the end of the novel you know everything you could wish to know about how the winches work and everything else concerning the construction and maintenance of these devices; and because you know the technology so well, you know the world. The demons they guard against are mutants, the Realm is just one small, secure enclave of well-being amid a post-atomic wilderness. But the realm is also split by religious divisions. As we saw in both Pavane and The Chalk Giants, religion is a dangerous influence on the governance of humanity, and the split between the Vars and the Middle Doctrine threatens to break into violence that could destroy the Realm.

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GrainneThis is the one novel we have picked that isn’t a mosaic of short stories. It is the closest he came to an autobiographical novel, the central character is called Alistair Bevan, which is the pseudonym Roberts used most often in his early career. And Bevan’s early life matches Roberts’s own; growing up in the Midlands just after the war, art school and then a career as an illustrator and copywriter in advertising, while he tries to get his stories published. Then Bevan meets Grainne, an extraordinary, seductive woman who combines elements of Hindu and Celtic mythology and who could almost be a goddess herself. Once Bevan begins an affair with Grainne, history changes, literally. On a personal level, Bevan becomes more confident and therefore more successful. On a broader level, Grainne becomes a leader of a social movement that sets out to change the nature of the world we know. Grainne won the BSFA Award for best novel.

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